Hand Washing, Strewing Herbs and Other Herbal Court Customs
Botanicals played a part in a variety of customs used at courts all over
the world during our period.
- Strewing Herbs
- After-dinner spices
- Perfumes, Pomanders and Incense
Ceremonial handwashing before and after meals is often described as incorporating
botanical scents. The office of handwashing could be considered a hereditary
right or duty-- one Christmas day during the reign of Henry, the baron William
of Tancarville burst into the feasthall before the feast, seized the handwashing
equipment from the servants, and washed the hands of Henry and his sons, as
was his right as the hereditary chamberlain of Normandy. (Gies & Gies,
Life in a Medieval Castle)
A text for young people, written in the sixteenth century, suggests:
"Then attend thou the table upon, it for to void when thy Parents have done:
Each side of the cloth doe then turn in, folding it up, at the high end
A cleane towell then on the table spread, a towell wanting the cloth take
The Basin and Ewer to the Table bring, in place convenient to their pleasure
When thou shalt see them ready to wash, the Ewer take up, and be not too
In pouring out water, more than will suffice; then take up the cloth, that
they may arise."
Scents mentioned in various sources included rosewater, sweet woodruff,
basil, marjoram, sage, chamomile, rosemary boiled with orange peel, bay
leaves, or oils of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, etc. Also, in Spain,
orangeflower water might have been used. Both simple and compound (mixed)
scents seem to have been used at different times.
Digby gives a recipe for a handwashing water:
De Nola, 1529, gives a description of how to do handwashing:
"Take a gallon of faire water, one handfull of Lavender flowers, a few
Cloves and some Orace powder, and foure ounces of Benjamin: distill the
water in an ordinarie leaden Still. You may distill a second water by a
new infusion of water upon the seces: a little of this will sweeten a bason
of faire water for your table."
"On the Mode and Manner in Which One Must Offer Water for Washing
The Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book says:
The servitor must give the hand-washing to his lord in this manner.
Put a pitcher full of water upon a font or a large silver platter, and some
very well folded towels upon the said pitcher which extend to the edges
or brim of the font. And the steward goes before with a towel on
his shoulder. Arriving in front of the lord's table, and making his
reverence, the steward takes the towel which is upon the font, and spreads
it upon the table in front of the lord, and sets the font from above upon
the towels, and with the font from below, where the water comes, he gives
hand-washing to his lord. And when he has washed, he then lifts the
fonts, putting one upon the other, and the steward spreads upon the lord's
hands the towel which hangs from his shoulder, and removes the others which
were spread upon the table for the fonts.
And similarly the cupbearer can give the hand-washing, holding up a font
or a wide-brimmed plate in his right hand, and the towel over the edge
of the font or plate and upon the right shoulder, and the pitcher of water
in the left hand. And the steward and the cupbearer, arriving at the
table and making their reverences, do as is said above; this is understood
to be for persons who are not of very high rank."
"And when it lyketh þe lorde to axe water þen shall
þe esquyres and þe marshall and sewer goo by and by next þe
lordis basyn and evyn at þe lorde; þe sewer shall delyuer þe
towell to þe worthyeste þat bethe aboute hym and go streight to
þe kechyn with all þe men þat shall serue. The marshall
þen shall uncouer þe basyn yf it be coueryd and holde it in
his handes also vnto þe lord haue wesshe, and þen make a salutacoun
and take it to þe squyre þat brought it theder, and he to bere
it to þe ewry, and anone commonde water for all þem þat
shall sytte at þe lordes borde, and go wyth þe lorde to be sette,
and þer asketh hym howe his bord shall be set."
The Book of Nutter, by Hugh Rhodes, 1577, commands the officer:
"marke if your Mayster vse to wash at the table, or standing:
if he be at the table, cast a clean Towell on your table cloth, and set
downe your bason and Ewer before your soueraigne, and take the ewer in your
hand, and gyue them water. Then voyd your Basen and Ewer, and fold the bord
cloth together with your towell therin, and so take them of the boord. And
when your soueraygne shall wash, set your towell on the lefte hand of
him, and the water before your soueraygne at dinner or supper."
