Everywhere in medieval life, you read about ‘rushes’ on the floor. However, I question the image of women in long gowns walking around on loose rushes, whether or not they were sprinkled with herbs. Wouldn’t the rushes 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 – 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 starts to make a lot of sense:
“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.”
Check out this image as pointed out by readers Tamara Baker and Julia, 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’!
Sarah Woodbury, December 1, 2014