My Beautiful Wickedness

A good question on medieval and early modern home care…
August 28, 2007, 12:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

which I’ll throw open to our panel:

Traebuy (hello! welcome!) asks “Does anyone know what steps people took to clean their homes during the late middle ages/early renaissance? Specifically, I am curious about the upper-middle and upper class homes. I have read that the idea that this class of people covered their castle/chateau/manor home floors in straw, which they replaced periodically, has been discredited. Is this true? What other products would they have used to clean their house?”

If a floor was beaten earth or plaster, you’d want to avoid water-based cleaning and so you’d probably turn to a broom; on the other hand, if you had a slate or stone floor, you’d (or really, your serving staff) would be well-served by both a broom and a mop. Lower public rooms would have more expensive and showy flooring; upper private chambers would be floored with wood. I’m not so sure about the whole state of the “straw on the floor” thesis — I think the part that has been debunked (which you’ll hear 1000 times at every little house museum on the East Coast) is the whole “threshhold” being the board that held the straw in and thus the name. “Thresh” is a very old word meaning to “tread or step” — basically, this is the board you step on coming into the “hold” (or house).

This isn’t my area, but I know that Erasmus (writing in the early 16th century) was quite critical of the use of rushes and straw as a floor covering, which seems to indicate that this was the practice in England at least. Here’s the salient quote:

“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”.

Still, I think that there was a trend to rugs (even rugs of braided straw) which could be removed and cleaned more readily. But I’ll let the real early modern people speak to that…

In 18th century colonial British American elite homes, refined people used imported carpets and middling people either wove/plaited their own rugs or painted their floors to resemble carpeting. Depending on how much one was involved in the Atlantic shipping economy (or how close you were to a port), one could also use the matting that wrapped stuff from the China trade which sort of resembled a modern bamboo rug.


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The shorter answer is that during the middle ages people did use rushes, often mixed with nice-smelling herbs, on their floors. This was done for warmth and for the nice smell. They would change the rushes out a couple of times a year. (They did not, contrary to popular belief, throw bones or old food on the floor.) My impression is that the rushes would be stirred/fluffed up and the floors underneath cleaned fairly regularly. Earthen floors were swept; stone or plaster floors were scrubbed with sand which was then swept up. (I don’t know when mops were introduced but I think after the middle ages –I can’t recall seeing any medieval references to them, anyway.) Wood floors were often plastered over, but sometimes left bare, swept, and shined, I’m not sure with what. (They would have been covered with something to preserve the wood, but you wouldn’t want to use pitch, which was the usual sealant; probably beeswax would have come into use fairly early.) Since wood floors were rare except on upper floors, they were less often covered with rushes, as the warmer air from below would have kept them warm. Carpets were first introduced (in wealthy houses only, of course) in the twelfth century, but didn’t become common for many centuries. Wall hangings, however, were common even before that time. Leather curtains kept out drafts, and cloth curtains or tapestries provided decoration for the wealthy.

Some fairly reliable books about medieval daily life, that include information about housekeeping, are a series by John and Frances Gies: they have Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Town, and a couple of others.

The idea that the threshold was a thresh-hold is very bad etymology. The idea that the rushes were habitually dirty or infested is a myth. So what was Erasmus (who lived later than the period under discussion) on about?

Erasmus (I love that quote, Bridgett; where did you find it?) hated England, just hated it, so he was pointing out (1) how old-fashioned the English were, not having rugs or carpets like the Dutch but continuing in the old medieval ways and (2) how dirty they were, not cleaning out the rushes properly, unlike the scrubby Dutch. Not that Erasmus would have demonstrated national pride or anything.

Bridgett, did colonial Americans sweep their rugs with used tea leaves? The European aristocracy and middle class are reported to have had this done, slightly later on — evidently it helped keep the dust in piles, and possibly absorbed dirt and odors out of carpets?

Comment by nm

Yeah, well the Dutch were hella clean. By the 17th century, they were scouring everything in sight. I think (though this might be my whimsy substituting for my memory) that the sale account of the stuff that Rembrandt had to liquidate during his bankruptcy included some mops.

