Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And you thought your floor was dirty

by Niki Turner

We've put a man on the moon. We've created vaccinations to combat some of the most vile diseases. We can communicate with each other at least as well as the Jetsons and Star Trek (although I'm still waiting for Rosie the robot maid and that transporter thingy).

This was the thought that occurred to me as I swished my mop across my kitchen floor Saturday afternoon. In spite of the advances in technology -- from automated homes to cars that park themselves -- if I want my kitchen floor to be clean, I still have to mop it.

It could be worse, though. As a preteen, I distinctly recall pulling the following book off a shelf at my local library (based entirely on the cover, which for all of us who write, should stand as a reminder...) It
was a wonderful story. A kind of Oliver Twist tale with a charming (and obviously memorable) female lead.

Linnet by Sally Watson via Amazon
What's funny is that one of the primary recollections I have of this story is the author's description of the floors in the London manor house where the heroine was lodged. Why? Because I didn't know what "rushes" were, exactly.

Back in those pre-Internet days, if you had a question about something, you didn't just "Google it" to find the answer. Sometimes, the answer required deeper digging than even your local library or your parents' outdated set of encyclopedias had to offer.

As a result, I never did find out what those "rushes" were. Until now.

Our esteemed Inky leader recently asked us to share a list of our favorite books. For lovers of books, that's a HARD question. When you can consume a book in four hours or less, you tend to forget little details like title and author, sad to say. I closed my eyes and tried to think of books that have stuck with me over the years. Linnet was among them, and immediately, the "rushes" question returned. Armed with Internet access, I Googled it. (Stop laughing ... you've done the same.)

Saddleworth church, rushes on floorThe result? I stumbled into a debate. *sigh* At some point in my life I would like to set out to research something that ISN'T up for debate.

The traditional theory is that fresh cut greens or straw, usually with herbs added, were scattered loosely across the floors of medieval homes as a sort of carpet. In Linnet, the household where the heroine found herself was the modern equivalent of a crack house. As such, the rushes were soiled with leftover food and animal excrement and who-knows-what. Rodents used the dirty rushes as cover when they scavenged for food. Frequent replacement of the rushes was considered a sign of prosperity and proper housekeeping.

The debate centers around whether rushes were loosely scattered, like straw in a stable, or woven into nicely civilized mats that wouldn't catch on the floor-length skirts worn by women at the time.
Debate or not ... I come back to the same problem. In thousands of years of human civilization, whether we're talking about putting in a fresh layer of elephant dung and letting it dry to create a nice hard floor, or my ridiculously stained synthetic fiber carpet, or changing out the rushes and mixing in some nice smelling herbs, the process of keeping the floor clean has not kept up with technology. We're still relegated to the broom, the mop, and (in the last century) the vacuum.
Mop photo by rudenoon via PhotoRee

What unresolved questions plague you in your historical reading and/or research?


  1. Most recently?


    Yes, my heroine is in a dark room. She has a candle. She needs to light it. Its 1837.

    Of course, she reached for a match... then I thought I'd better check it out before I ahem 'Struck' out, and I snatched them out of her hand.

    Sure, various types of matches were around but it would have been so unlikely for her to have access to them I had to leave her in the dark.

    Matches were very expensive and highly dangerous until at least mid century.

    I apologized to her and went out the door and flipped on my electric light. Sorry, sister, you were born in the wrong century.

  2. Linnet!!! I remember that book. Wow, never met anyone else who read it. I think I picked it from the library, too, because I'djust read Robinhood, so was enamored ouf all things medieval. Wasn't she more Elizabethan, though, I guess?

    As for historical details? Sunday it was jars or bottles for preserving. Found yes to both, had to pick one to make editor happy. Decided jars because too difficult to explain scooping from a bottle.

    Monday: Would woman from Piedmont of VA call the mountains Appalachia or Blue Ridge. Gina is still wrong. It's not Appalachia, Shenandoah Valley, Appalachia; it's Blue Ridge, Valley, Alleghenies making up part of Appalachians. Took some time and searching on Google Books. Answer? Yes. Take my pick. The names hadn't been settled upon yet.

  3. Debra, she didn't have to stay in the dark. They had these cool things named strike-a-lights that kind of looked like little pistols that snapped a bit of steel against flint and made a spark. That spark ignited "charcloth" which was soaked in oil. Whoosh and flame lights candle. Probably simple to those knowing how to do it and with practice at it.

  4. You're right Laurie Alice but she didn't have one provided for her in her locked 'cell'. She's not having a very good day.

  5. Funny, Niki. Maybe after a while they'll perfect that little roomba robot thingy so it will actually clean and compensate for different types of flooring.

    I haven't worked on a historical for a while, but rushes were very much a part of my medieval. I'm sure they weren't woven in the giant great halls of the old stone castles. And I do think that unless the lady of the house was strict, they would have grown quite rancid from all the live animals and throwing scraps on the floor.

