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Handwashing-art - 2/24/02


"Scented Handwaters For Feasts and Dayboards" by Mistress Jadwiga Zajaczkowa.


NOTE: See also the files: herbs-msg, herb-uses-msg, p-manners-msg, soap-msg, aquamaniles-msg, tablecloths-msg, feast-serving-msg, high-table-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:



Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Scented Handwaters For Feasts and Dayboards

by Mistress Jadwiga Zajaczkowa


The myth of the medieval feastgoer as a dirty, slovenly, bad-smelling and poorly-behaved lout is generally discredited in the SCA. Medieval and period books of manners demonstrate that not only were medieval diners more, rather than less, formal than modern diners-- they were also, sometimes, more scented! For instance, diners were offered scented handwashing water, a custom which survived into the twentieth century as 'finger bowls'. Providing scented handwaters for your SCA diners can add a touch of period graciousness to your dayboard or feast, and it's relatively easy.


The purpose of the handwashing was primarily to re-assure one's dining partners (with whom one might share a trencher or plate) that one's hands were clean, though the medieval manners books suggest that you have your hands and nails clean before coming to the hall: "Loke thyne hondis be wasshe clene,  That no fylthe on thy nayles be sene. " (The Little Children's Little Book, circa 1480)  Then and now in the SCA, it's advisable to start out with hands cleansed of surface grime and germiness!


Period handwashing


Handwashing could be done at the beginning or end of a meal. The Little Children's Little Book describes handwashing at the end of the meal, after end-of-meal grace has been said: "And sit thou stylle, what so be-falle, Tylle grace be said vnto the ende, And tylle thou haue wasshen with thi frend."  At least one other book of manners republished in Manners and Meals in Olden Time directs children to bring their parents water to wash in after the meal.  Edward Mead, in The English Medieval Feast, says: "This washing of hands before and after meat was by no means a perfunctory matter..." and goes on to say:


     "Sometimes guests were formally conducted to an adjoining lavatory accompanied by the music of a minstrel, but ordinarily they remained in the hall and received from the ewer the warm water, often perfumed with rose-leaves, thyme, lavender, sage, camomile, marjoram or orange peel, one or all.  The  water and the towels were, of course, presented in the order of social standing of the guest, and it was esteemed a signal honour thus to serve a king or a great noble. In accord with the dignity of the ceremony the water-jug and the basin in great houses were often of gold or silver curiously wrought and     enamelled." (p. 152)


In addition to involving a ewer, pitcher or aquamanile and a basin to pour into, the job generally involved at least two people (the officer in charge of the water was called the 'sewer'), and at least one large towel or napkin either to be laid in front of the person being washed. 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."


Normally, we expect to see handwashing done, as above, when persons are seated at the feast. But Mead suggests that it can be done at a separate station with ewers and pitchers set up for the purpose. Wynkyn de Worde's Book of Kervyng directs the household officer to "Also se thyne ewery be arayed with basyns & ewers & water hote and colde ". In fact, many interior scenes, especially from the Italian Renaissance, show a bowl-bottomed niche built into the wall. Surviving period architecture reveals that they were fitted a shelf for the pitcher and a drain in the bottom, for washing the hands, rinsing cups and drawing water. Such a niche was called a 'lavatory', 'lavabo' or 'lavar' from the Latin, 'to wash.' The question remains whether the washing in the other room was ceremonial or merely utilitarian, of course.


It is obvious, from remarks in Le Menagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris) and Hugh Plat, that people of differing social classes supplied handwashing at their tables for their guests, and that all guests were generally washed.  To paraphrase "A general rule to teach every man that is willing": And when the lord likes to ask for the water, then shall the squires and the marshall and the sewer go by and by to bring the basin and ewer to the lord; the sewer shall deliver the towel to the worthiest that be about the lord . . . The marshall shall uncover the basin if it be covered and hold it in his hands also until the lord has washed, and then make a salutation and take it to the squire who brought it thither, and he bears it to the ewery, and anon command water for all them that shall sit at the lord's board . . .


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."


Period scented waters


Several methods may have been used for creating scented hand washing waters. Rosewater is often mentioned in the texts: rosewater would have been made either by soaking fresh rose petals in water, or, more commonly, soaking the petals in water, wine or beer and distilling the infusion. Thomas Tusser suggests woodruff be distilled for sweet waters (for washing?), and Parkinson (1629), says: "The ordinary Basill is in a manner wholly spent to make sweet, or washing waters, " and that marjoram was also popular for this purpose.


Hugh Plat's _Delightes for Ladies_  gives "An Excellent Washing Water Very Cheap" distilled as follows:


     "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. "


Another technique would involve making an infusion (tea), as suggested by the Goodman of Paris:


     "To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good." -- Le Menagier de Paris (translated by Tania Bayard and published as A Medieval Home Companion)"


Hugh Plat's _Delightes for Ladies_ suggests making scented handwashing waters with essential (extracted) oils:


     "Diverse sorts of sweet handwaters made suddenly or extempore with extracted oyles of spices.


