I make no promises about how often I’ll update this series, but I’ll be writing historical inaccuracy posts for the blog, as I have a lot of pet peeves. There are a bunch of things that get repeated so often in historical fiction set in Europe–or in European history inspired fantasy–that everyone has now just accepted them as “how things were back then”.
And these things are wrong.
Today I’m going to write about rushes. The lord of the castle comes back unexpectedly and his servants apologize, for if they’d known he was coming they would have thrown down fresh rushes. The romance heroine walks through the great hall, her long gown trailing on the floor across strewn rushes and scented herbs. The cruel old duke throws a chicken bone to let the dogs fight over it among the piles of rushes.
The way this is described in books brings one very distinctive mental image to mind: the floor of a barn.
This is, to put it bluntly, wrong and stupid. Animal herders have shared living space with their animals throughout history and across the planet, so the idea of somebody’s home looking like a barn isn’t that outrageous, but there’s a big difference between the family who has their cows downstairs for warmth in winter and the great keep of King Duncan MacDuncan XVIII.
What are rushes? They’re herbaceous plants that bare a superficial resemblance to grasses or sedges. Their leaves are typically rounded or flat. They grow in a wide variety of moisture conditions and have evergreen leaves, which would make them very useful for a fiber plant to gather year round for domestic purposes. The soft rush, called igusa in Japanese, is woven as a covering for tatami mats.
The history of weaving floor coverings, baskets, and clothing from plant fibers is a lengthy one, extending back well before the written word. Mythology surrounding weaving goes deep around the world, with many birds, insects and even other mammals weaving materials together.
The cloth Medieval Europeans were wearing was woven. The tapestries they hung on their walls were woven. The braids in long hair were woven. And yet many writers would have us believe that these people were so gross that they just threw rush leaves on the ground and walked on them instead of weaving mats? And while being this disgusting, they also had the sense to never display this unhygienic practice in any works of art?
Rush matting is known to have been in use in 4000 BCE in Mesopotamia and may have even been used during the Paleolithic, 25,000 years ago. But, all right. Perhaps you assume Medieval European nobility were more primitive than their Cro-Magnon ancestors. They lacked the refinement of any of the other hundreds of cultures that just wove mats for their floors. Then let’s consider the practical side of this: long dresses. Go find a barn strewn with straw, put on a floor length garment, and walk around. Even if you hike the garment up (a serious faux pas for a lady and impossible for servants carrying things), it wouldn’t be possible to keep the entire hem clear at all times. You’d end up dragging a little pile of straw with you wherever you went.
In written references to putting fresh rushes on the floors, it seems most likely that what they were actually referring to was rush matting. They’d assume anyone reading it would know what they meant and grasp the obvious meaning of rushes on the floor. Basically it’s like if you wrote down that someone wore cotton and later on someone mistook this reference to assume the person had cotton balls stuck to their body.
Fresh mats would be woven and laid down. Fragrant herbs were strewn on top so that when they were pressed between the foot and mat beneath they’d release their scent. (This same effect wouldn’t work with a pile of loose rushes.) As the mats dried out (and can you imagine what a ridiculous fire hazard piles of loose rushes would be?), they’d absorb unpleasant odors from foot traffic and whatever was dropped on them. At the end of the season they’d be hauled out and replaced with new mats, bringing fresh scents and a clean floor once again. For special occasions, mats might be stacked up somewhere with storage, leaving clean and unworn floors for receiving company, which could then have decorative rugs instead. Removing loose material every time you received company, on the other hand, would be a lengthy, labor-intensive project with a lot of bits always left behind.
Again, go out to a barn and try this experiment.
Aside from the coverings on tatami mats, rushes for floors can also be purchased as medieval or apple matting. It makes for an attractive, pleasantly scented floor covering. In a place and time when more decorative textiles would be significant monetary investments, woven rush matting would provide important protection for the floors. Piles of loose plant material would not. They would, in fact, provide no greater benefit than being in a barn.
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.
Authors, please. King Duncan MacDuncan XVIII deserves better.