How to do it:
- Have a long towel draped over your left shoulder.
- Place the ewer (pitcher) inside the basin, and cover it with a towel.
- Bring the assemblage into the hall and make obesiance to the highest
- The towel should be spread in front of the person to be served.
- The basin is placed on the ewer.
- The person holds their hands over the basin.
- The server pours water over the person's hands.
- The ewer and basin are removed, and the/a towell handed to the person
to dry the hands.
Medieval housekeepers often laid a layer of rushes or straw over wood,
stone or dirt floors, to cushion the hard surface, retain heat and provide
a replaceable covering. According to Peter Brears, rushes were changed about
every two weeks. Erasmus, grumpy old philosopher that he was, complained that
his English hosts were so slovenly that they didn't change the rushes all
year, but that was probably an exaggerated complaint about his poor lodging.
Herbs and Spices were also often incorporated into ceremony, strewn before
kings and queens at their coronations, bridal couples, and funerals. Our
tradition of the flower-girl at a wedding descends from this practice. Accounts
of a Scandinavian queen who squandered a fortune in spices strewing the streets
for her father's funeral survive.
In Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry he suggests
basil, lemon balm, camomile, costmary, cowslips, dasies, fennel, germander,
hops, lavender, spike lavender, santolina, sweet marjoram, maudelin (ageratum?),
pennyroyal, roses, red mint, sage, tansy, violets, and winter savory. Gerard
in his herbal, mentions queen of the meadow (meadowsweet), violets, and gilliflowers
(carnations and pinks). He also says: "The savor or smell of the water Mint
[a red-leaved mint similar to orange bergamot mint, Mentha citrata)] rejoyceth
the heart of man, for which cause they use to strew it in chambers and places
of recreation, pleasure, and repose, and where feasts and banquets are made."
We are not sure whether strewing herbs were always used fresh, or were sometimes
used dried-- but it seems likely that dried herbs were used in winter. Nor
are we certain whether only one kind of plant at a time or a mixture
of the most available, pleasant scented plants was used. My suspicion was
that whatever pleasantly scented plants were available would have been used
in the house.
Tusser also suggests wormwood seed (and perhaps wormwood herb and rue
herb) to get rid of fleas:
"While wormwood hath seed, get a bundle or twain,
Gerard suggests that people used psyllium seed for the same purpose but
that it was not effective.
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."
Peter Brears gives an elaborate accounting of the custom of strewing rushes:
"As for the rushes, they would most probably have been the common rush, Juncus,
whose clumps of tapering tubular green stems grow two feet or more in
height . . . Their main use then was as a floor-covering. Even though
many rooms in the palace were fitted with mats made of bulrushes--
plaited into four-inche strips, then stitched together to make them up
to the required size . . . loose rushes continued to be strewn. Writing
to Wolsey's physician, Erasmus had described English floors as having
accumulations of up to twenty years' rushes, stinking with the vilest
mass of filth and rotting vegetable matter, but neither archaeology nor
any contemporary evidence can confirm this. Nicolò di Favri of
the Venetian embassy more accurately observed 'In England . . . every
eight or ten days they put down a fresh layer; the cost of each layer
being half a Venetian livre, more or less, according to the size of the
To keep the rushes clean, the three grooms who were responsible for
strewing them in Edward VI's Privy Chamber each morning had to sweep
away all those that were matted, while the description of Queen
Elizabeth's presence chamber strewn with rushes (which he mistook for
straw) given by Paul Hentzner of Brandenburg . . . and Ben Jonson's
'ladies and gallants languishing upon the Rushes' show them to have
been a clean and relatively high-status floorcovering. Certainly,
a monarch as fastidious as Henry VIII would never have allowed masses
of stinking rushes to lie about his palace. In practice, the Juncus
type of rushes provide a warm insulating layer, quiet to walk upon, and
give any room a delightfully moist and piquant scent . . . In addition,
they help to contain the dust, grit, grease and small litter, leaving
the floor quite clean when they are swept out with a broom, and so
making them the ideal covering for rooms such as the Great Hall at
It was the custom to offer spices and wine after the meal. Sometimes
this was wine with spices added, but in the later period it would be comfits
and suckets of spices covered in sugar, offered with a spiced wine such
as hypocras or clary. Making up such spiced drinks might be the task of
an officer of the household, or a lady or gentleman in waiting.