     First you shall understand, that whensoever you shall draw any of the Oyles of Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs or such like, that you shall have also a pottle or a gallon more or lesse, according to the  quantity which you draw at once, of excellent sweet washing water for your table; yea some doe keepe the same for their broths, wherein otherwise they should use some of the same kinds of spice.


     But if you take three or foure drops only of the oyle of Cloves, Mace, or Nutmegs (for Cinamon oyle is too costly to spend this way) and mingle the same with a pinte of faire water, making agitation of them a pretty while togther in a glasse having a narrow mouth, till they have in some measure incorporated  themselves together, you shall find a very pleasing and delightful water to     wash with and so you may alwaies furnish yourself of sweet water of severall kinds, before such time as your guests shall be ready to sit downe. I speake not of the oyle of Spike (which will extend very far this way) both because every Gentlewoman doth not like so strong a scent and for that the same is elsewhere already commended by another Author. Yet I must needs acknowledge it to be the cheaper way, for that I assure myself there may be five or six gallons of sweet water made with one ounce of the oyle, which you may buy ordinarily for a groat at the most."



Modern concerns


Modern SCAdians tend to be concerned with germ transmission. Some people will be more comfortable with having water poured onto the hands from an ewer (pitcher) into a 'slop bowl' which is periodically emptied. Others will be comfortable with using finger-bowl type arrangement. Some SCAdians also request individual towels or disposable towels; others seem comfortable sharing a towel as long as there are enough dry towels! (Period people were concerned about poison-- the sewer is often advised to publicly drink some of the wash water and kiss the towel, which modern people would consider more contaminating than reassuring!)


Allergies are another concern. We have successfully used rosewater added to plain water at several events, but there are some people with strong reactions to rose oil who might go into anaphylactic shock if they got too big a whiff. SOME common potential airborne allergens (by no means an exhaustive list) include lavender, pine, rose, chamomile and frankincense; there are a few people who have a reaction to citrus peel oil, mint oil and aniseed. (Some non-period oils such as eucalyptus will also cause problems.)


     Check with the cook and autocrat to see if anyone has reported inhalation allergies, and consider posting signs, i.e.: "Nutmeg oil in use".


     Definitely offer plain water as an alternative, especially for those who have ingestion allergies.


      ALWAYS clearly label the vessels so that someone who has a contact allergy will know not to touch one with the  allergenic substance in it.


     Many essential oils such as clove are skin irritants when used undiluted, so be sure that if you are using essential oils to use only a few drops per gallon and agitate the solution well before using.


     Be sure you are using an essential oil extracted from the plant, and not a synthetic 'fragrance' oil; many, many people have a reaction to synthetic fragrances in general.


     Herbs not generally recognized as safe for internal consumption, such as tansy and rue should not be used for handwashing waters.



Ways to incorporate handwashing at your event


The simplest way to have handwashing at your event is to put out several labeled finger bowls at your dayboard and refresh them as necessary.


Offering ewers (pitchers) of water and basins to pour into (emptied as necessary) is an additional, more period refinement. People can pour for one another or themselves. Place a cloth under the basins and pitchers and have a stack of towels handy. Someone should be nearby to empty basins and fill ewers.


Having someone standing behind the tables to pour water over the hands of the feasters is even better, especially if you are using nice basins and pitchers or reproduction aquamaniles. You will want to try to get people as they enter the feasthall, so be set up ahead of time and announce that the handwashing is available before people take their seats-- many people will not get back up to do this. People will ask "How do we do this?" Tell them to hold their hands over the basin, you pour the water over them, then hand them a towel. If hand sanitizer is available, you may want to mention it. Be sure to offer different scents.


Offering handwashing at table to those at head table is appropriate-- you'll need two or three people for this, though: one to carry the basin, one to carry the ewer (and pour) and one to carry and offer towels. We did this for High Table at Krakow Festivities IV and the most complicated part was figuring out how to put down and pick up the towel(s) to go under the basin. One way to alleviate awkwardness is to get together with some friends before the feast and practice washing the hands of multiple people across a table, and moving all the gear. Because of the way high tables are generally seated in the SCA, you'll find that you have to serve the center (where the most important guests are), then go out one side, then the other. We found that a basket for the returned towels might have been an excellent idea. For high table, you may only want to use one scent-- check with the people at the high table for their preference, if any.


Offering a variety of scents is good, such as sage tea and orangeflower water, as well as plain water, in case someone doesn't care for a scent or has a contact or ingestion reaction.


