Rush matting – from rags to riches

grand-natte en jonc st bernard 1153

Fragment of the rush mat Saint Bernard laid upon when he died in 1153 in his abbey of Clairvaux. The humble sleeping mat seem to be tabby weave with two-ply spun rush twine warp and rush weft. Measurements are lacking,but my guess is c. 30 by 80 cm. Only the stricter monastic orders demanded the use of such mats for sleeping. This fragment is kept as a reliquary in Cathédrale Saint-Etienne de Châlons-en-Champagne. Photo: © Région Champagne-Ardenne, Jacques Philippot.

Writing the first part of his epic pilgrimage trilogy in the 1330ies  Guillaume de Deguileville let his protagonist meet a humble mat-maker (fr: nattier, often wrongly translated with net-maker after the medieval English translation), personifying industriousness.

f. 44r Guillaume Digulleville and Toil Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 1130

Deguileville’s protagonist meeting the mat-maker sewing[?] braids together to form a sleeping mat. Illumination c. 1370. From Guillaume de Deguileville’s Le Pèlerinage de Vie Humaine. Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, MS. 1130, fol 44r.

When asked by the protagonist why he carried on the humble employment of mat-maker, «Je voi que t’ez mis à natier Qui est vil et povre mestier«, he replied that he ought not to be blamed for so doing. It is not everyone who can make gold crowns:

An honest trade is not to be despised, however humble, provided it is pursued with diligence, since labour is good for its own sake. The protagonist expresses surprise at his answer, saying he had looked upon him as a silly old man. To this the mat-maker replies that it was generally the case that he who did not wear fine clothing was held in little estimation; and that a foolish man, well dressed, was more prized than a poor man with much learning.


Another French MS showing a braided rush sleeping mat. Henri Ferrieres, Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio, qui parle des deduis et de pestilence. BnF, MS fr 12399, fol. 99r. Dated 1379, original written 1354–1376. Via the Medieval Hunt.

This is an extremely rare mention of the craft of mat-maker, a humble and rural craft, found near by where the common club-rush or other rushes grew. While this craft is all but timeless, with 77 000 years old sleeping mats  found in Africa and traces of bronze age braided rush matting  found in East Bourne in East Sussex, we still have to demonstrate their existence in any given period, and not just assume their presence and kind of use. What, then, was the situation in late medieval Western Europe?

The image of rush weaving is found in the oldest extant versions of Deguileville’s text, dating back second quarter of the 14th century. (Morgan library, MS M.1038 fol. 55v. Northern France). This is the oldest illustration I’ve found of rush sleeping mats in Western Europe. The image is often misidentified, as illustrated by the text accompanying the image in the 1348 Morgan library MS M. 772, probably Flemish:  «wearing hood, sits and pulls apart woven mat». fol 42v

Despite of the lack of images, written sources and Guillaume’s choice demonstrates beyond doubt that mat-making was considered a well established and common craft in France by the time of writing.

Braided rush mats as bedding

Braided rush mats are primarily found as bedding in medieval Europe. Their use in living history circles are sourced by Peter in his posts on sleeping arrangements for munks and sleeping arrangements for soldiers. In The Medieval Hunt, Johan toutches the subject in a post on hiking equipment. But could the mats be put to other uses as well?

Braided rush as floor mats and beyond


‘Chastity’ (with staff) and ‘poverty’ serving the pilgrim by remaking his bed in an infirmary,It is not clear if the use in this instance is part of the infirmary bedding or a floor cover. illumination c. 1370 from Guillaume de Deguileville, Le Pèlerinage de Vie Humaine, Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, MS. 1130, fol 83, more floor covers like these are found on fol 86 and 86v. Ironically, in spite of the male coded dress on ‘poverty’, the image is often used to illustrate female work, possibly based on Sally Fox, The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days.

It is commonly accepted that straw and rushes was strewn on Western European floors in the middle ages. This is supported bu sources: For example, the The Household roll of Edward II (1307–1327) show that some John de Carlford was paid for «a supply of rushes for strewing the Kings chamber». The London council brought «Rushes» in 1332, and during the 14th and 15th centuries the city saw an ever stricter regulation of the trade with rushes: In 1372 it was outlawed to throw «rushes» in the Thames; In 1379 a 2 s fee pt «rush-boat» is mentioned;  in 1416 rushes was to be sold by the cartload, and the carts were to be filled on the boats, not on the pier;  in 1419 «rush-boats» were confiscated. The London sources point toward toward loose unbraided rushes.