    My peasants had dirt floors. One of the reasons I chose the 1300s was because there were so many changes and advances. Europe was moving from the dark ages and towards the Renaissance. So by the end of the book, which spans 21 years, the lord of the manor is replacing the wattle and daub peasant huts with actual cottages with wooden floors. Which probably didn't happen in much of England for another 50 or 100 years. But, I figure progress has to start somewhere. Why not in my fictional village?

  6. This morning I kept hitting the snooze button on my alarm. What did we ever do before snooze buttons, and really, what did one do to wake up on time if the didn't have roosters, servants, or a grandfather clock? Of course, the didn't live in the fast-paced world we do now, but how did they get to church on time?

  7. Typos, aaack. How could I leave the y off 'they' twice in a row? Why doesn't Blogger have spell check? What on earth did we do without it?

  8. Deb, your poor heroine. I had that same kind of day myself yesterday! Good point about the matches. Ah, those little modern conveniences we take for granted. Like Kleenex.

  9. Squeee! Laurie Alice!!! You are likewise the first person I've met who read Linnet! Have you read any of Sally Watson's other books? They are difficult to find. It was more Elizabethan than medieval in setting, and from what I read about rushes, they went out of fashion in the Elizabethan era. I may have to reread Linnet to see what those rushes were doing in there!

  10. Charcloth. *sigh* My wanna-be mountain man son made himself a container of charcloth he carries around in his backpack survival kit with his flint. In case his matches get wet or his lighter is out of butane.
    Anybody want a rather unusual 18-year-old? This morning I reached for a Ziploc bag in the fridge looking for lunch-makings and came across and inside-out weasel skin he's in the process of fleshing. Ew.

  11. Dina, as a fan of J.D. Robb futuristic suspense, I've noticed that over the years many of the gadgets and techie advances heroine Eve Dallas has in the early books are actually appearing in REAL-LIFE these days. Maybe I should write something about a self-cleaning floor...

  12. LOL Suzie. I have this feeling that if we went to bed at dark we'd get up in time in the morning without aid!

  13. And the idea that people went to bed with the sun and rose with the sun is a myth. Maybe one day I'll do a whole historical blog post on the history of sleep.

    No, haven't read any more of her books, but I still would if I run across them. I occasionally read children's and YA books.

  14. Yes, I have read that they were up in the night, but still, I like the natural rhythms of their lives.

  15. The Blue Ridge Mts. are the eastern most ridge, then the Shenandoah Valley, then the Alleghenies. Together they make up the Appalachian Mts range in VA. Although in my kids' schools, they often omit Alleghenies and just use Appalachians for that western ridge and for the range as a whole.

    I didn't say Appalachin, valley, Appalacian. I said Appalacian, valley, Blue Ridge (from west to east). Then I said when referring to the specific western ridge (if that's the one Laurie's VA charater was referring to) then call it Blue Ridge not Appalachian.

    I still think that people native to VA would distingusih between the Blue Ridge mtns and the Appalachians, even though as a whole they are the same.

  16. alarm clocks, Suzie? For those of you who need alarm clocks, you would have had to have "morning people" in your employ. I don't know who trained who, but at my house the dog and cat know exactly what time breakfast should be served. 5am or anytime I roll over after 4.

    Niki, I could live without kleenex if I could keep toothbrushes. How come people in historical novels never have to floss?

  17. Gina, whatever you call them, they're beatiful. One time when I visited VA, and took the train home, the train stopped in the mountains along the Shenandoah River to make repairs. It was autumn, and we were sitting for awhile, but I didn't mind because it was stunningly beautiful. I long to see it again. We don't have fall leaves like that here.

  18. We like to take the kids up to the Blue Ridge in October because that's the prime viewing of the autumn foliage. The talk-radio station here tells when the optimum viewing is. Rather like the cherry blossoms in DC (April).

    We've stood looking over a ledge and literally been speechless. The various shades for red, orange, yellow, brown, and green . . . breathtaking. Nothing like that happens by accident. A Creator painted that for our pleasure.

    There's a number of horse ranches/stables/farms in the valley too.

    And vineyards.

  19. Oh, Gina, I couldn't agree more. God meant for us to enjoy and marvel in his creation.

  20. Concerning floss and toothbrushes, I think (and Laurie Alice will likely stop back to tell me I'm wrong ;) they had pointed sticks to scrape their teeth with.

  21. I can't remember the book, but one of the characters cut off a twig and chewed on it until it was almost like a brush to clean his/her teeth. I could probably handle that IF the twig tasted like mint.

    And I remember reading that the Native Americans failed to understand why the white man wanted to keep his snot in a rag in his pocket. I have no idea if that's true, but it sure makes for a funny mental picture.

  22. Laurie, you SHOULD do that! Here, at Inkwell Inspirations! Hint. Hint.

  23. Grr, I was on here yesterday and had my little computer breakdown issues, so my comment didn't save!

    Well, I said:
    great post Niki! I learned some fun stuff!

    And basically, if I were in a time machine, I wouldn't go without a medical kit containing antibiotics and a toothbrush. :-)

  24. Ooh, Susie, antibiotics. Excellent idea!


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