Le Menagier de Paris's recipe for hypocras:
HIPPOCRAS. To make powdered hippocras, take a
quarter-ounce of very fine cinnamon, hand-picked by tasting it, an ounce
of very fine meche ginger and an ounce of grains of paradise, a sixth of
an ounce of nutmeg and galingale together, and pound it all together. And
when you want to make hippocras, take a good half-ounce or more of this
powder and two quarter-ounces of sugar, and mix them together, and a quart
of wine as measured in Paris.
The most common sugared comfits, judging for authorities such as Shakespeare
and others, would be sugared caraways or coriander, but other spices were
sugared as well. Caraways in particular were served at the end of the meal
with an apple, perhaps a baked apple. These sugared spices freshened the breath
and relieved gas.
Suckets made from lemon or orange peel, quinces or even lettuce stalks were
also resorted to.
Rumpolt's Ein Neu Kochbuch suggested the following candied spices
and nuts: almonds, anise, cinnamon-bark, cloves, coriander, caraway, fennel,
pine nut, walnut, hazelnut, peach kernel, citron peel, apricot kernel, plum
kernel, cherry kernel, chestnus, lime/lemon peel, sour orange peel, pimpernel
root, elecampan root, violet root, ginger. Nutmegs and other spices turn up
In order to combat the dangerous odors that people knew were concommitant
with illness, fumigants were often used. Rosemary and rue in particular
were burned to combat the spread of plague and other diseases.
Perfumes, Pomanders and Incense
Perfumes were applied to the body or carried in the form of a pomander;
rooms were also perfumed by burning or heating scented substances. Courtiers
might expect to make use of these scents and also to care for and give as
gifts such scents to their superiors.
Gervase Markham's English Housewife gives divers recipes for scenting
gloves, jerkins and other leather clothing. Such scents might include roses
and orris as well as the animal scents of ambergris, musk and civet.
Elizabethans carried tussie-mussies or nosegays of strongly and healthfully
scented flowers and herbs to smell unto for protection from illness, and such
small bouquets might be made up as gifts as well, though the tradition of
sending flowers had its heyday after our period.
Another scented accessory used to chase away disease was the pomander. Pomanders
were generally made from resin, earth or wax, mingled with scented substances.
Scented resins such as labdanum, frankincense, benjamin, storax and myrrh,
and rose oil featured heavily in these concoctions, which were generally carried
in cases because they were quite ugly. Elizabeth I of England was given
a girdle of pomanders.
Should your sovereign's favorite pomander lose its scent, Ram's Little Dodoen
gives a recipe for restoring it:
Take one grain of Civet, and two of Musk, or if you double the
proportion, it will bee so much sweeter; grinde them upon a stone with a little
Rose-water; and after wetting your hands with Rose-water you may work the
same in your Pomander. This is a sleight to pass away an old Pomander; but
my intention is honest.
Scented oils or distilled waters of flowers and/or herbs were sometimes
heated or burnt to provide a pleasant and or soothing scent. William Lawson,
in 1600, suggested: ""The rather because abundance of Roses and Lavender,
yeeld much profit, and comfort to the senses: Rose-water, Lavender, the one
cordial (as also the Violets; Burrage [borage] and Bugloss) the other
reviving the spirits by the sence of smelling, both most durable for smell,
both in flowers and water."
To make perfume to burn:
Take half a pound of Damask Rose-buds, Benjamin [benzoin] 3 ounces beaten
to a powder, half a quarter of an ounce of Musk and as much of Ambergris,
the like of Civet. Beat all these together in a stone Mortar, then put in
an ounce of Sugar, and make it up in Cakes and dry them by the fire."
From Sir Kenelm Digby, Reciepts in Physick and Chirurgery, 1668.
