Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book: “The curtains took fire, and the flames communicating with other parts of the furniture and buildings, a great share of our possessions were consumed.”
Even the famous and the dead could be censured for engaging in the practice. In 1778, a posthumous biography chastised the late Samuel Johnson for his bad bedside reading habits, characterizing the British writer as an insolent child. A biography of Jonathan Swift alleged that the satirist and cleric nearly burned down the Castle of Dublin—and tried to conceal the incident with a bribe.
In practice, reading in bed was probably less dangerous than public reproach suggested. Of the 29,069 fires recorded in London from 1833 to 1866, only 34 were attributed to reading in bed. Cats were responsible for an equal number of fire incidents.
Why, then, did people feel threatened by the behavior? Reading in bed was controversial partly because it was unprecedented: In the past, reading had been a communal and oral practice. Silent reading was so rare that in the Confessions, Augustine remarks with astonishment when he sees St. Ambrose glean meaning from a text simply by moving his eyes across the page, even while “his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”
Until the 17th and 18th centuries, bringing a book to bed was a rare privilege reserved for those who knew how to read, had access to books, and had the means to be alone. The invention of the printing press transformed silent reading into a common practice—and a practice bound up with emerging conceptions of privacy. Solitary reading was so common by the 17th century, books were often stored in the bedroom instead of the parlor or the study.
Meanwhile, the bedroom was changing too. Sleeping became less sociable and more solitary. In the 16th and 17th centuries, even royals lacked the nighttime privacy contemporary sleepers take for granted. In the House of Tudor, a servant might sleep on a cot by the bed or slip under the covers with her queenly boss for warmth. By day, the bed was the center of courtly life. The monarchs designated a separate bedchamber for conducting royal business. In the morning, they would commute from their sleeping-rooms to another part of the castle, where they would climb into fancier, more lavish beds to receive visitors.
In early-modern Europe, royals set the tone for bed behavior across broader society. Modest, peasant households commonly lived out of one room. By necessity, the family would share a single bed, or place several simple beds side by side. In larger bourgeois homes with multiple rooms, the bedroom also served as the central family gathering place. The four-poster canopy bed was invented during this period, and with it, the modern notion of privacy. In a busy, one-room household, drawing the bed-curtains closed was a rare opportunity to be alone. And being alone created dangerous opportunities for transgression.