Rushes on the Floor - Sarah Woodbury

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:

“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? You can see pictures of them here. The Tudors are known to have had woven mats on their floors:

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.”

19 Replies to “Rushes on the Floor”

  1. If you look at any court portrait of the Tudors where they are standing on a flooring you can see that the floors are tiled, painted or otherwise decorated, floorboards, then covered with woven rush mats and then very often with carpet. Yes, quite possibly in a house with earth floors – ie a peasant’s house – they might have chucked a few handfuls of river rushes about but highly unlikely in any dwelling with proper flooring. One of the reasons for using them on earth flooring was to absorb water so that the earth floor did not turn to mud, or if the floor was damp and therefore muddy, to prevent the inhabitants of the house from making it worse. Also, consider simple logistics. In my previous (fact-based) historical novel When Winter Comes, my heroine lives in an earth-floored cabin which turns to thick mud in rain and snowmelt; and in my latest novel, the account books of the Earls of Rutland in the period of James 1 show that village women and children are paid for collecting rushes for use in the castle. Once they were harvested, there wouldn’t be any more available for some time, so strewing them about the floor and then sweeping them up seems completely uneconomical and pointless. Plaiting them into mats that would last for several months seems a far more practical use for them.

  2. This makes a lot of sense. In japan, where history is preserved quite well, many homes even to today have Tatami’s which are exactly as described here and it’s origins from Japan’s Medieval Period. Perhaps more insights can be gained by looking into cultures beyond the West that have preserved and use ancient practices such as these can shed light into mysterious medieval practices.

  3. Fascinating enquiry on a topic that has long puzzled me too. That was until I read Ruth Goodman‘s excellent book How to be a Tudor published in Penguin in 2016. She details her experience of experimental archaeology in laying rush flooring of various depths in old houses and then using it for up to six months. It was surprisingly practical and problem free. Can’t tell you all the details but it’s well worth reading. Works best if reeds are laid in bundles and up to six inches deep. Lightly spraying with water every now and then keeps them fresh and sweet smelling. No infestations or bottom muck even despite a roosting hen! She thinks matting gradually came in as chimneys were introduced and there were more draughts at floor level.

  4. An intriguing piece Sarah I had never thought about it in this depth before.
    My considered opinion is that in 90% of households in Gaelic Ireland rushes would have been strewn on the floor as both men and women wore far shorter garments than was the case in England.
    However the nobility both Anglo-Irish and Gaelic wore similar clothes and the ladies dresses would as you have stated been encumbered by strewn rushes therefore among the upper classes at most the top 10% or so in society rush mats would probably have been woven and used as flooring. (Of course it helps when you have servants to do it for you) 🙂
    So I believe that the Gaelic tower houses would have had woven rush mats whilst the poor in their huts and hovels would have strewn rushes as they neither had dress trains nor the time to be weaving floor mats when they were just trying to survive.

  5. If Scott was late, I’m a ‘century’ late. ?
    I appreciate all the information here. I’ve been reading The Game of Thrones, and it mentions rushes frequently. It was looking that word up that brought me here.
    In this, at least, within ‘Winterfell’, the rushes are strewn. As Theon “shook off the rushes”. It’s safe to say that George R. R. Martin didn’t create an entire ‘world’ without references.
    I believe now, both were used.
    But the mats most certainly came later.

    Thank you all for your accidental assistance!

    1. I’m glad that was helpful!
      The rush mats, however, did not come later, as it turns out. Rush mats were used thousands of years ago all through the ancient world. Certainly, the Romans brought them to England when the conquered the country in 43 AD, and they were used continuously up until the present. As CM Stone writes: “The thing that I find so baffling about the loose rushes myth authors keep repeating is the fact that medieval/apple matting is not some obscure secret. It currently covers the floors in Elizabethan Hardwick Hall and many other National Trust properties in the UK. You can go see it in the environment it would have been used in historically right now.”

      I can’t speak to Martin’s decision to have rushes strewn on the floor.

  6. I keep thinking about this, and with all of the other things folk had to do daily, braiding rush mats for the floor seems a bit more work than necessary.

    If it were me, and I had a dirt floor that would turn to mud every time it would rain I would probably think of putting something more substantial down too. When I throw down straw in my muddy backyard, it does sink and compact, and I don’t have trouble with it catching on my shoe or pant leg. Now if I don’t spread it around thin, and it’s deep, yes, it kicks around. But otherwise no. And rushes are sturdier, so they probably didn’t get in the way as much as we think.

    I’m sure most of us think of a manger full of hay type situation all over the house, but doubtful this was the case. People not only would get grass caught in their clothes, they’d slip and fall on it too.

    It’s more likely the rushes we’re placed sparingly to keep the mud down, and when industry started to pick up and people began trades, woven mats would probably be preferred.

    But logically I can’t see anyone braiding mats in their non-existing spare time to throw on the floor when a few pieces of grass would do.

    1. In the move to my new web page, the image dropped off, but there are lots of examples of English rush matting tradition, and the assessment of late is moving more towards rush mats as opposed to loose rushes. Some of the links show them, and I fixed the featured image.

  7. Thanks everyone gor your take on the subject. I always wondered why people weren’t tripping on them. It makes some sense to use them in a kitchen to protect the wood floors but also they would have been a fire hazard. One reads about the child and dogs running around and servants sleeping on the floors. It seem like they wouldn’t cause a huge mess, not stay where they were put, etc. Woven mats make more sense to me. All I know for sure as romantic as many books make the time period seem, it wasn’t a clean, healthy, safe environment

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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