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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bed-staff

Object 53 - Bed-staffs were slender turned pegs which were used to secure the bedlinen on large bedsteads to prevent it from spilling onto the floor.

Elizabeth Sharrett

This week’s 100 object post was written by Elizabeth Sharrett, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.

Bobadill: “Hostess, accommodate us with another bed-staff here, quickly…
[Enter Tib with bed-staff]…” (1.4.117-123)

Every Man In His Humour, Ben Jonson.

A replica bed-staff on display in Shakespeare's Birthplace.

Today’s blog focuses on an unusual looking object known as a bed-staff. These peculiar items, like this replica piece which can be seen at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, were slender turned pegs probably about 50 cm long. Their primary function was to secure the piles of linens and bedclothes on large tester bedsteads from spilling onto the floor. Though no known examples survive, visual evidence for these elusive objects can be found in woodcuts and inventories of household goods. In addition to ‘bed-staff’, they are sometimes recorded as bed-staves, bed-sticks, and even sometimes burthen-staffs or -staves. They often appear in sets of six, as seen in the will of Edward Alleyn, the actor and theatre entrepreneur, which leaves to “the twelve poore schollers…sixe bedsteedes…six mattresses, six featherbeds…[and] three dozen bedstaves”. Holes can still be seen on the frames of beds that survive from the period which indicate where and how these sticks were lodged. Further holes could be drilled where necessary if more pegs were accumulated over time. Not only did bed-staffs secure the bedding, but they were also most likely employed to beat and smooth the clumping feather or wool mattresses.

The bed on display in the birth-room at Shakespeare's Birthplace.

Aside from their domestic function, bed-staffs (like their martial counterparts ‘staves’) could serve as impromptu weapons. The character Josina in Richard Broome’s play The City Wit (1652) threatens to make use of the object in such a way; “if I do not make an example to all the bawdy quacks…say there is no virtue in cudgels and bedstaves” (4.3.36-37). Shakespeare also makes many references to staves, for instance when Menenius Agrippa in Coriolanus states, “you may as well/ Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them/ Against the Roman state” (1.1.59-61). However, Ben Jonson’s play Every Man In His Humour, which employs the object to demonstrate fencing techniques to another character, is unique in that it actually includes the object as a stage property. Perhaps this commonplace object was borrowed from a member of the company, taking on another life as a prop in the theatre, thus demonstrating the close relationship between daily life and drama in Shakespeare’s world.