Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, July 28, 2008

Cleaning in a Medieval Castle

This is by far the hardest blog I’ve had to write. Why? Because I simply haven’t been able to find as much information as I would have liked to. However, I will present to you what I’ve learned and hopefully it will enlighten you. If you have any additional information, please feel free to post it!

There has been much conflicting information about whether or not people in the middle ages were as clean as we were within out homes. I think its all hogwash. With what little tools they had to use comparatively and the way they lived, I believe they kept their homes to the best of their abilities.

Think about it, they didn’t have vacuums, steam cleaners, Swiffers, Lysol or Windex… We do, and there are definitely people out there that still don’t take advantage of all the advanced housecleaning tools and products. They still live in pigsties!

Where did the phrase “you live in a pigsty” come from?

Well the word pigsty, originated in the 1590’s as of course the word for a pigpen. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that it was used to describe someone’s living conditions as a dirty, messy or nasty place.

So how did they go about cleaning a medieval castle? Well, everyone had his or her own job to make sure that the place was in order, as well as someone to report to.

Obviously the lord and lady would be the head honchos, but underneath them you could have a steward, housekeeper, in some instances you may even have a chatelaine or castellan. A chatelaine is a mistress of the castle and a castellan is the governor of a castle. A husband and wife could be castellan and chatelaine together. These two would take the place of a lord or lady, let’s say they were not in attendance at the home or in some are instances if there was no lord, the lady may employ a governor, and vice versa.

A steward, also referred to as a seneschal was much more likely. His job was to take care of the estate and supervise the staff, as well as take care of the events in the great hall. The housekeeper would be in charge of the kitchen staff, the chambermaids, and cleaning of the estate.

Underneath the big dogs you might have various other workers, all the way down to the actual people who would do the cleaning, housemaids, scullions, and laundresses were the people who really cleaned quite a bit…

A housemaid would have quite a to do list from the time she woke in the morning. She would need to sweep the floors, generally downstairs until those who were sleeping had risen, then she would head upstairs. But even sweeping was a big deal. For instance, a lot of medieval castles had the floors strewn with rushes or straw. It was her job to see that these were cleaned up and replaced, but how often? It depended on the castle and who ran it. Some were changed monthly, some seasonally and some once a year. Whatever the case you can only imagine what was found underneath…

During the 15th century, the great scholar Erasmus wrote in a letter to a friend the following:

“The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapour is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health. I may add that England is not only everywhere surrounded by sea, but is, in many places, swampy and marshy, intersected by salt rivers, to say nothing of salt provisions, in which the common people take so much delight I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned, and if the rooms were built in such a way as to be exposed to the sky on two or three sides, and all the windows so built as to be opened or closed at once, and so completely closed as not to admit the foul air through chinks; for as it is beneficial to health to admit the air, so it is equally beneficial at times to exclude it."

Rush or straw woven mats were introduced to some to help with cleaning, so that these could be taken outside and beaten while the floors were swept, however some still preferred the strewn look. Herbs would be sprinkled throughout the rushes and mats to keep stench away. Some of the herbs used were lavender, chamomile, rose petals, daisies, cowslips, marjoram, basil, mint, violets, sage, and fennel.

In Thomas Tusser’s book Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, he gives lots of advice to housekeepers during the middle ages, here is what he says about getting rid of fleas in the rushes:

"While wormwood hath seed, get a bundle or twain,
to save against March, to make flea to refrain:
Where chamber is sweept, and wormwood is strown,
no flea, for his life, dare abide to be known.
What savour is best, if physic be true,
for places infected, than wormwood and rue?
It is as a comfort, for heart and the brain,
and therefore to have it, it is not in vain."

Sometimes the housemaid would even scrub the floors and walls with water and lye soap. (Lye soap is made from using the ashes of trees and shrubs, mixed with lard.) However this was only if they were made of stone or wood. If the wood happened to be covered over with plaster, she’d want to steer clear of using a water based cleaning method. Same goes for dirt floors.

After cleaning up the floor as much as she could a housemaid would then move onto the fireplaces. She clean out the ashes and soot and replace it with new logs for the day. Once upstairs she would clean out the basins and replace them with fresh water, as well as empty the chamber pots.

She would also sweep the floors and make the bed. If the bed needed cleaning she would collect up the linens to be given to the laundress. If the tapestries were in need of cleaning, she would have to take them down and outside to beat the dust and grime out of them. The maid would also be in charge of wiping down tables, benches, candlesticks, etc... pretty much any piece of furniture in any of the rooms. The housemaid would also be in charge of polishing any gold or silver in the house.

