The Comfort of Cover.

A depiction of a 15th-century bed. Public Domain.

Blankets, sheets. Most people have trouble sleeping without them. I have a love/hate thing for them outside of the winter months, when I can’t pile enough of them on.

[…] Blankets are common, but not universal, to humans during sleep, at least in the modern day. But historically, the effort involved in weaving large sheets put blankets at much too high a price point for most to afford. From the linen bedsheets of Egypt around 3500 B.C. to wool sheets during the Roman empire straight through to cotton in medieval Europe, bed coverings were for the wealthy.

By the Early Modern period in Europe, which followed the Middle Ages, production had increased enough so that more middle-class people could afford bedding, though not easily. “The bed, throughout Western Europe at this time, was the most expensive item in the house,” says Roger Ekirch, a historian at Virginia Tech who has written extensively about sleep. “It was the first major item that a newly married couple, if they had the wherewithal, would invest in.” The bed and bedding could make up about a third of the total value of an entire household’s possessions, which explains why bedsheets frequently showed up in wills.

In place of blankets and sheets, other sources of heat were common at night, usually from multiple people sharing a bed, or often livestock.

You can read all about this fascinating need shared by most people, and the reasons why, at Atlas Obscura.


  1. rq says

    *raises hand*
    Blanket person, right here. I like my down comforter right through the dog days of summer, with very few exceptions. I’m pretty sure I’d be okay sleeping with a sheep in the dead of winter, though. A nice, clean, unshorn sheep (I have a special love of wool, too).

  2. says

    Yeah, it wasn’t uncommon in Medieval times for people to have an indoor stable which housed their livestock, it ups the warmth factor tremendously. I could do that no problem, especially in winter. I’m always blanketless around 3 am, having tossed them off, then have to sorta wake up to get them back over me.

  3. rq says

    In university I discovered (or at least made the connection) that I sleep poorly under synthetics, but as long as it’s wool, even a relatively thin blanket will do for huddling under. It warms differently, though some might say it’s just my imagination, but I can also taste aspartame and other synthetic sugars in pretty much anything, so I prefer to believe that I’m magical like that. I do prefer that down comforter, though -- Husband insisted the new synthetic material comforter would be a lot better (apparently it ‘breathes’ and ‘wicks away sweat’) but I couldn’t do it. It makes my knees tingle and I can’t suck enough warmth out of it, so down for me it is.

  4. says

    I only like weight in winter. I’m a down person, too, and failing that, many layers of cotton. Wool is good, if it isn’t on my skin, too scritchy for me, but the smell is good, and warming. It’s not your imagination, wool does warm differently. Anyone in serious cold weather knows that. Or should know that, anyway.

  5. says

    I’ve had the same down pillow for 40something years now. Whenever anyone asks me what I’d grab in case of fire, it’s that damn pillow first!

  6. Ice Swimmer says

    In summer I only have a duvet cover and most of the time, I don’t sleep under it. For colder seasons. there’s a duvet cover, a duvet cover inside a duvet cover (which is nice because it’s heavy without being too hot) or a comforter/duvet (in a duvet cover) in the dead of the winter. In the Middle Ages I probably would have gotten my head bashed in for being a restless sleeper, though I may not have hogged the covers, somehow, even in winter I end up waking up next to them.

    The thing about Benjamin Franklin and John Adams bickering over whether the window should be open or closed and sleeping in the same bed in 1776 was hilarious, with Franklin lecturing that:

    …the human Body, by Respiration and Perspiration, destroys a gallon of Air in a minute: that two such Persons, as were now in that Chamber, would consume all the Air in it, in an hour or two: that by breathing over again the matter thrown off, by the Lungs and the Skin, We should imbibe the real Cause of Colds, not from abroad but from within.

  7. says

    Ice Swimmer:

    In the Middle Ages I probably would have gotten my head bashed in for being a restless sleeper, though I may not have hogged the covers, somehow, even in winter I end up waking up next to them.

    That’s me all over. Restless, and I always end up with no blankets or sheets in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I kick them quite a distance, then I have wake all the way up just to locate them and put them back. I guess I get easily overheated while sleeping.

  8. says

    Cotton sheets, down quilt and a woolen blanket for the really cold nights. And, not tucked in at the bottom so my giant feet can radiate off excess heat by sticking out.

  9. rq says

    Apologies, but now I’m picturing you with duckfeet (a colloquial term for large feet is pleznas, which is what one calls duckfeet and swimming flippers).


    I could go either way with windows. In winter I need all the heat, but in summer, yeah, open us best. The local fear of caurvējš shall not deter.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    I need to be covered in order to get to sleep. Even at 30°C, I need a cotton sheet.
    In summer the window is always open, unless it’s raining.
    (old house. everything changes shape with temperature and humidity)
    In winter, the houseplants that live in the only south-facing window would croak if they were touched by minus temperatures.

  11. says


    Umm, drafts?

    On hot nights I sleep best with an electric fan moving air along my body. Partner on the other hand can’t stand drafts and sleeps in her own room these days. Our differential temperatures always made for a war-of-the-blankets.Now she can have four to my one.

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