Monday, 2 May 2016

Forgotten Words: the Essex Wills as Witness

Continuing my posts on the vocabulary of the Essex Wills and its place in English lexical history, an introduction to which can be found here.

The Essex Wills are naturally full of words for household goods. The majority are words that are still used, though the things to which they are applied may now be different in design or appearance. A large majority are words, or meanings of words, that are no longer used, but are carefully recorded in dictionaries, and especially in the Oxford English Dictionary. But a significant number have escaped notice by lexicographers and yet can be found, often in large numbers, in wills, inventories, and other non-literary documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and sometimes in earlier and later documents). 

Furniture: terms relating to beds


There are numerous instances of this word from 1558 onwards. Typical cases are:

1559 (I. 87) To John a bedstead. To Agnes my daughter a bedsteadle. 

1575 (III. 165) my joined bedsteadle, a bedstead. 

The approximate meaning is the framework on which a bed is made, but differing in some unspecified manner from a bedstead

The second element does not appear to be a derivative (such as a diminutive) of stead, i.e. of the second element of bedstead (OED STEAD n. 8, recorded from a1475 onwards). 

Rather, steadle seems to be a variant of  OED STADDLE n., of which steddle is recorded as a variant, and which has a sense ‘a supporting framework’ (3d). This is attested only from a1800; but the word steadle is used both alone and in a compound with trundle, which means a ‘truckle bed’:

Essex Wills (1582, X. 229) my bed standing on the sollar with the steadles.

Essex Wills (1591, VI. 130) a flockbed and a pair of trundle steadles belonging.

The word also occurs in the edited volumes of Essex gentry wills:

1566 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 276 a posted bedsteadle.

1585 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 88, 2 of the best bedsteadles with 2 of the best testers belonging.

We get some confirmation for this from the Middle English Dictionary at stathel (n.) (which is the Middle English equivalent of  OED’s staddle n.). MED has the variants: ‘Also .. stedel(e, stedil, stedul(le; pl. stedel(l)es’ and gives, at sense (b): ‘bed ~, the framework of a bed, a bedstead’, with the sole illustrative example:

(1483) in M. R. James The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Emmanuel College: A Descriptive Catalogue (1904) 11 Item, yn the grette chambur ii bede stedellys..Item, in the lytyll chambyr a bedde stedyll.

The provenance of this text, and indeed its identity, is unclear, but its being preserved in a Cambridge library make it possible that it is an East Anglian MS.

This evidence can be supplemented by a number of other documents, all from south-eastern England:

1582 Inventory of James Benchkin’s goods, 30 November in Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life (2002) Appendix 191 Item one joyned bedstedell. (There is also an instance on p. 193, from Canterbury.)

1605 Inventory of John Marlow’s goods, 21 February in Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life (2002) Appendix 191 235 Item a playne bedstedle, matt and rope, and a flocke bed and a fether bed.

The English Dialect Dictionary, at bed n., has ‘bed-steddle, a bedstead’ with two Essex citations (1814 Monthly Mag. I. 498) and two Kent citations, one of 1793 (Pluckley Poorhouse Accounts)  and Memorials of Eastry (870) 224. 

1893 Trans. Essex Archaeol. Soc. 4 15 Bedsteadle occurs in 1705, a dialectical form of ‘bedstead’, which is still localized in N. Essex, and which I have seen in a Sible Hedingham will of rather earlier date than this instance. Neither Dr. Murray nor Forby mentions it.

Finally we find the twentieth-century dialect dictionary of Essex testifying to the fact that this is a genuine Essex word:

1923 E. Gepp Essex Dialect Dictionary (ed. 2) 19 Bedsteadle: a bedstead. Apparently a peculiar Essex form. See Staddle. Ibid. 108 Steadle: for  bedsteadle. It is a form of staddle, a foundation, stand (9th c.), q.v. 

Only the Essex Wills suggest, by using the two words in the same contexts, that there was a distinction between a bedsteadle and a bedstead. No evidence seems to be available on EEBO. 

Bedsteadle is an unentered word with a history stretching from 1483 to 1923.

girt, girted

An adjective describing a bedstead, bedsteadle, or trundle bed. With the exception of the example below, I have found it only in the Essex Wills, and the meaning is unclear. OED’s GIRT adj., sense 1, is given the definition ‘in sense of the verb’, presumably GIRD v.1 of which it is the old past participle. This verb, as we know, means ‘to surround or encircle’, but there seem not to be any senses specifically with beds as the object, or anything closer than sense 4c ‘to put (a cord, etc.) round something’ (only in Swift’s Gulliver). 

Although the apparently ‘double’ past participle form girted is notionally covered by the fact that girt can be a variant of the main form of the verb gird, there is also a verb GIRT v., of which sense 2 is ‘to secure with a girth’ (1663, 1841).

1587 (X. 79) gyrt bedsteadle

1595 (XI. 135) girte bedstead

1560 (I. 11) 1 trundlebed girted with 2 little old featherbeds

1571 (III. 19) girted bedstead

1581 (X. 231) girted bedstead

The only other example found is considerably later. Somewhat surprisingly it occurs in a translation, raising the implication that there existed an equivalent in French. Moreover the text itself is ordinary ‘standard’ English.

