Post by Matt Tompkins
Several Medieval images of England and Normandy depict people walking on
rushes -- that is, loose stalks that look somewhat like dried straw.
However, several amateur historians on the Internet insist that Medieval
people never walked on actual stalks strewn upon the floor. Rather, they
insist, rushes were woven into mats.
Of course, any material that lumps the period from 1066 to the 1500's
together is highly suspect. Each 50 years saw a change in customs in Normandy
I am writing about the 1100s. Can anyone provide evidence that then
"rushes" used in castles were either loose stalks or woven mats?
CM Woolgar's 'The Senses in late Medieval England' (2006), pp.142-3,
190, quotes from several medieval references to strewing rushes on
floors - it can be found on Google Books.
In 1515 Erasmus famously wrote in a letter that in England 'the floors
are commonly of clay, strewn with rushes, under which lies unmolested
an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bone, spittle,
excrement of dogs and cats, and everything that is nasty' - Jortin's
Life of Erasmus (1808), i, 69. If that was true at the start of the
16th century then I'm sure it was even more so in the 12th century.
I was intrigued by your question and did some googling last night on
the subject. The Erasmus quote was well used on sites dealing with
life in medieval castles but I also found this site
http://historicalnovelists.tripod.com/medlife.htm which deals with
upper class fashion and presents the problem of wearing skirts which
trailed 12" of cloth on the floor covered with rushes rather than
matting. Other sites eg http://www.castlewales.com/life.html
describe the norman castle of the 12th century as having a ground
floor hall with a central hearth and the private quarters of the lord
and lady being screened off at one end of the hall. This leads me to
think that maybe this end of the hall had matting, where as the rest
of the hall had strewn rushes? This would fit in with the idea that
Ladies where cloistered away from the ordinary folk in the rest of the
hall, they simply couldn't walk there.
The local farmers here in Brittany use fresh strewn straw in their cow
sheds which is built up on a daily basis over winter, keeping the cows
warm as the lower layers "ferment", and mucked out in spring to be put
on the fields. The Erasmus quote seems to indicate a similar method
for "heating" castles! The historical novelist article seems to
suggest that when royalty visited the whole lot would be mucked out,
the floor cleaned and left bare with maybe a few strewn herbs, giving
room for dancing and such like before a new layer was formed, and the
ladies were once again confined to a given area.
Fascinating. In later castles with wooden flooring and the hall on
the first floor, chimneys and private appartement women would have had
more movement as wooden floors wouldn't have the same insulation needs
as stone or earth, indeed the wood would have rotted if covered with a
6 month layer of rotting rushes! thus rush matting would seem more
just a few thoughts on the subject.