If she happened to finish her chores early, she could help out the cooks or laundresses. If the mattress itself needed cleaning, which it often did, because of lice, fleas and other nasty bedbugs, the maids would have to un-stuff it, have the mattress cleaned and then re-stuff it.

***It should also be noted that Parliament during the 14th century seemed to understand the need for cleanliness and its link to disease. Here is a proclamation they made in 1388:

"Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be cast and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters... so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen... it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in ditches, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds..."

The laundress had a taxing job on the hands. Her hands were seeped in water day after day and would become dry and cracked. Her job was to clean and dry all the linens and garments within the household. The laundress also had the privilege, whether she liked it or not, to know about everyone’s bodily functions… Gagging… However nasty seeing the bloodstained sheets and then having to scrub them may have been, these ladies could rake in on the bribes from courtiers who would pay to know the cycles of queens, or even to see the sheets after a marriage is consummated.

Being a laundress was back breaking work. These ladies had to haul the water needed to do their cleaning from the well, moat or the closest river to where they did laundry, sometimes outside and sometimes in a designated room. After being heated, the water was dumped into a vat or into a bucking basket. Not only did they have to supply the water, they made the soap as well, using the method described above for lye soap. Lye soap was strong stuff, and could cut through the toughest grease spots, and other stains.

After getting the steamy water filled with lye soap, the laundress dumps the linens in and stirs with a wooden paddle, then literally beats the laundry until it’s clean.

Her job may have been a little easier than those who didn’t have access to such tools and took their laundry to the nearest river, soaked it and the beat it with and against rocks… That could take forever…

The next and last cleaning job I will discuss today is the job of a scullion or scullery maid. She or he was the lowest ranking among the servants, and may even be responsible for cleaning the chamber pots of other servants. They reported to the kitchen maid or cook. A scullion’s job was to clean the kitchen. This included, the floors, fireplace, pots and pans, and other dishes and utensils, disposing of the refuse. They were required to rise first and light all the fires and begin heating the water. Occasionally if they were down in servants, a scullion might serve the people in the hall and polish silver, gold and other expensive plate.

So what would you rather do?

16 comments:

Shannon said...

Yep, you've confirmed it for me Eliza - I'd definitely have to be the lady of the house. No back-breaking work as a laundress here...nope, I want the good life. LOL!!
'Course, maybe being the one to get all that good gossip might be worth it.
Thanks again for a wonderful post!
Shannon

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for your comment Shannon! I agree I would have to be the lady of the house...however you're right about the gossip!!!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Great information! Thanks for your excellent research!

Anne Carrole said...

Makes you so glad they invented the vacuum, washing machine and all the other cleaning appliances and supplies we take for granted today!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Melanie!

Definitely Anne! I don't know what I'd do without a vacuum!

Linda Banche said...

Great post. Your blog always has such great information.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Linda!

Lo said...

Wow! this post is so great I couldn't stop reading about it. It doesn't help that I have been addicted to watching these 'clean house' TV shows lately!

Eliza Knight said...

lol, thanks Lo! I bet they could have used the "clean house" helpers back then, huh?

Pat McDermott said...

That rascal Erasmus had some on the money ideas. Another great post, Eliza. All I can say is, I hope no one blogs about my house in a few hundred years! And congrats on the Excellent Blog award. It's well deserved.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Linda!

Chicks of Characterization said...

I'm with you and Shannon Eliza, I would have had to be the lady of the house,giving out the orders not fulfilling them! Another wonderful post!!!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Pat!

I hear ya! On that note, I think I'll go clean the bathrooms...

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you chicks!

Its always more fun being in charge anyway :)

Bearded Lady said...

Judging by the looks of my kitchen right now, I believe you that people in the middle ages were cleaner then we think. And because they believed that "smells" caused disease then there must have been a strong motivation to keep them at bay. I always crack up at those medieval doctor masks with the long beaks. They look so spooky to me.

ok one last tidbit that I tell the kids...and I swear this is my last because you must be getting annoyed.

Since people believed that the plague traveled in the air, there were many preventatives that actually used BAD smells instead of good smells in their houses. Forget the sweet smelling rushes. Doctors also instructed their patients to fart into jars and then release it when the plague came near their house.

Anyone up for some air freshener? hehe

oh and I have a good book recomendation for you if you have not already read it...check out Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770

ok back to writing. Thanks for the procrastination.

Anonymous said...

yay