Colonial Americans were really at a loss to know what the hell to do with tea for the first decades of the 18th century. They tried stewing it like oatmeal and grinding it up as a spice and using it as bread spread chopped up in butter. They were roundly disgusted, but urban people appear to have kept on buying it because it was extraordinarily inexpensive. (It was very cheap relative to other goods because the British wanted to stimulate the India trade) and it had to be priced to compete with other cheap drinks like rum. It really was a triumph of marketing to instruct colonial Americans about the sociable aspects of tea, the other trip-trap that one could display to express one’s refined status — in the space of twenty years, it went from “what do we do with this?” to “we don’t want to do without this!” And then there was the cheap caffeine-sugar wallop (colonial British Americans ate everything exceptionally sweet due to the low price of sugar) much desired by the laboring poor. So there was a lot of used tea leaves around. Tea’s aromatic/disinfectant properties put it into use in middling and elite houses in the same way and for the same reasons you describe. Sprinkle the dry leaves on the carpet, let them set on the textiles for a few minutes, and then sweep up. (Some Indian households still do this).

Comment by bridgett

The role of tea and sugar as the first mass-market luxuries cannot be overestimated.

Comment by nm

Oh, I forgot about your source question. It’s a quote from a letter exchange between Erasmus and Dr. Francis — I subsequently located it in a volume of the Letters of Erasmus, but I confess that I first found it in an antiquarian volume in the NYPL (Lives of the Queens of England by Mrs. Strickland (1852)) and just thought it was funny. I use it in my Colonial North America class when we’re talking about other Europeans’ negative perceptions of the English as opposed to the inflated sense of cultural superiority possessed by the English themselves. I’m relieved that I got the interpretation on that one right!

Comment by bridgett

Thanks, Bridgett. I will track that down in the LofE, but do you happen to remember offhand where Erasmus was when he wrote that? Not staying in Thomas More’s house, I bet.

You are totally on target with your interpretation of Erasmus’s little dig. The blooming European nationalism of the 15th and 16th centuries is full of stuff like that. The French of that time considered the English licentious because they swore so much (they were known as the Goddamns to French troops) and went around kissing each other, and everyone else too, with big fat kisses on the mouth instead of chastely on the cheek as was proper everywhere else. (The idea of the English, of all people, as oversexed and improper is one I cherish, I have to admit.) The Spanish were held to be overwhelmingly conceited, and also depressives; the Germans were thought of as drunks, the French as duplicitous, the Italians as violent; you can get lots of this from Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Erasmus, while completely cosmopolitan in his friendships (witness his visits to More in England) and intellectual contacts, was hardly immune from these attitudes. He refused to visit Spain, despite his staunch Catholicism, because he was convinced that most Spaniards were crypto-Jews. His views on English cleanliness you have seen for yourself. I forget what he said about the French, but I’m sure it was pungent. You can take the boy out of Rotterdam, but you can’t take Rotterdam out of the boy. Which is all very off topic, but I will bring it back by pointing out that the Dutch obsession with cleanliness was part of their late medieval/early modern wealth: only a place with widespread riches could afford to look down on rushes on the floor.

Comment by nm

The role of tea and sugar as the first mass-market luxuries cannot be overestimated.

Hey! A historical subject I know something about!

Mintz’s Sweetness and Power is pretty much my favorite assigned history book ever.

Comment by Magniloquence

That’s a good one.

Comment by nm

The Menagier of Paris, though often discussed as a cookery book (and in quick search, the online excerpts I find all relate to cooking), is a general treatise on household and personal maintenance. I don’t have it at hand here, so I can’t be sure, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t at least touch on the need to monitor servants’ cleaning habits. Worth a request to interlibrary loan, anyway.

Archaeological evidence (at least, some) supports the descriptions of interior floors strewn with rushes or straw into the 12th century or so, but you make me realize that I’ve not seen evidence for later establishments. Hmmm.

Comment by Elsa

Elsa, welcome and thanks for your contribution. I’ve just been teaching a section on colonial American material culture and helping students start to explore the archaeological record…makes me realize how much there is that I don’t know about doing non-textual history.

Comment by bridgett

Don’t know if you’ve read the book Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, who was brought up in a house which had been in her family since the Middle Ages. She describes the process of sanding the dairy floor in pretty patterns, which was done daily and must have taken a fair amount of time.

