Rope Beds Reconsidered: Research and Reproduction of a Portable Medieval Rope Bed (Part one)

Once I began to have a more “authentic” encampment at Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) events, a good friend who had retired from camping gave me his rope bed.  A rope bed can be defined as a bed frame wherein the mattress is supported by a net of interlaced ropes.  The ropes provide a supportive, yet flexible, surface; unlike the more familiar wooden slats, which provide a supportive, but rigid, surface for a mattress.

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Rope Bed by Baron Sir Richard FitzAlan, based on design by Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon

Provided that a suitably thick layer is placed over the ropes (I used a thin backpacker’s air mattress), a rope bed can be as- or more- comfortable than a box-spring mattress.  I have thoroughly enjoyed sleeping on this bed frame.  However, it is demonstrably inauthentic; as it was made from dimensional lumber, has a head-board of plywood, commercially-produced rope, and was made using modern power tools.  I have always wished to make one for myself and, in doing so, strive towards making a rope bed closer in design to one made in the Middle Ages.

But first, I had occasion to make a rope bed off of the Greydragon design.

Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon is, in my estimation, the person singly most responsible for people sleeping comfortably at SCA events.  He did not invent the design but he did refine and popularize it.  The design for a rope bed he has made available is easy to follow and can be constructed using available lumber and common tools by people with relatively basic woodworking skills.  Additionally, the bed-frames look good; other than a close inspection, they look consistent with extant examples.  Perhaps most importantly, the bed-frames are easy to assemble and disassemble, making them eminently transportable.

So when my friend Thalia de Maccuswell was in need of a bed for her encampment, it was the Greydragon design to which I turned.  I began by determining with her the dimensions of the sleeping area, the space within the frame, which would work best for her.  Since I intended to use dimensional lumber, all of the measurements then grew out of the sleeping area plus the lumber’s dimensions.

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I make no pretensions that this is a historically accurate reproduction.  It is an aesthetically pleasing, visually consistent reproduction modified for convenient transportation.  Thalia’s basic requirements were for it to be comfortable (she says it is), break down to fit into her sedan (it does), and “pass” as medieval under casual inspection (which it does, arguably).  All-in-all, I think the project was successful in meeting the stated goals.

However, I remained bothered by the facts that the process did not teach me anything about how rope beds were really constructed in the Middle Ages; and I decided that at some point in the future I wanted to research and reproduce a more historically accurate bed.  I wasn’t intending to start that project this Winter, however, until this happened…

 

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The break happened as I sat on the edge of the bed one morning.  The downward force of the combined weight of the bedstead and occupant is supposed to be transferred to the narrow shoulder on each leg.  It is not supposed to be transferred to the tops of the mortises.  If the bed rail is not set firmly atop the shoulder, however, the whole weight of the bed rail is suspended by the mortise off of the tenon.  When I added my own weight to that of the rail, the wood split along the grain right at the top of the mortise.

Fortunately, the simplicity of the Greydragon-design rope bed makes replacement of broken parts quite easy.  Still, this was the deciding factor in starting a research project.

Rope Beds in Art and Extant

My research began by first going back to Master Terfan’s website to review the documentation he has posted.  The extant examples here include the Tudor bed housed at the Saffron Walden museum and photographs from Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture – The British Tradition.  As these examples are all of 16th and 17th century pieces, I extended my search for earlier examples.

I poured through the books of medieval art and furniture in my small collection.  I searched the on-line collections of museums in the United Kingdom (Victoria and Albert; Saffron Walden; Weald and Downland; et. al.), France (Louvre; Museé Hôpital Notre-Dame de la Rose; Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune; Bibliothèque nationale de France; et. al.), Germany, and the Netherlands.

The earliest example I have seen (and I have seen it in person) is King Tutankhamun’s rope bed (circa 1323 BCE) found amongst his other funereal belongings.  The earliest medieval example I have found, however, is an image carved in ivory on the Andrews Diptych, circa 900 AD.

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Detail from the lower left panel of the Andrews Diptych

The image in the Andrews Diptych appears to show a bedstead of bobbin-turned wood with a lattice of diagonally-crossing cords.  Near the foot or head of the bed is an additional crosspiece of turned wood to which the cords are attached at that end, and itself connected to the true end of the bed by spiral-laced cords.  This design, curiously, is still commonly produced today in India.  Unfortunately, no extant examples of this design remain (or, at least, I have been unable to locate any) from medieval Europe.  Wooden furniture is at a disadvantage against the ravages of Time.  Decay, fire, and changes of fashion have destroyed most pieces.

The Andrews Diptych bedstead was not a unique example, as evidenced by a similar turned bedstead shown in a trictrac checker from 12th century France.

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The Judith and Holofernes trictrac checker.  Ivory.  France. 12th century.

Although the image shown does not give details on how the mattress was suspended, it is undeniable that the bedstead was of a type identical to that shown in the Andrews Diptych, two centuries earlier.

But when did flat-sawn boards begin being used in rope bed construction?  We know from early examples, such as the extant Gokstad bed (9th century) and various paintings shown  below, that flat-sawn bedsteads and turned bedsteads co-existed in medieval Europe.  The earliest extant example of a flat-sawn rope bed which I have been able to locate is the one currently housed at the Saffron Walden Museum.

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Saffron Walden Bed, without ropes or canopy valances.  Late 14th- early 15th century. England.

This bed was dated primarily by two of its most distinct architectural elements: the lozenge pattern carved on the four posts are similar to those carved on the tomb of Mary of Burgundy (circa 1500) and on the bronze screen of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey (circa 1515); and the linen-fold panels of the headboard, which are consistent with a multitude of similarly patterned panels found on headboards, chairs, and wall paneling of the 15th century.

To be continued…

 

Bibliography

Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon, Plans for a Rope Bed, http://www.greydragon.org/furniture/beds/ropebed.html.

Saffron Walden Museum, www.http://saffronwaldenmuseum.swmuseumsoc.org.uk/.

Museé Hôpital Notre-Dame de la Rose, http://www.notredamealarose.com/.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, www.http://gallica.bnf.fr/.

Mémoires de Société d’archéologie de Beaune, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k4082392/f172.image

 

 

 

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