Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
18.02.01, Morgan, Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England

18.02.01, Morgan, Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England

The material turn is well under way and material culture studies are proving a rich means to uncover new understandings about the past. In Beds and Chambers, Hollie Morgan is interested in reading medieval society through the material object of the bed and the space surrounding it. She suggests that bed and chamber were, all at once, personally intimate and religiously and politically powerful, as well as restricted to the elite, yet familiar to all. Through an interdisciplinary approach, Morgan meticulously investigates the terms used to describe bedding, including pronoun and adjective descriptors, and deconstructs the meaning medieval people imparted to those terms. The outcome is a well-researched and provocative book that offers up thoughtful avenues for further research.

Throughout her work, Morgan emphasizes that medieval people had a multifaceted understanding of beds and chambers. Through each chapter, she aims to pin down those various perceptions through historical records, romance literature, allegorical texts, as well as objects and secondary research on spatial analysis. In the process, she adds to our knowledge of medieval domesticity, households, gender roles and expectations, piety, and decision-making within and without the home. She begins the work with a defining chapter and disassembles the bedding: straw, canvas, mattress, featherbed, blankets, sheets, coverlets, pillows, as well as curtains, tester, rail, and bedstead. Starting with the materiality of the bed allows her to explore the semantics and semiotics of bedding terms as revealed in inventories, wills, letters, manuscript illumination, and literature. In this first chapter, she introduces word clouds as a methodology, which visually helps display the frequency of words to describe bedding bequests.

After making the bed and describing its accessories, in the following chapters she analyzes the meaning imparted to the bed and chamber as sites of communication between husband and wife, lovers, friends, lord/king and councilors, executors and family members, and petitioners and God. By examining the religious iconography carved and embroidered on testers and bedding as well as probing literature, in her second chapter, she suggests the bed and chamber were appropriate places for prayer and devotion. Morgan emphasizes the pervasive sense of the religious import of the chamber by pointing out the parallel features between chambers and chantries, suggesting the latter "could have been viewed as perpetual chambers for those enclosed within the tombs" (71). In chapter three, Morgan contemplates the equalizing environment of the bed for romance characters, and argues that this understanding of honesty permeated the surrounding space. In an interesting twist, she connects her discussion of chamber politics with broader political administration, suggesting that "the cultural meanings of the chamber as a space of administration and a space in which particular working relationships were forged extended beyond the chamber walls. The term 'Chamber,' in reference to an administrative body or a city, is interesting because the term is, to an extent, reflexive" (104). In the following pages, Morgan provides a thorough discussion of reading, games, the display of emotions, and sexual exploits (consensual and not, within marriage and without) in chambers, and argues convincingly that this space had a wide-ranging cultural influence on men and women alike.

Throughout her work, Morgan reminds us that literary texts expose not reality but what would have been plausible to audiences, and her work is strongest when analyzing literature (which she uses to structure much of the work), especially romance. It is through romance in chapter three where we learn of men spying on other men in a chamber to try to listen to their uninhibited conference in that intimate space (King Arthur and King Cornwall) and, in chapter five, where we learn that adultery, almost always occurring in a chamber, is understood as a violation of the bed, a symbol for the licit union (e.g. Sir Tristrem). In some instances, Morgan takes greater liberty when interpreting historical records than literary ones that leads her to make leaps in her analysis, and in a few places she misses opportunities to extend her analysis. In chapter six, for instance, she argues that the chamber was understood as a female space; it empowered women. She supports this assertion, in part, with the evidence of daughters and wives inheriting and controlling bedding in the fourteenth century. Yet, sons, too, received bedding in wills along with their sisters. Certainly, women and men both perceived ownership over the bed and chamber. Considering bequests to sons, too, would have allowed Morgan to drive home the most important point in this chapter (and arguably of the book): women's access to power in the chamber did not make them marginalized to domestic spaces, but rather central to our understandings of medieval deliberation and communication given the many-layered meanings of the chamber space.

As she admits, most of her sources speak to the ownership and access of beds and chambers by the elite. However, she provides a compelling argument that this complicated awareness of space would have permeated society and that beds and chambers "were at the very heart of how late medieval English people understood the world around them" (215). She also provides ideas throughout her work that will benefit from further study. In chapter three, for example, she describes instances of medieval individuals kneeling at the foot of the bed. These instances, coupled with the understanding of the chamber as a site of conferment and consultation, suggest that we need to know more about the role of chests and other furniture situated around or near a bed. Her research should also push us to think in new ways about the notion of privacy in the Middle Ages. In sum, Morgan presents engaging research and fresh ways to consider objects and their spaces. There is fertile ground in the chamber, and beyond in the hall and workshop, to allow objects to refocus our analysis and generate new research questions. Morgan's prose is clear and accessible and her methodology will serve as a model for those wishing to investigate the material culture of the medieval past.