1715 tr. C. de Renneville French Inquisition 77 At length, on Friday the 8th of September, I was much surpriz’d to hear the Tower open’d before Four in the Morning, and to see Ru coming into my Room, bringing a Girt Bedstead, then he brought a Straw Bed, a Quilt, a Boulster, a Blanket, and a deep Rush Chair, all quite new.

It is distinctly possible that the term is equivalent to a trussed bed or trussed bedstead (OED TRUSSED adj. 1), which is the same as a trussing bed or trussing bedstead. None of these are directly defined, but an 1861 quotations tells us:

Portable beds were often called ‘trussing’ beds.

So probably a girted bedstead was a portable one.

half-head, half-headed 

These terms relating to styles of bed are common in the Essex Wills, the former as noun and premodifier, the latter as adjective. As one might expect, the derived adjective half-headed appears later than the noun half-head.


1563 (VIII. 74)  a bedsteadle with a half head

1572 (III. 62)  bedsteadle..the other with a half head;

1574 (III. 423)  a joined bed with a half head

1584 (X. 3)  the bedstead with the half head

1591 (VI. 196)  a bedsteadle joined with a half head

1591 (XI. 150)  1 joined bed with a half-head

1592 (XI. 278)   a standing bed with a half-head and featherbed

1600 (XII. 216)  1 posted bedstead..with a half-head

1602 (VII. 142)  2 flock beds with half-heads

note also half a head:

1573 (III. 298) a posted bedsteadle with half a head

That this is not a specifically Essex term is shown by:

1597 Will of Hugh Cicill, carpenter, St Philip in S. Lang M. & McGregor Tudor Wills Proved in Bristol 1546–1603 (1993) 25 Or ells at that time to buye for her one newe Bedsteede withe a halfe hea[d] at his choice.


1582 (IV. 158) half-headed bed

1587 (X. 254) half-headed bedsteadle

1590 (XI. 120), 1594 (XI. 244), 1591 (XI. 35) half-headed bedstead

The terms are used of beds that are recorded as having a tester, and so presumably describe a bed whose tester (in the later sense of the canopy over the bed) that covers only the upper end, as opposed to the traditional ‘four-poster’ with a canopy covering the full length of the bed. Yaxley (2003: 12) explains half-headed bed as ‘bed with canopy covering only top half of bed, supported only by the posts of the bedhead’. This would be borne out by an apparent contrast with whole-headed:

1585 (V. 294) whole-headed joined bed

Historians have given other explanations, namely that the terms refer to the vertical part at the head of the bed (tester in its earlier meaning), but the evidence seems to fit this better. (Note also the contrast with ceiled bed in quotation 1751 below.)

It is not an unusual term, and certainly ought to be in the OED. The examples listed above are all earlier than those (all from the seventeenth century) listed in Weiner 1997: 242. The term was still in use in the 19th century:

1721 Particular & Inventory Sir John Blunt 44, 4 square Stools, a half headed Bedstead, a Feather Bed and Bolster. 

1728 Catalogue Household Furniture Thomas Coke 4 A half-headed Bedstead, blue Curtains, a Feather Bed.

1732 Inventory Richard Woolley 10 In the Garrets. A Bedstead and Bedding, a Mat, a half headed Curtain Rod.

1751 Inventory of Andrew Revill of Ecclesfield Parish in Agricultural Hist. Rev. (1969) 17 115 Near Chamber: 2 half headed Beds and 2 Ceild Beds £1.5.0.

1830 Belle AssemblĂ©e Sept. 114/2 Two rooms; in one was a half-headed bedstead, with a flock or straw bed—I know not which.

1871 Exchange & Mart 8 March 303/2 Wanted, an Arabian half-headed bedstead, iron or otherwise, plain, but in good condition.

Note also half a headed bedstead:

1600 Will of Nicholas Woulfe, carpenter, St Philip in S. Lang & M. McGregor Tudor Wills Proved in Bristol 1546–1603 (1993) 73 Halfe a headded bedsteed with a flock bedd.

Half-headed is entered in the OED (unrevised entry) only in the sense ‘half-intelligent’. No evidence seems to be available on EEBO.

post bed, post bedsteadle

OED’s POST n.1 has been revised, but this item was probably too rare to find its way into the entry. It is not common in the Essex Wills, but there are a few later examples. The meaning is presumably the same as four-posted bed.

1564 (VIII. 144) my postbed that I lie in

1569 (II.  238), 1582 (IV. 148) post bed


1570 (IX. 89) post bedsteadle

1582 (IV. 212) postern bedstead

The later examples are:

1846 C. MacFarlane Romance of Travel I. vii. 158 What the worthy monk calls a bed was probably much the same piece of furniture still used as a seat by the Turkish sultan when he gives an audience of ceremony, and which is something between a post-bed and a sofa.

1847 J. D. Lang Cooksland iv. 122 This bed-room, in which I found a Colonial cedar post-bed.

1891 Harper’s Mag. 83 824 Joe led Penelope towards the old storehouse chamber in which the Irish traveller was quietly sleeping under the parted curtain a of the ancient post bed.

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