The Library at Pemberley by Sharon Lathan, Novelist


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Debunking the "short" claims of the past
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Sharon Lathan
May 27, 2014 - 11:32 PM
Member Since: April 24, 2011
Forum Posts: 216
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We have all heard the claims: People were shorter in the past, and that is why old beds are so short. I am here today to tell you that both “facts” are hogwash! Well, mostly…

In a 2010 issue of The Economist READ HERE  there was an article about a mass grave uncovered in Towton, a town between York and Leeds, full of soldiers’ remains dating from the War of the Roses in the 1400s. Archaeologists could tell by the bones how old the men were (17-50) and how each died. Among their conclusions was the fact that the average medieval man was only four centimeters (1.5 inches) shorter than the average Englishman today.

Northern male height
click for bigger view

The mass grave was a dramatic example of what serious scientists and archeologist already know, and do not dispute–  that males in the far distant past, on average, were the same as they are today. Note the graph to the right.

Still don’t believe? Another point to ponder is this misconception: What is the average height of males today? If you say close to or over 6 feet, you would be wrong!

Human heights vary greatly, of course, but in America today, the average height for all males 20 years and up is 5′ 9.5″. If you ask a guy who is 5’10” if he is short, he may say yes because we have this societal expectation that guys are 6 feet tall and over. That just isn’t true! A 6 foot tall man is above average height.

Now, it IS true that at certain periods of time, or particular places, the average European male height (and female) did fluctuate. Usually this is traced to poor health standards, lacking nutrition, and other cultural influences. Carefully examine the graphs below–

height chartheight 1700sImage Enlargerheight in feet

The point I hope you can all see from these graphs is that while variances did happen, and there were dips in height averages, they were minor for the most part (a couple of inches) and can only be seen in looking back. People living at the time would not have awoken one day exclaiming, “Gee! Why am I two inches shorter than great-grandpa?!”

So, with that in mind, I hope you can deduce why the “short bed” claim is also untrue. “But Sharon,” you declare with a long-suffering sigh, “I have been on Pinterest and seen those tiny beds.” Ah, indeed we all have. BUT, are they really shorter? Or is it an optical illusion?

Up until recent decades a bed was ordered a particular size. There were no standards. Thus, if a bed was created for a child or lone woman, it may indeed be shorter than a bed meant to sleep a grown man. Antique beds for adults, when measured, equal or exceed 75 inches (the modern standard for a full), with many longer than 80 inches (a modern queen or king).

The reason they appear shorter is, as I hinted, an optical illusion. The common four-posters with high canopies draped in heavy fabrics, much thicker mattresses, numerous pillows, and elevated lift from the floor create an appearance of being shorter. Plus, on average the beds-of-yore did tend to be narrower, even if long. In fact, fitting a standard sized modern mattress into an antique bed frame is next to impossible due to the width more than the length.
beds2 beds1

bed of ware
Great Bed of Ware

The largest bed existing in the world is the Great Bed of Ware, made in 1580. It is 10.7 ft. wide and 11 ft. long. The bed is mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You see it to the right. Impressive, yes, but does it look like it is 11×11 feet? Optical illusion!

Now you can ask yourself, just how tall was Jane Austen imagining Mr. Darcy to be?




Miss Darcy Falls in Love - 2014 World Book Night US selection! 
Historical romance novelist, author of The Darcy Saga
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Debunking the "short" claims of the past | Historical Articles | The Library at Pemberley