September 4, 2011 by

Rushes on the Floor


Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Everywhere in medieval life, you read about ‘rushes’ on the floor.  I, too, have had an issue with the notion of women in long gowns, walking around on loose rushes, whether or not they were sprinkled with herbs.  Wouldn’t it catch in the dress?   This page has this to say, and started off my inquiry:

“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?”

I think so too, and upon further research, this rush mat notion might be more accurate:

“One reads that “rushes were strewn upon the floor.” I beg leave to doubt that armfuls of loose green stems were cast down ankle-deep, like straw in a stable. This image is supportable only by those who want to make their ancestors seem more brutish so as to elevate themselves. People who walk in stables either are wearing ground-clearing garments, or lift their hems to clear. As an earlier section established, ladies in their homes did no such thing. Not only did women wear trailing gowns, but men wore long robes. Even before hems were exaggerated, the gowns were floor-length and often trained, as were robes and mantles.

Picture what happens if loose rushes were indeed used. The servants bring in loads of green rushes in the spring, and spread them out on the castle floor. Milady arrives, approves the work, then crosses the chamber to go downstairs. A clear swath is cleaned behind her, and the rushes pile up in a roll under her back hem. When she reaches the stairs, or rather when her train does, that bundle is dropped on the top steps and partly dragged down them. The top treads would be buried in rushes in one passage.

Obviously this cannot be the proper interpretation of how rushes were used on the floors of castles.

Herbs, we know, were strewn in handfuls over the rushes, and expected to stay underfoot to scent the air when trod upon. Also, the rushes stayed in the chambers and halls (but not on the stairs) until they were dry and perhaps musty, so that it was very refreshing to change the winter rushes for fresh ones in the spring.

The chief problem is actually that Medieval people had no sense of sociological change. They picture Alexander the Great and the Twelve Apostles in Medieval dress without a qualm, though it is a 1300-year anachronism. They assume their readers know what they are talking about in everyday matters, because of course you live in the same world as they.

I would like to suggest that an important step was left out of their remarks about gathering fresh rushes for floor-covering. When original sources wrote that the rushes should be changed every season, certainly once a year in the spring after planting, they were not recording their behaviors for a foreign (in time) culture: they were advising their peers on good household management as opposed to slovenliness.

The step omitted is that the rushes, once gathered, were made into mats. Then the rush mats, still called rushes, were put on the floor, and herbs sprinkled over them.   River rushes are always specified; mere grass will not do. This is because the rushes are thick, long, and strong: short, fragile grass cannot be made into mats. The rushes were probably coiled by the handful and stitched with the longer rushes, like modern raffia or straw mats, or woven with string, or plaited.”

rush matsCheck out this image as pointed out by reader Tamara Baker and Julia (below in comments), from Jehan, Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours from circa 1410 — it clearly shows woven rush matting on the floor.

Fabulously, it is possible to BUY rush mats today, woven in the ‘traditional English fashion’!  Check this out:

“The core of Rush Matters’ work is traditional rush floor matting, also known as medieval matting and apple matting. The rush is plaited by hand, using a ‘nine end flat weave’ into lengths three inches wide, and then hand sewn together with jute twine. Each mat is made individually to the clients requirements as a central mat, runner or fitted as a carpet and can be any size. An ‘eleven end flat weave’ produces a fine one and half inch plait to bind the open ends and this can be used on the sides to fully edge the mat.

The rush flooring is suitable for almost any interior space. Its natural tones, texture and scent is ideal for the interiors of today. Equally, it has fantastic historical and traditional uses in older properties. The matting has been bought by The Frick Gallery of Modern Art in New York and used in film and drama including Ridley Scotts ‘Gladiator’ and the BBC’s docudrama of Winston Churchills interwar years ‘The Gathering Storm’. Devotees of Albert Finney’s work will take this as proof positive that the matting is at least brussel sprout proof!

The National Trust has commissioned matting for the dining room at Winston Churchill’s house at Chartwell, Kent and the long gallery at Montacute House in Somerset. Individual pieces have bee shipped as far afield as New York, Beirut and France.”




19 Responses to Rushes on the Floor

  1. Hayley Thomas

    Very interesting, it seems likely that woven mats would be used in homes of people of status. However dirt floors were covered in strewn rushes as the term ‘threshold’ denoted a plank in the doorway that retained the strewn covering.

