Drafty castles, stone construction, floors strewn with rushes, noble ladies' trailing gowns... Anyone who's read any historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is familiar with these popular Medieval motifs, but I have been troubled by a number of questions about these items. Perhaps we have some period history mavens who can ease my confusion?
I was completely fascinated to find this page of notes about real life for the upper classes in the Middle Ages
, and it addresses one of the things I've always wondered about. In fact, I came upon it while specifically searching for information about rushes as floor covering. In this piece, the author rejects the idea of loosely strewn straw-like rushes (in rich households), because of the impracticality of the ladies of the house, with their sweeping gowns
, navigating such domestic terrain. She opines that what was actually used were woven mats made of rushes, which seems to make more sense, especially since woven/braided rush mats have been in existence since at least 4000 BC (scroll to the bottom)
- and so why wouldn't
these wealthy families have these instead of scattered rushes, at least in all the areas where the family members were likely to frequent?
Could "rushes" just have been shorthand for "rush mats" in some cases where we have recorded references to this practice?
Yet, Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote this about Medieval floors in England
"The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapour is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health. I may add that England is not only everywhere surrounded by sea, but is, in many places, swampy and marshy, intersected by salt rivers, to say nothing of salt provisions, in which the common people take so much delight I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned, and if the rooms were built in such a way as to be exposed to the sky on two or three sides, and all the windows so built as to be opened or closed at once, and so completely closed as not to admit the foul air through chinks; for as it is beneficial to health to admit the air, so it is equally beneficial at times to exclude it
(I'm assuming "doors" is just a typo here, and should have been "floors.") Was he speaking of more common dwellings, instead of rich families who had the manpower to have the rushes at least changed quite regularly, if not replaced by much more practical woven mats that could be removed, shaken out and/or washed, allowing for the floor beneath to be cleaned?... not to mention solving the problem of "strewn rushes" being plowed through by trailing gowns, capes and cloaks?
But perhaps those lavish gowns and outer garments were rarely worn, for significant events and high social occasions only? Did even the most aristocratic ladies wear far more practical, floor-escaping dress in their day-to-day lives?
I've also wondered about dried rushes as flooring in castles where candles and lamps were the nighttime light sources, in combination with tapestries hung over the walls, curtained beds, etc... the stone floors and walls wouldn't have burned, but it seems like the inhabitants of those rooms would certainly have been at great risk.
And... of course, it doesn't take a modern mind to recognize that insects and vermin will quickly infest aging/moldy straw/rush debris. For poor people who spent every waking moment struggling to merely insure their basic survival, this is perhaps simply one of the many things that they didn't have the luxury to address, but what about the luckier few... what were their floors & rushes practices?
Also, I do understand we are talking about a period that spans centuries, and significant geographical and cultural differences - in a time when few were literate, so precise Best Practices manuals addressing something so mundane cannot be expected, but if you have more info, well... I'm oddly curious, and welcome any insights and/or links.