In living history circles, there’s been attempts to postulate an interpretation of ‘rushes’ as ‘rush matting’ among the rich. There is, however, little doubt that a transition from  loose straws to rush mats took place, and this transition seem to have happened on the continent before England: When describing the backwardness of England in this matter, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) is often cited. According to Thurley 1993 it was only in Tudor times rush mats was starting to replace loose straws in England, «mostly made in Southwark, in strips sewn together and close fitted.»(s. 230).

If we interpret the image from Deguileville correctly, it is the infirmaries, sleeping quarters, we first see this kind of floor covering venturing out from under the beds. By the early 15th century we see them in the continental reception quarters of the extremely rich, as in Les tres riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Braided rush mats then, went from being sleeping mats for the poor to floor covering for the rich.

Sources and litterature

  • Rush mat on urban bedroom floor, Jean Mansel, La Fleur des histoires, c. 1450. Paris, BnF, Ms. fr. 297, fol. 1.
W141_000099_sap Industry and Idleness

«Pilgrim with Industry and Idleness» c. 1370, Guillaume de Deguileville’s Le pèlerinage de la vie humaine, Walters Ms. W.141, f. 48.

f. 57r, Guillaume Digulleville, and Toil

«Guillaume de Deguileville et Labeur». The pilgrim speaking with ‘industriousness’. Guillaume de Deguileville, Pèlerinage de vie humaine, 1400-1410. BnF, MS fr. 829, f. 57r.

  • Saint Bernard‘s sleeping mat, Clairvaux before 1153, see above.
  • The 17th c. Hampton Court Palace-fragment considered to be Bulrush. – «[in the age of Henry VIII] The rest of the Palace’s floors were covered in scented rushes which were changed every 8-10 days but would still often smell of ‘leakages of men, cats and dogs’. Later in his reign rush matting was used rather than loose rushes«
  • The mid 17th c. fragment at Haddon Hall has the braids sewn together with straw. Material not identified but looks like True Bulrush. From Hardwick.
Haddon hall rush fragment

Rush floor mat fragment at Haddon Hall museum marked «Hardwick Matting», mid 17th c.. Via Living in the past.

  • Virginija Rimkuté 2009, «The Neolithic Mats of the Eastern Baltic Littoral«, in North European Symposium for Archaelogical Textiles 10.
  • French reconstructed 16th c. lordly bed chamber covered with braided rush, based on the painting a lady in her bath c. 1570.
  • Dorothy Wright 1977 (1992), «Rush», i The Complete Book of Basketry. – describe braided mats as an ancient tradition, while basketry with rush braids cannot be traced back further than the 19th c. Club Rush is the most common rush used. Juncus Effusus is also used, but does not have as good tensile strength.
  • Marco Nievergelt, Stephanie A. Viereck Gibbs (red.) 2013, The Pèlerinage Allegories of Guillaume de Deguileville: Tradition, Authority …
  • Wim Hüsken 1996, «Rushbearing: a forgotten British custom», English parish drama.,
  • Jane Fawseth 1998, Rush Matting. – Mentions sources for rush mats from the Tudor period, citing Christopher Gilbert et. al 1987, Country House Floors, 1650 – 1850. Before the rush mats, they speak of strewn rushes or scented herbs.
  • Elizabeth Morrison, Anne Dawson Hedeman 2010, Imagining the Past in France: History in Manuscript Painting, 1250-1500.
  • Colum Hourihane 2012, The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, – For England floor carpets are mentioned in 1255, when Eleanor of Castilla came to  Westminster. «Rushes and sweet herbs» was the most common, while rush matting, plaited and then stitched to the appropriate size, was not uncommon in great households.»  Selected bibliography: T.B. James 1990, The Palaces of Medieval England c. 1050 – 1550. J. Scofield 1994, Medieval London Houses. A. Emery 1996, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales 1300 – 1500.
  • Michael Camille 1985, The illustrated manuscripts of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinages, 1330-1426, PhD dissertation Cambridge.
  • Lisa Cooper 2007, «‘Marky … off the Workman’: Heresy, Hagiography, and the Heavens in The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man», i Lydgate Matters: Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century –  ser nettopp på hvordan håndverkerfigurer oversettes fra fransk til engelsk.
  • Bibliography on Guillaume de Deguileville, Le Pèlerinage.
  • Sally Fox, The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days.
  • Toni Mount 2015, Everyday Life in Medieval London, via Medievalists: – “The ditty: ‘Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’ dates from medieval times. ‘Sleep tight” refers to the ropes beneath the mattress that were strung through the bed frame – they had to be tightened to stop the mattress from sagging. Mattresses could be stuffed with feathers, horsehair, sheep’s wool or rags, with lavender, fleabane or some other bug-repellent herb included between the mattress and the woven mat prevented the mattress from bulging down between the ropes.”
  • Simon Thurley 1993, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England: Architecture and Court Life, 1460-1547.

