Until the mid-19th Century, communal sleeping was completely normal; that is, sharing a bed with friends, colleagues and even total strangers, happened all the time. How did people cope? And why did we stop?

       In 1187, a medieval prince slipped into his grand wooden bed, accompanied by a new companion. With a thick mane of auburn hair and strapping frame, Richard the Lionheart was the ultimate macho warrior, renowned for his formidable leadership on the battlefield and his knightly conduct. Now he had formed an unexpected friendship with a former enemy – Philip II, who ruled over France from 1180 to 1223.

       Initially, the two royals had forged a purely pragmatic alliance. But after spending more time together, eating at the same table, and even out of the same dish, they had become close friends. To cement the special relationship between themselves and their two countries, they agreed to a peace treaty – and slept alongside each other, in the same bed.

       Despite the modern connotations of two men sharing a bed, at the time, this was entirely unremarkable – appearing almost as a casual aside in a contemporary chronicle on the history of England. Long before the expectation of night-time privacy, or more recent ideas about manliness, many historians view the two royals’ nightly partnership as a sign of trust and brotherhood: This is the forgotten ancient practice of communal sleep.

       For thousands of years, it was completely normal to flop down in bed each night alongside friends, colleagues, relatives – including the entire extended family – or travelling peddlers. When on the road, people routinely found themselves lying next to total strangers. If they were unlucky, this outsider might come with an overwhelming stench, deafening snoring – or worse, a preference for sleeping naked.

       Sometimes, “social sleeping” was simply a pragmatic solution to a shortage of beds, which were highly valuable pieces of furniture. But even the nobility actively sought out bedfellows for the unparallelled intimacy of night-time chats in the darkness, as well as warmth and a feeling of security. How did people navigate a night of communal sleeping? And why did this ancient practice stop?

       In the medieval era, even the Biblical Magi – the Three Wise Men from the Christian Bible – were often depicted sleeping in the same bed.

       In 2011, a team of archaeologists uncovered an unusually well-preserved layer of prehistoric sediment at Sibudu Cave, South Africa. It contained the fossilised remains of leaves from the forest tree Cryptocarya woodie, which formed the “top sheet” of a foliage mattress constructed in the Stone Age, some 77,000 years ago. As project leader Lyn Wadley speculated at the time, the mattress may have been large enough for a whole family group.

       Direct evidence for communal sleep is hard to come by, but it’s thought that this practice is truly ancient – in fact, from a historical perspective, the modern preference for sleeping alone and in private is deeply weird.

       However, records of this activity are most abundant in the early modern period – roughly from 1500 to 1800. In this era, bedsharing was extremely common. “For most people, with the exclusion of aristocrats and well-to-do merchants, as well as some members of the landed gentry, it would have been unusual not to have had a bedmate,” says Roger Ekirch, a university distinguished professor of history at Virginia Tech, Virginia, and the author of “At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime.

       Apart from anything else, the vast majority of households had too few beds for private sleeping, says Sasha Handley, a professor of early modern history at the University of Manchester and the author of the book “Sleep in Early Modern England.

Around 1590, a small Hertfordshire town became famous for the Great Bed of Ware, acquired for the White Hart Inn. This formidable piece of oak furniture – measuring 2.7m high (9ft), 3.3m wide (11ft) and 3.4m (11ft) deep – features elaborate carvings of lions and satyrs draped in almost theatrical hangings of red and yellow. It would have been available for travellers to share. According to legend, 26 butchers and their wives – a total of 52 people – slept there together in 1689 for a bet. The Great Bed of Ware was even mentioned by Shakespeare.

       Sociable sleeping was so desirable, it even transcended the usual barriers of social class. There are numerous historical accounts of people bunking down each night with their inferiors or superiors – such masters and their apprentices, domestic helpers and their employers, or royalty and their subjects.

One of the most detailed records of communal sleep can be found within the diaries of Samuel Pepys.

       On one occasion in Portsmouth, Pepys went to bed with a doctor who he worked with at the Royal Society in London. In addition to laying “very well and merrily” together, presumably talking late into the night, the doctor had the added advantage of being peculiarly delicious to fleas, who consequently left Pepys alone. (It’s also been speculated that the pests didn’t like his blood – and perhaps this helped him to avoid catching the plague.)

       But there were also conventions. One observer’s account of the strict arrangement of sleeping positions at an Irish household in the early 19th Century was as follows. The eldest daughter aways slept next to the wall farthest from the door, followed by her sisters in descending age order, then the mother, father, and sons, also in age order. Finally, strangers “whether the travelling peddler or tailor or beggar”, would sleep at the end, where they were furthest away from the female family members. This practice was known as “to pig”.

       By the mid-19th Century, bedsharing began to fall out of fashion – even for married couples.

It all began with an influential American physician, William Whitty Hall, who had strong opinions on many subjects. He became a passionate advocate of the idea that communal sleep was not only unwise – but “unnatural and degenerative“. He contended, “it is lowering, because it diminishes that mutual consideration and respect which ought to prevail in social life”. Thus, sleeping in the same bed as a companion was not just unhygienic and unhealthy – it was immoral. Sounds like today’s evangelicals to me!

       So, are we missing out? Should modern politicians swap the photo-opportunity handshake for a symbolic night’s sleep like Richard the Lionheart and Philip II? Or would tourists benefit from sharing a bed with total strangers, as historical travellers did?

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