Rushes on the Floor

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:

Daughter Time blog“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.”

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7 thoughts on “Rushes on the Floor”

  1. In highland Ethiopia, which retains some extremely ancient social and religious practices (the civilisation of the Ethiopian highlands relates to the Christian civilisation of the eastern Mediterranean), reeds (or fresh grass if reeds are not available)are routinely scattered on the floor, especially at times of celebration and festivals, with sedge being the preferred plant. It’s not scattered in a thick pile, but loosely over the floor to give a fresh appearance. I think that this is also the most likely way that rushes were used in medieval Europe, although rush mats are, of course, also evidenced.

  2. I’ve been reading the wonderful trilogy about the life and times of Nicholas Cooke, actor, physician and priest, by Stephanie Cowell. Cooke decries the use of floor rushes for sanitary reasons, chiefly because they breed fleas which were supposedly responsible for plague epidemics.

    1. You’re correct of course that medieval histories and novels all mention rushes on the floor. I’ve never bought it. I don’t think the long-dress argument is very convincing. The better one, to my thinking, is that any fibrous vegetable material–rushes, straw, etc–will attract insects and rodents. The woven mat theory is intriguing.

  3. I see no reason to believe that loose rushes (or straw) were not strewn on floors in the Medieval period. They were free, easy to cut, renewable, and easy to strew and replace. Woven mats were a a later refinement. Peasant women, who did manual labor, wore their skirts shorter than did their wealthy counterparts, and would have had no problem with loose rushes catching their skirts. Wealthy women wore longer skirts “because they could”. It was a status symbol, yet even in their homes, loose rushes would have been found in cooking areas and in privies, places populated by servant women, who wore shorter skirts, and it’s very likely that even noble women hitched their skirts up when need be to supervise servants. The whole purpose of the rushes being loose after all, was to be able to sweep them out when they became soiled. By the 1500’s, loose rushes on floors in all but the poorest of homes had given way to woven rush mats, found on floors in even the finest homes. Kitchen floors no longer needed spill-absorbing rushes on them because flooring had changed. Wooden floors were still a norm of course, but brick, flagstone, or tile were being used. Cooking methods had also improved. People weren’t roasting stags over an open fire in the center of the room.

      1. Certainly both are being used. I know I am a bit late to this party, but I am currently sitting in front of a scroll in the Departmental Archives in Dijon which lists daily expenditures for the court of Margaret of Flanders. Grass is not free (on May 8, 1385, she pays Jehan dez Fourneaux 4 sous for grass for her chambers and hall; the entry says “a Jeh dez fourneaux pour hbe pour lez chambrez et la sale – IIII s”). It was also replenished every day between May and September (the growing season), suggesting it was not woven but strewn. These scrolls (in series B, Archive Departementale de la Cote D’or) also record expenditures for straw mats, which were made and installed by trained professionals.

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