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Medieval Stain Removal

By Danièle Cybulskie

The medieval world is known in pop culture as a place of knights in shining armour and ladies in beautiful and costly gowns, but the less romantic reality of life in the Middle Ages was that people had to deal with a lot of the same mundane concerns that we do – and that includes laundry. Like us, medieval people had their favourite outfits that made them feel amazing, or were essential parts of their jobs or identities, so what happened when they spilled wine on their best clothes?

In “’Ye Shall Have It Cleane’: Textile Cleaning Techniques in Renaissance Europe”, Drea Leed investigates a handy-dandy treatise on stain removal found in the Kunstbuch, a book created to give the nuns of St. Catherine’s, Nuremberg, instructions on the creation and care of liturgical vestments. Because the medieval world was one of endless reuse and recycling (especially when it came to expensive fabrics), the vestments created by the sisters would sometimes have been made from the castoffs of the wealthy, which meant that they might not arrive in the best shape. As Leed notes, priests’ clothes would have been made of cloth-like “taffeta, brocade, damask, velvet, and other costly silken fabrics”, all of which none of us would dare to throw in the washing machine today (or at least not twice). Instead, we know that the best way to clean these fabrics is usually by spot cleaning the stains, just as the nuns of St. Catherine’s did.

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Since priestly outfits were often green, the Kunstbuch concerns itself most with green cloth. “The only other colors mentioned,” Leed writes, “are red, brown, and pink.” The stains which are most often targeted are wine stains – which makes sense for priests, as Leed says, given the role of wine in the mass as well as in everyday life – and (disturbingly) urine. Also mentioned are “wagon grease and dirt”.

Many of the stain removal techniques use elements which are common to medieval cleaning: soap, ash, lime, wine, and urine. For example, the recipe for “How one restores the color of green silk”:

If you want to know how one restores the color of green silk, then take grapevines and burn them to ashes and make therefrom a lye solution and wash the stain clean therewith, and hang it up in the air; do not let the sun shine thereon and let it dry, and it will be good. One can also restore the color of green or brown wool with this.

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In this set of instructions, as in others within the Kunstbuch, the writer cautions against exposing the fabric to direct sunlight, which may indicate that medieval dyes were susceptible to fading or discolouration, especially when combined with stain-removing agents.

Other recipes are very specific to spot cleaning, including ones which recommend rubbing egg yolk or clay into the stain to absorb it (dirt and wagon grease, respectively).

My personal favourite is one that uses an ingenious method to apply something we still use for stain removal today: steam.

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How one works silk, to dry it faster.

xxv. Item if you want to work silk, that it will soon dry, take warm bread fresh from the oven and let the heat go into [the silk]; if you do not have that, take a hot stone or two and sprinkle water thereon and let the heat go into the fabric, and it will soon dry.

While working to get steam from a stone is effective, the natural steam from an everyday loaf of bread is here put to good use without any extra effort.

The set of instructions which Leed finds both “informative and entertaining” is the last one, which deals with the all-too-human laundering concerns of sweat stains and whiter whites:

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How one shall wash an undergown.

xxxiii. If you want to wash an undergown, take three measures of ashes and put them in a great open vessel and pour first hot boiling water thereon and then cold water so that the vessel is full and let it become strong, and sieve it then through a cloth and dunk the gown therein and wash it when cool, otherwise it will be yellow, and rub it well with soap on the collar and the sleeves, and where it is sweaty. If you think that the lye solution is too strong, mix it well with water or pour more water on the ashes and mix it with the first.

This is likely to have been the way that other linen items like sheets were also washed, leading to the discomfort laundresses often faced from hot water and exposure to lye.

For more recipes from the Kunstbuch, as well as a survey of Early Modern stain removal and the chemistry behind why some of these techniques actually worked, check out Drea Leed’s “’Ye Shall Have It Cleane’: Textile Cleaning Techniques in Renaissance Europe”. For more on laundry, see Carole Rawcliffe’s “A Marginal Occupation? The Medieval Laundress and her Work.” For a quick overview of laundry in the medieval world, check out Episode 51 of The Medieval Podcast.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: Photo by gromgull / Flickr

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