Whenever I’m tempted to gripe about doing piles of laundry, I remind myself that I really don’t have it all that bad. After all, the washer and dryer are really doing most of the work. I’m just moving the piles around and folding them. I don’t even have to move them that far—from one floor of my house to the next. Our medieval counterparts certainly didn’t have that luxury, or many others that we don’t give much thought to. So in honor of my growing laundry pile, I thought today’s post would answer the question of “how would I have done it back then.”
First, I would have needed a source of water. The most common source would have been a nearby body of water—preferably moving water, like a river or stream if there wasn’t a community wash house. Laundry would have to be hauled there and either beat against rocks, or with a washing bat or beetle. These were basically sticks used for moving cloth around in the water or for hitting it. In time, the fabric would come clean, even without the use of soaps.
Laundry was unquestionably women’s work. It therefore became a social event where women could exchange news, information, and plenty of gossip. Doing laundry was time consuming and labor intensive, so it was not something that was done every day, or even once a week. If you were wealthy, you might have an extensive enough wardrobe to change into clean clothes more often. The poor did not have that advantage. Laundry was saved up and washed once a month—maybe once every several months.
Undergarments were washed more frequently, sometimes in a wooden tub at home. Delicate fabrics and expensive garments would be soaked in tubs as well rather than being beaten against rocks or with beetles. A plant called soapwort or other herbs like marjoram could be used in the water to clean and deodorize fabric. To brighten white cloth, lye was used (a mixture including ash and urine). Plenty of advice and recipes still exist that tell how to remove stains, some as simple as soaking the stain in verjuice, others far more complex and involving many days-worth of work.
Washed laundry was dried on a pole in front of the fire, hung outdoors on bushes, ropes, or wooden frames, or laid out flat on the grass. The sun had a natural bleaching affect on white linens. If there was enough space, laundry would be dried indoors in poor weather.
Robes and cloaks were sometimes rubbed with wax to weatherproof them, but this process would have been too expensive for peasants who would have worn felted wool instead. Outer garments were not washed very often. They would simply be shaken or beaten with a brush or a bundle of twigs to get rid of dust and dirt, then re-worn until they could eventually be washed.
Here are some fourteenth century laundry instructions from A Medieval Home Companion, written down by an elderly Frenchman to his new young wife. (This is a fascinating book that I highly recommend if you can get a copy of it.)
“If there is any spot of oil or other grease, this is the remedy: Take urine and heat it until it is warm, and soak the spot in it for two days. Then, without twisting it, squeeze out the part of the dress with the spot. If the spot is not gone, have Dame Agnes the Beguine put it in other urine, beat in ox gall, and do as before. Or you can do this: Have fuller’s earth soaked in lye and then put it on the spot. Let it dry, and then rub it. If the earth doesn’t come off easily, have it moistened in the lye, let it dry again, and rub until it goes away. Or, if you don’t have any fuller’s earth, have ashes soaked in lye and put those well-moistened ashes on the spot. Or have very clean chicken feathers soaked in very hot water to get rid of any grease they have picked up. Wet them again in clean water, rub the spot on the dress well once more, and all the stains will go away.
To take stains out of dresses of silk, satin, camlet, silk damask, or other material: soak and wash the stain in verjuice and it will go away. Even though the dress is faded, the color will come back, although I don’t really believe this. Verjuice: At the time when the new verjuice is made, one should take a glass vial of it, without salt, and keep it, because it is useful for taking spots out of dresses and bringing back their color. It is always good, new or old.
Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover more topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.