Keeping the priest (and me) warm

Hot water bottles are in high demand in this household – not surprisingly, in this sort of weather, I’m clutching one as I write! Somehow less “elderly” than the electric blanket, the hot water bottle is welcoming without being invasive, and you can keep one (or two) in bed all night (I’m not a great electric blanket expert, but I believe you have to turn them off or take the consequences: overheating, fire or even – though presumably highly unlikely – electrocution).

In Italy, I once came across an even more ingenious way of warming the bed – although it, too, carried with it the very real risk of fire or worse.  It’s a technique that presumably hasn’t changed since the middle ages. Known as the “scaldaprete”, it kept me warm when I used to stay with friends who live in the hills outside Florence, where it can get incredibly cold in winter. Now, to get things right: it’s the device that warms the priest’s bed, not the priest that warms someone else’s bed!

It’s pretty awkward to carry around, but basically it consists of a basic wooden frame, gently curving to a point at both ends, and with a couple of wooden uprights on each side. There are obviously variants of design, but the one I remember had a chain hanging from a hook and a metal lidded container was hung on it, which could swing freely, without touching the wood. The trick was to place hot charcoals or embers from the fire inside the brazier, carry it upstairs or into the bedroom, and then carefully hang it from the frame, which is already in position in bed.  The pointed ends and curved sides keep the sheets well away from the hot brazier (the consequences would otherwise have been hellish not heavenly).

It is interesting that, while in Tuscany it was called a “scaldaprete”, further north, the gender changes and it becomes a “Mònega” (Monaca, or nun) in Lombardy! (Thanks to the blog Honesta Voluptate).

Similar contraptions were used all over northern Europe: in England it was called a bed waggon and looks a bit more cumbersome than the Italian model (ahh, Italian design was cutting edge even then!).

Here is an excerpt from a great site called “Old and Interesting“, a history of domestic paraphernalia. This is how Gertrude Jekyll described the bed waggon:

An odd-looking contrivance, generally in use in farms in the olden days, was the bed-waggon. It is used for warming a large bed, and must have done its work most efficiently. The one shown [see photo] is three feet long, but they were generally larger. The woodwork is all of oak, the bent hoops passing through the straight rails, which are tied together with round rods. The whole thing is light and strong. A pan of hot embers drops into the trivet, which stands on a sheet-iron tray. Another sheet of iron is fixed under the woodwork above the fire, so that there is no danger of burning the bed.

Gertrude Jekyll, Old West Surrey, 1904

I couldn’t resist adding another morsel of info gleaned from the above site, but which I then explored further, which is that the Scots were so miserly, or had such disgusting bedtime habits,  that the saying “a Scotch warming pan” meant a wench or a fart (definition taken from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose). Or, as J.Ray, in the collection of English proverbs, put it:

The story is well known of the Gentleman travelling in Scotland, who desiring to have his bed warmed, the servant-maid doffs her clothes and lays her self down in it for a while.

Lastly – again with Scottish connections, of course – the “warming-pan baby” was the name used to refer to  James II’s son, afterwards called the Old Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father). Mary of Modena gave birth to a son in June 1688, but because her son was rumoured to have been stillborn, the baby was allegedly introduced into the Queen’s bed in a warming-pan.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in Cultural history, Family history, Italy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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