"Comforting tablets for perfume
Courbaril, aloe, rose sugar, grease, southernwood resin and storax. Grind
everything in a mortar, as much of (each) one as the other in equal parts.
And make them into a paste with musk-perfumed water to make your tablets.
From Manual De Mugeres, translation by Karen Larsdatter
It was the custom to add botanicals to the bath, not only for health
reasons (to combat body aches, etc.) but also to provide a pleasant odor.
Since kings and others of high rank had courtiers to wait on them in the
bath and in other private functions, knowing how to conduct the bath was
something a courtier might need.
From John Russell's Boke of Nuture: "To give your soveriegn a
'bathe or a stewe so-called,' you should have ready 'a basin full in your
hand of herbs hot and fresh and with a soft sponge in hand his body...wash'.
Quoted by Margaret Freeman in Herbs for the Medieval Household.
Baths also were significant in the traditional rite of knighthood, when,
according to various authorities, the candidate took a bath and was instructed
on the duties of the knight.
- Brears, Peter. All the King's
Cooks: the Tudor kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace.
(London : Souvenir Press, 1999)
- de Nola, Libro de Guisados, manjares y potajes, 1529, translation
by Robin Carroll-Mann in webpage A Feast at Carrick Fergus http://www.netcolony.com/arts/mkcooks/afeastatcarrickfergus.html
- de Worde, Wynkyn. Book of Kervyng. Published as part of the
Manners and meals in olden time. Also portions online at: http://milkmama.tripod.com/kervynge2.html
- Furnivall, Frederick. Manners and meals in olden time, normally
called "The babees book, Aristotle's A B C, Urbanitatis &tc."
after the included texts. Early English Text Society series #32 (London,
N. Trübner & Co., 1868)
- "Fifteenth-century courtesy book ... and Two fifteenth-century franciscan
rules", reprinted in Manners and meals in olden time, online at:
- Gerard, John. Leaves from Gerard's Herball: arranged for garden
lovers. edited by Marcus Woodward (Peter Smith, 1990).
- Gies, Frances & Joseph. Life in a Medieval Castle (NY:
Perennial, June 1979).
- Henisch, Bridget: Fast and feast : food in medieval society. (University
Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976)
Little Children's Little Book, Published as part of the Manners
and meals in olden time. excerpt webbed on the Geoffrey Chauncer web
- Mead, William Edward. The English Medieval Feast. (NY: Barnes
& Noble, 1967). Originally published in the 1930s. Do not use this
for a food reference-- it's full of misinformed generalities which drive
SCA cooks mad.
- A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the fourteenth century.
(from Le menagier de Paris) Trans. & edited by Tania Bayard.
(NY: HarperCollins, 1991) Also see Le Menagier de Paris. online version
of an 1844 English translation of the food related portions: http://www.best.com/~ddfr/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html
- Le Menagier de Paris. online version of an 1844 English translation:
- Parkinson, John. A Garden of Pleasant Flowers:
Paradisi in Sole. 1629. (NY: Dover Publications, 1991.)
- Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies. 1609. edited by Violet and
Hall Trovillion from the 1627 edition. (Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press,
1939) portions online at: http://infotrope.net/sca/texts/delights-for-ladies/
- Rhodes, Hugh. The Book of Nuture, 1577, Published as
part of Manners and meals in olden time. Portions online at: http://www.saradouglass.com/primdocs/serv.html
- Rumpolt, Max. Ein New Kochbuch. 1581 A translation of Rumpolt's
section on sugared comfits, by M. Grasse: http://clem.mscd.edu/~grasse/GK_zucker1.htm
- The School of Vertue, and booke of good nurture, teaching children
and youth their duties. Imprinted at London by H. Denham, 1582.
- Stefan's Florilegium page on Aquamaniles: http://www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-UTENSILS/aquamaniles-msg.text
- Tusser, Thomas. His Good Points of Husbandry,
1557. Published 1931 by Country Life Limited, London; edited by
Copyright, 2003-2004, Jennifer A Heise. For permission to reprint, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used. Jadwiga's Herb site: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html