Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Medieval Castle Cleaning

Every summer, on History Undressed, I like to dig up articles that have been posted 2 years ago or longer and revisit them, mainly because they are entertaining and informative. Today's post on cleaning in a medieval castle was written and posted in July 2008, and just so happens to also be an issue my medieval heroines face not only in my new release, A LADY'S CHARADE but in another medieval I am working on titled, A KNIGHT'S VICTORY. Without further ado, I give you, Cleaning 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?

In my newest medieval release, A LADY’S CHARADE, my heroine does a few things to clean up the hero’s castle more to her liking.

Here is an excerpt of when my hero, Alexander, returns home after being gone for a fortnight:

©Eliza Knight, 2011

He brushed past the steward and quickly made his way toward the stairs. He doubted that she would head to her room with all the duties she had to complete for the day, but he was going to take no chances. He had to get to the satchel before she did.

He stopped just shy of the second step, when his senses were struck with the realization that something was not quite right. Something was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it at first, but then his nose took over.

It was the smell.

It no longer smelled, or rather reeked, of sweaty men, rotten food and stale air. It smelled of flowers. It smelled clean. It smelled as if the keep had been aired out and a field of wild flowers had been dumped into its belly. How in the world had that happened in the dead of winter? And better yet, how in the world did that happen no matter what the season?

His mind was at a loss for a moment. He walked into the great hall and saw that there were bowls filled with dried flowers. The smells were intoxicatingly feminine.

Lady Anne. She must have finally badgered Harold enough to let her do something about the place. The woman was a nuisance, always trying to change the way he did things simply because a lady resided here.

Although he rather liked the smell, he would have to change it. He couldn’t let her think she had any place in ordering his staff, let alone him, around. He turned to tell Harold to get rid of the flowers, only to find that Harold was nowhere in sight.

Damn him.

His gaze was again drawn back to the great hall. The floor was swept clean of debris. Fresh rushes were strewn about. The table looked like it had been washed down, and the many tapestries that lined the hall’s walls looked fresh and vibrant.

Had Chloe been the one to alter the look and feel of his masculine great hall? For some bizarre reason, that notion seemed to please him. He shook his head at his foolish thoughts and turned to go up the stairs.


A LADY’S CHARADE is now available (in ebook) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. (If you do not have an e-reader, Amazon and B&N both have programs for reading ebooks on your computer.)

Book Blurb…

From across a field of battle, English knight, Alexander, Lord Hardwyck, spots the object of his desire—and his conquest, Scottish traitor Lady Chloe.

Her lies could be her undoing…

Abandoned across the border and disguised for her safety, Chloe realizes the man who besieged her home in Scotland has now become her savior in England. Her life in danger, she vows to keep her identity secret, lest she suffer his wrath, for he wants her dead.

Or love could claim them both and unravel two countries in the process…

Alexander suspects Chloe is not who she says she is and has declared war on the angelic vixen who's laid claim to his heart. A fierce battle of the minds it will be, for once the truth is revealed they will both have to choose between love and duty.


Lizzie Walker said...

Excellent post! In every historical I have read involving castles, there is alway something being said about the rushes. I don't think I would want any of these jobs. I hate cleaning now! We complain about how dirty our world is but we have technology on our side. I throw a load in the wash and it takes me 25 to 30 minutes depending on what I am washing and I can walk away and read a book or drink coffee.

I can't imagine being at this all day. No wonder when there was a feast to be had (if you were not working that is) you could easily find yourself in drunken revelry. "Oh lets have a feast to lift the spirits of our down trodden workers." Yah, they are doing all the work, I am sure they would like to partake but they have to clean up your spit first.

Eliza Knight said...

OMG Lizzie! You are hilarious, but also so right on! I too am glad to have modern technology. If I lived in medieval times, I would have to be a noble, no questions asked :)

Sharon Buchbinder said...

Sooo, these folks sound a lot like they'd be STARS on an episode of HOARDERS. "This week we visit the chateau of Madame Le Peu, who has never removed the rushes from her floor!"

Great post. I have to take a shower now.


Eliza Knight said...

LMAO!!!! Sharon you are hysterical! I haven't seen that show in awhile... I need to watch that tonight!

Kate Dolan said...

You are quite right that it's hard to find info about cleaning (no medieval ads for Dyson or Tydeebowl). Have you ever seen an explanation of WHY they put rushes on the floor? Is it so they would have an excuse not to sweep? My only guess is that they warmed up a stone floor, like a carpet. Before reading this I might have guessed maybe that it was for a fresh scent, but if they lay on the floor for 20 years, that obviously isn't it. I have heard that by the 18th C at least, they sometimes put down sand on the (wood) floor when sweeping. I assume this was to keep down dust, which at least in my house, tends to fly around and avoid being captured in the dust pan. But again, I don't know the why for certain.
Great post! Thanks for sharing!

Kate Dolan said...

Oh, one other thing about soap.
All true soap is made with lye and fat of some kind. Modern "soap" is really detergent. So "lye soap" is just true soap and it's not harsh, although the type and proportion of fats make some soaps feel better on the skin than others.
My first book, Langley's Choice, had a soapmaking scene in it so I learned how to make my own soap. However, though I've seen it done, I have yet to make my own lye - I cheat and use the powdered stuff. I also have yet to figure out how to use a washing bat without making holes in the clothes or getting them dirtier than when I started...