  2. Lynn

    Hi, medievalist here. 😛 There are so many misconceptions people have of the medieval era. People didn’t bathe, wear underpants, etc. Though there’s so much proof of what they *did* have, and it still seems like people want to reject it. This is why I’m annoyed by so many TV shows and movies who don’t try hard. ‘Arn: The Knight Templar’ is a great example of better accuracy in a movie. But… my rant aside, here’s some legitimate proof of flooring in the medieval time. An illumination from Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun (Meung), “Le Roman de la Rose” 1390: (it’s a long URL otherwise)

    If you’re interested in the clothing, look up a cpy of the Medieval Tailor’s Apprentice. It’s a big eye opener, and covers 12th-15th century clothing. Rosalie’s Medieval Woman is an amazing source for women’s attire, and even some men’s clothing since she’s made quite a few for a few in her group. I don’t have enough sources on flooring, but any SCAdian or Living History medievalist would offer some great insight. But medieval-era people weren’t as primitive as everyone likes to think.

  3. Winter

    This makes a lot of sense and of course, though it is a different land and culture, I think we could use Japan as an excellent example of how this would have worked. the Japanese have been using tatami for centuries and these are mats made of rice straw. Surely the Japanese weren’t the only people in the world who figured out the practicality of weaving straw into mats to cover their floors with. It’s also one of the reasons people take off their shoes indoors too, though. Tatami are prone to damage and mold and aren’t changed as often the way “rushes” were in medieval times.

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  6. Rebecca

    Thank you for this post and the research. I’ve been reading the George R. R. Martin “A Song of Ice and Fire” series and he frequently uses rushes in his descriptions of rooms. It has been driving me crazy to try an imagine what they were and how the functioned. This has been very helpful and now his scenery descriptions are much more realistic for me.

  7. Tamara Baker

    I’m glad you found the picture from the Book of Hours useful. It conclusively shows that rush matting was known and used in noble households by at least 1410.

    Now mind you, herbs were definitely strewn onto floors, a practice that survived well into the 19th century, but rushes? Not so much. Maybe in peasant huts with dirt floors, but not in any place where ladies with long trailing garments would abide. Rushes in those places would be in the form of mats.

  8. Julia

    Just my opinion: woven rush mats WERE used on Medieval floors (one can be seen in a painting of a banquet found in the Duke du Berry’s Book of Hours) but it also seems likely that loose rushes WERE used on floors, prior to, and in addition to woven mats. Not all Medieval women traipsed around in long, sweeping gowns that could easily catch loose rushes on the floor. Look at Medieval paintings: peasant women are depicted tilling fields, picking apples, cooking food, etc., and their skirts are shown somewhat off the ground or hiked up to facilitate their labours.

    These are the same women who worked in the great halls and kitchens of the wealthy. Loose rushes were put on floors mainly to absorb food and drink spills, therefor they were more apt to be found in rooms where women (not encumbered with sweeping gowns and dangling sleeves) worked. I imagine that woven rush mats were reserved for certain rooms, with loose rushes being strewn in work areas.

    Also, the long, sweeping gowns of wealthy or noble women were really “formal” wear, reserved for special occasions. When we see these long gowns being worn by hennin-wearing noble women on horseback in Medieval paintings for example, we must remember that said women were being depicted by artists AS noble, dressed in their best. They were not necessarily shown in everyday dress, which would have been more practical. Nobles wearing “practical clothing” weren’t depicted in art because they wanted to be recorded and remembered in a certain way.

  9. Robert Maguire

    I ran across this article while looking for the lyrics to an Irish song and I figured that I would comment.

    Placing rushes on the floor was something that was common in rural Ireland many years ago. My mother grew up in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century and her family would place them on the floor. I’m only guessing, but I figure it would be for insulation from the cold concrete or dirt floor and to help keep the house clean.

    When my mother went home in the 1970’s, she visited a woman who was her best friend as a young girl. The woman complained that if she had known my mother was coming, she would have put fresh rushes down.

    I’m sure the floor coverings were much different at the other end of the social spectrum.

    You may have heard of the Irish Saint Bridget and her Bridget’s Cross which is made from rushes. The legend is that she made the first one while caring for a sick chieftain and during the quiet hours she wove a cross from the rushes on the floor. When he asked what it was, she explained the symbolism and he converted to Christianity.

    I see that no one has commented in quite a while, but I just couldn’t resist.

    • Sarah Post author

      Thank you for commenting! That’s very interesting. I assume that you mean loose rushes, essentially like having hay on the floor, not woven mats?

  10. Jodee Steffensen

    Thank you for this excellent research. I’ve been struggling with this issue as I write my Elizabethan romance. I feel confident your conclusion is sensible and realistic.

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