I saw this occur also in LM Montgomery’s Emily books, where the same tradition of sanding floors was carried out. I wonder if anyone knows anything about this tradition?

Comment by Elfreda

Elfreda, that’s an interesting question, but I can’t answer it. I’ve never heard of the practice during the middle ages, but that doesn’t mean it didnt’t happen. I’m thinking that dairies were floored in stone (or, by the early modern period, in tile), for the coolness and because they were getting wet all the time (so you wouldn’t want a wood or earthen floor). And that, sadly, is where my knowledge stops.

Comment by nm

I’ll see what Joan Jensen had to say about dairy maintenance in 18th/early 19th c Mid-Atlantic…

nm and Elsa, I was looking at a copy of the PA Gazette (Philly) from 1750. They were selling “strewing and other aromatics” so it looks like the sprinkling stuff on the floor to make things smell good persisted among some populations (maybe farmers from the Palatine?)…

Comment by bridgett

Good grief. 1750? Now, you know that’s old school. At a guess, this was directed at folks out in the boonies who were clearing new land and hadn’t had a chance to put floors in.

BTW, to follow up on Elfreda’s question, most houses during the middle ages didn’t have a dairy as a separate building/room. Not until building in brick or stone became more common (15th century, in most places) would such a thing have been practical. In the countryside, most houses were wood and a bit of mud plastering, and fell down (or became too much trouble to keep patching up) once every generation or so, at which point they were often rebuilt in a different place on the property.

Comment by nm

Somthing to think about…

I had a ‘medieval’ dinner several years ago where I actually laid out straw throughout the whole lounge/dining and hallway which was wooden floors.
To my surprise the following day whilst sweeping and bagging up the straw, I noticed that my floors (usually dull and dusty due to average housekeeping) were brilliantly clean and polished which I believe might have been due to all the ‘walking/trampling’ of the straw (and maybe oils from the straw) during the night before. Got my mind wondering if there were additional purpose to the rashes or straw?

Comment by Gina

How Did They Preserve Wood Carvings & objects In 16th Century Italy?

Comment by Dave

What was a common wood that they used in italy for coffretts ?

Comment by Dave

Dave, historical pres. is not my specialty. Offhand, I’d guess gesso duro, paint/gilding, veneer, and oil rubs. Depends on where the piece would be displayed, where it was made, what it was for, etc.

Since you have specific objects in mind, why don’t you look at some museums’ material culture collections and see what the artisans of the period and location were using?

Comment by bridgett

Thank you Bridgett. I came across a Small chest… I took it to an auction house… All he said its wood, made in the last 20 yrs. & that their made by the Busloads in italy, then he walked away. After looking for more of them I havent been able to find any more of these. I think its quite interesting & was not satisfied with the answer he gave me. I was trying to learn the type of wood, the meaning of , the cherubs, Vultures, & other symbols etc.

Comment by Dave

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Comment by free classified in india

Rushes were strewn on floors primarily in areas where food was prepared or eaten – kitchens, halls, etc. They absorbed spills and were easily taken up and replaced. Better rooms in homes had floor coverings that were made of woven rushes, not unlike the sisal rigs in appearance that we have today. A painting of Queen Elizabeth I receiving ambassadors (Google “Elizabeth 1 rush mat) shows them in a palace room with the floor covered with these, and you can still buy them! A small business in England has a rush mat website. Wooden floors were cleaned with sand and a broom, which scoured them, and sometimes fine sand was left on the floor, a broom being used to make decorative patterns in it. The Dutch were still doing this in the 17th century. Floors were also cleaned for centuries with Fullers Earth. Fullers Earth is a type or powdered clay that was used by fullers, people who work in the cloth trade. When put on floors, it absorbs grease and spills and is then swept up.

Comment by Gunnar

Oh, wanted to add – in the Medieval period, most residences had earthen floors. The poorest floors were simply made of hard packed dirt, but other earthen floors were made of a combination of dirt, clay, water, and straw, applied in layers. When hard packed and tamped, these had the durability of adobe, and they could even be burnished to give them a soft sheen that made them a bit water proof.

Comment by Gunnar

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