Historical Inaccuracy: Rushes strewn on the floor

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.

ToHay on barn floorday 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.

rushesWhat 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.

AFloor mat woven from rushesgain, 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.


8 thoughts on “Historical Inaccuracy: Rushes strewn on the floor

  1. Pingback: Famous Sayings: #39 — ‘A Sight for Sore Eyes’ – Shmaltz and Menudo

  2. Greetings! It’s entirely possible that loose rushes (prior to the advent of woven matting) WERE strewn on floor in rooms that required them: in kitchens for example, where messy spills were inevitable. No one – even if wealthy – was going to pay for woven mats that were eventually thrown out. Loose rushes were free. Also, it being impractical for a “heroine” to walk over rushes in a trailing dress also misses the mark, IMHO. Medieval women who WORKED for a living – in kitchens, fields and elsewhere – didn’t wear trailing dresses. They wore dresses or gowns of a practical length. Trailing dresses and sleeves denoted STATUS and were reserved for the high born. If the high born lady of a noble house or castle did have need to enter a kitchen to help out (some actually did this) and was wearing a trailing dress, she could easily have hitched it up under her belt or girdle. Finally, I’m not sure why Medieval people would have assumed that the phrase “fresh rushes on the floor” would be understood to mean “matting” if mats are indeed what they used. Yes, tapestries and clothing were woven, but did they refer to new tapestries as “new woolen threads on the wall”? 🙂 In colonial America, wooden floors were covered with a thing layer of sand.This provided cushioning, and could be swept out easily when soiled. Why sand in the 17th century, but not loose rushes centuries prior?


  3. Thank you so much for your research and for sharing your knowledge. I have been reading fantasy and historical fiction for over 30 years and ” rushes strewn on the floor ” never made any sense to me .Now mats woven from rushes, that makes sense.!


  4. Thanks for the clarification! It makes way more sense. The idea of the strewn rushes as described by many authors was just disgusting.:)


  5. Although the author of this post sounds disgusted with the thought that mere mortals had such ignorant ideas as “loose rushes” on floors, this did clarify my visuals as I’m reading my 12th century historical novels. As I read, it’s amazing that all other craftsmen of the towns are named and described, but there is no mention of the craftsmen who make these “mats” for the household. That could be one reason why the word “rushes” has been taken so literally.


  6. If you read “How to be a Tudor” by historian Ruth Goodman, you will learn that the rushes were indeed loose, could be six inches thick on the floor, absorbed an amazing quantity of muck without being disgusting, and that people could sleep comfortably on the floor covered with loose rushes. Mind you, good hygiene meant that you should change the flooring occasionally to keep down the number of pests (mice, fleas, and the like).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.