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.


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 begin.
A cleane towell then on the table spread, a towell wanting the cloth take instead:
The Basin and Ewer to the Table bring, in place convenient to their pleasure abiding.
When thou shalt see them ready to wash, the Ewer take up, and be not too rash
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:

"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."

De Nola, 1529, gives a description of how to do handwashing:
"On the Mode and Manner in Which One Must Offer Water for Washing the Hands
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."

The Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book says:
"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:
  1. Have a long towel draped over your left shoulder.
  2. Place the ewer (pitcher) inside the basin, and cover it with a towel.
  3. Bring the assemblage into the hall and make obesiance to the highest ranking person.
  4. The towel should be spread in front of the person to be served.
  5. The basin is placed on the ewer.
  6. The person holds their hands over the basin.
  7. The server pours water over the person's hands.
  8. The ewer and basin are removed, and the/a towell handed to the person to dry the hands.

Strewing Herbs

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,
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."
Gerard suggests that people used psyllium seed for the same purpose but that it was not effective.

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 house.'

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 Hampton Court."

After-dinner spices

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 coated elsewhere.


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

Scented Baths

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.


Copyright, 2003-2004, Jennifer A Heise. For permission to reprint, email jahb@lehigh.edu
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