In the third chapter of Wuthering Heights”, the narrator, finding himself at the manor house of the same name, describes a room with a curious kind of bed:
The whole furniture consisted of a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows. Having approached this structure, I looked inside, and perceived it to be a singular sort of old-fashioned couch, very conveniently designed to obviate the necessity for every member of the family having a room to himself. In fact, it formed a little closet, and the ledge of a window, which it enclosed, served as a table. I slid back the panelled sides, got in with my light, pulled them together again, and felt secure against the vigilance of Heathcliff, and every one else.
The bed, it turns out, is haunted by the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, but that didn’t keep me from thinking, the first time I read the book, that it sounded very cozy. I learned today that this unusual sleeping situation wasn’t just a product of Emily Bronte’s imagination: in the not-very-distant past, people all over Europe were content to sleep tucked away in little boxes.
The box bed (or closed bed, or ‘lit clos’ in French) was just what the name implies: a piece of furniture (or sometimes a built-in) with a mattress completely contained within a box. An opening in the front was covered by a curtain, or by swinging or sliding doors. This arrangement had two chief advantages: 1. it was nice and warm, and 2. it provided a little bit of privacy in homes where everyone often slept in the same room. (This article even claims that the enclosed beds kept children from being snatched by wolves, or harmed by the livestock that would occasionally wander into the house.)
Many box beds had a bench below the opening, which would serve as a step when getting into the bed. The bench would have storage underneath, and during the day could be used for seating. Some box beds, like the one pictured up top, were double decker affairs. You can see here a whole series of postcards with pictures of people using (and climbing in and out of) the lit clos.
The box bed, which originated in the late medieval period, appeared in various forms throughout Europe: there are examples from Brittany, from Scotland, from Austria, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. In some places they were in use well into the 20th century, which makes sense when you consider cold European winters and homes where the only heat came from a wood fire. (Also, pre-electricity, people just did not heat their houses as much, so cold outside meant cold inside, too.)
Thanks to the advent of modern devices like radiators and electric heaters, box beds are no longer a necessity in northern Europe. But the form persists, and there is one place where it is particularly welcome: in a studio apartment. Warmth is now not nearly as much of a concern (and none of us are really worried about wolves), but it’s still very nice to have a little privacy for the bed. In the apartment above from Entrance, a bed tucked into a cabinet (essentially a box bed) serves almost all the functions of a separate bedroom, while only occupying about as much space as the average bed.
Even if you could find one, you probably wouldn’t really want to add a medieval box bed to your apartment. (Just imagine the trouble of getting it up the stairs.) But re-creating something similar with curtains hung from the ceiling could be a great solution for a creating privacy in a small space. And with living space growing more and more precious as more people move to urban areas, the enclosed bed could be an elegant solution for creating privacy in a very small apartment. Architects, take note.