“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Putting a little myth to bed

The picture below shows a recreation of Edward I’s (1239-1307) bedchamber in St Thomas’ Tower at the Tower of London. The bedchamber has one very striking feature, a short bed, which at first glance looks more like a bed fit for a child as opposed to a bed fit for a king. Most people (myself included) would typically assume that the bed was short compared to today's standards as people in the "olden days" used to be smaller in stature. However, this is not really the case, as the Mythconceptions feature in Fortean Times (FT 284:21) explains:

...the two things all informed sources seem to agree on are that average height rises and falls over the centuries - and that it doesn't rise or fall all that much. Figures abound, based on the excavations of dated skeletons; the "average medieval man" in Britain was 1.71m (5ft 7.3in) tall; a mere 4cm/1.6in (in some reports, 2cm/0.8in) shorter than a modern Briton. Saxon Londoners were "similar in height" to today's, but Roman Londoners were "6cm [2.4in] shorter". Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, some claim, were taller than we are. Some experts argue that average height in Britain fell in the 19th (some say 18th) century, as the industrial revolution impoverished millions, leading to poor diets, long working hours, child labour, and other height-suppressant factors. Early health and safety legislation, and better nutrition following the repeal of the Corn Laws, then saw the average go up again...

Beds like that of Edward I were not in fact shorter than those of today, but just appear to be shorter. This optical illusion is probably down to the length to width ratio (i.e. being relatively wide) and the high bed posts, which combine to make the bed appear to be shorter than it actually is. As the Tower of London website states:

Edward was unusually tall for a 13th century man, earning him the moniker Edward 'Longshanks'. When his tomb was opened, his skeleton measured an estimated 188 cm (6ft 2in). Making sure the bed was big enough for Edward was just part of the historical detective work that went into its re-creation.

So next time you visit an old property and see a bed that looks unusually short, take a moment to measure it and check to see if it really is unusually short. 

Edward I’s bed in St Thomas’ Tower
Pictures, London (May 2012).

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