Waist Deep in Straw…It’s a Good Thing.

At Home in the 16th century

In even the best [medieval] houses, ?oors were generally just bare earth strewn with rushes, harboring “spittle and vomit and urine of dogs and men, beer that hath been cast forth and remnants of ?shes and other ?lth unmen­tionable,” as the Dutch theologian and traveler Desiderius Erasmus rather crisply summarized in 1524. New layers of rushes were laid down twice a year normally, but the old accretions were seldom removed, so that, Eras­mus added glumly, “the substratum may be unmolested for twenty years.” The ?oors were in effect a very large nest, much appreciated by insects and furtive rodents, and a perfect incubator for plague. Yet a deep pile of ?ooring was generally a sign of prestige. It was common among the French to say of a rich man that he was “waist deep in straw.”

Bare earth ?oors remained the norm in much of rural Britain and Ire­land until the twentieth century. “The ‘ground ?oor’ was justly named,” as the historian James Ayres has put it. Even after wood or tile ?oors began to grow common in superior homes, at about the time of William Shake­speare, carpets were too precious to be placed underfoot. They were hung on the walls or laid over tables. Often, however, they were kept in chests and brought out only to impress special visitors.

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