Use the nicest basins and pitchers that are appropriate for the setting-- for an outdoor dayboard at a fighting event, that may be large plastic pitchers and plastic bowls; for serving high table, glass or ceramic pitchers can be used. Since you are not going to drink the water, enamel or metal (including aluminum) pitchers and bowls can also be used.


One way to alleviate germ concerns is to provide antibacterial 'hand sanitizer', preferably in a pump bottle, with the handwashing setup. That way people can antibaterialize their hands, then wash away the bitter taste with scented water.


You can either provide a pile of fabric handtowels (and a basket for damp ones), or use individual sturdy paper towels. Or no towels at all, if you prefer. I've seen high-quality paper napkins used but they just don't work; if you must have individual 'towels' you could run up a large quantity of handkerchief size muslin squares, serged at the edges so they can be washed. Most 'Dollar Stores' carry packages of multiple washcloths and/or towels. Plain, non-terry kitchen towels can often be found that pass the 10-foot authentic-look rule. At the East Kingdom Twelfth Night we found that waffle-weave 10" square dishcloths looked quite nice when carefully folded into thirds and made excellent, inexpensive individual towels.




If using fresh or dried herbs (as in Le Menagier's recipes), mix up a strong infusion of the herbs in water:


     Take 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of herbs per cup of water for the infusion.

     Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the herbs in a non-reactive bowl

     Steep the infusion for at least half an hour

     Strain into bottles and refrigerate if keeping more than overnight.


     To use: Mix 4 to 8 parts warm water with one part of the infusion.


If using essential oils as in Plat's suggestions,


     Fill a 1 qt pitcher full of warm water (NOT hot)

     Add 1-2 drops of essential oil per quart using a large dropper.

     Agitate the water so the oil is thoroughly mixed.


Or, using commercially prepared rosewaters, orangeflower waters or

lavender waters, you can put several tablespoons of the commerical water

in a quart of warm water.


Our Experiences


Members of the East Kingdom Herbalists' and Apothecaries' Guild have provided handwashing services several times. At an embroidery guild workshop, many participants commented appreciatively on the provision of small basins of scented water for rinsing the hands before eating. At a small workshop where an unattended station was presented, we didn't have any takers. At East Kingdom Twelfth Night where we provided a handwashing station both for the Queen's Tea and the feast (while Tibor of Rock Valley, an experienced server, provided individual handwashing at high table), people appreciated the nice touch-- especially when we provided warm water! We did full formal handwashing (with plain water, in deference to allergy concerns) for high table at Krakow Festivities IV, which is where we found we needed more practice managing towels. We also hope to provide handwashing at other events, including a handwashing station at the dayboard for the local War Camp.  We'd love to hear about the experiences of others who have done this-- please drop me a line at jahb at lehigh.edu!





de Nola, Libro de Guisados, manjares y potajes, 1529, translation by

Robin Carroll-Mann in webpage A Feast at Carrick Fergus



de Worde, Wynkyn. Book of Kervyng. Published as part of the Manners and

meals in olden time. Also portions online at:



Furnivall, Frederick. Manners and meals in olden time, normally called

"The babees book, Aristotle's A B C, Urbanitatis &tc." after the

included texts. Early English Text Society series #32 (London, N.

Tržbner & Co., 1868)


"Fifteenth-century courtesy book ... and Two fifteenth-century

franciscan rules", reprinted in Manners and meals in olden time, online




The Little Children's Little Book, Published as part of the Manners and

meals in olden time. excerpt webbed on the Geoffrey Chauncer web page:


(viewed 11/14/01)


Mead, William Edward. The English Medieval Feast. (NY: Barnes & Noble,

1967). Originally published in the 1930s. Do not use this for a food

reference-- it's full of misinformed generalities which drive SCA cooks



A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the fourteenth century.

(from  Le menagier de Paris) Trans. & edited by Tania Bayard. (NY:

HarperCollins, 1991) Also see Le Menagier de Paris. online version of an


     English translation of the food related portions:



Parkinson, John. A Garden of Pleasant Flowers: Paradisi in Sole. 1629.

(NY: Dover Publications, 1991.)


Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies. 1609. edited by Violet and Hall

Trovillion from the 1627 edition. (Herrin, IL: Trovillion Private Press,

1939) portions online at:



Rhodes, Hugh. The Book of Nuture, 1577,  Published as part of Manners

and meals in olden time. Portions online at:



Stefan's Florilegium page on Aquamaniles:



Thornton, Peter. The Italian Renaissance Interior. (London : Weidenfeld

and Nicolson, 1991)


Tusser, Thomas. His Good Points of Husbandry, 1557. Published 1931 by

Country Life Limited, London; edited by  Dorothy Hartley.



Copyright 2002 Jennifer Heise. For permission to reprint, email jahb at 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.lehigh.edu/~jahb/herbs/herbs.html


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org