Nordic sources and literature

  • Oseberggraven. nr. 297.  Fragmenter av en matte av bast. Den foreligger i en saa daarlig tilstand at den oprindelige form ikke kan angives. Som restene nu foreligger, ser den ut til at ha været ca. 87 cm lang og ca. 28 cm bred, men disse maal kan ikke tillægges nogen stor værdi. Hvordan matten har været flettet, kan ikke angives, men efter de foreliggende rester ser det ut til at den er flettet saavel av langsgaaende som tversgaaende trevler av bast. Den er nu stekt opløst.
  • Oseberg nr. 58. Det er en rund straafletning og nogen fragmenter av grovere kurvfletning. Det førstnævnte stykke er vel sandsynligvis bunden av en liten kurv eller noget lignende. Det er nu defekt og har antagelig hat en diameter på ca. 10 cm. De øvrige fragmenter er fra 9 cm og nedover. Fandtes in undbrudslaget.
  • In prehistoric Denmark loose straw is found in burned dwellings: «Et mønster ved brente hus er at det over kullbitene på gulvet ble funnet et lag av strå eller gress».
  • Possible rush mat production in the transition between late bronse age and pre roman iron age in relation to seed from Juncus Conglomeratus (no: knappsiv) which was popular for mat production.
  • Book on practical rush braiding (only Norwegian IPs).
  • «Lyssiv» i Sverre Bakkevig 1979, Nyttevekster fra fortid og nåtid, AmS småtrykk. – som lys, og til barns fletting av miniatyrkurver og sivbåter. Han omtaler ikke kurv- eller mattefletting som håndverk og nevner ikke sjøsivaks som er mest utbredt på Østlandet.
  • «Lyssiv» i Birgitta Carlberg 1980 Nyttevekster i ny og gammel tid, Cappelen. Norsk oversettelse av svensk original. – lys, men også kurver og asker, og til barneleik. Sjøsivaks (Scirpus Lacustris [senere Schoenoplectus lacustris]) beskrives brukt til fletting. Korger flettes hovedsaklig av sjøsivaks.
  • Erland Borglund 1960, Modeller i halm og siv, norsk oversettelse av svensk original – omtaler fletting i sjøsivaks (Scirpus Lacustris), men nevner at også lyssiv kan brukes.
  • Ena Lunde 1970, Sivfletting, Fabritius – Omtaler fletting i sjøsivaks. Arbeid med smale og brede fletter. Sistnevnte er gjerne sju-fletter, men ALLTID med oddetall (curses).
  • Oskar Garstein 1990, Mariu-Klaustr i Höfudey. Cisterienserklosteret på Hovedøya …, Oslo Katedralskole.


  • On dampening to reduce wear on rush matting – including assumptions on rush mats for the rich and loose straw for the poorer.
  • Schoenoplectus lacustris No: Sjøsivaks; fr: Jonc des chaisiers, Jonc-des-tonneliers, Scirpe aigu; eng: common club-rush, lakeshore bulrush, true bulrush
  • Acorus calamus, Sweet Flag, is assumed by some to be used for mat making, depending on whether the plant was introduced in the late 16th century or earlier.

  • Video on braiding.
  • Lyssiv i artsdatabanken. Tynt.
  • Sjøsivaks (Scirpus Lacustris senere Schoenoplectus lacustris) i artsdatabanken. Blant annet forekomst ved Dæhlivann (landskapsvernområde), Bogstadvannet, Tjernsrudtjernet (2008), Nesøya, Leangen, Semsvannet, Fornebu, Nøklevann i Østmarka.
  • Ben Ski’s straw mats on Pinterest.

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