Scented Handwaters For Feasts and Dayboards

-- Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

The myth of the medieval feastgoer as a dirty, slovenly, bad-smelling and poorly-behaved lout is generally discredited nowadays. 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 modern attendees 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)  Both in the historical period and in our modern feasts, 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."  Francis Seager's School of Virtue, 1557, directs children to bring their parents water to wash in when clearing the table after the meal:

Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon, Circa 1250 Met Museum 47.101.51"Then on the table attend with all diligence,
It for to void, when done have thy parents.
Each side of the cloth do thou turn in;
Folding it up, at the higher end begin.
A clean towel then on the table spread,
The towel wanting, the cloth take instead.
The basin and ewer to the table then bring,
In place convenient 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." (Rickert & Naylor, p. 78)

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."

Some illustrations from manuscripts at the National Library of France, showing handwashing, can be viewed on the web:

Normally, we expect to see handwashing done, as above, when persons are seated at the feast, or standing at their places at table. 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."

Peter Brears (All the King's Cooks) describes the handwashing set up for Henry VIII as follows:

George Villers, sergeant of the ewery, or his yeoman ewerer for the King's mouth, would now lay a tablecloth of white linen worked in damask with flowers, knots, crowns, or fleur-de-lis. He also provided the damask linen towels and the magnificent ewers, lavers and basins used for handwashing, all made of gold, gilt, glass or marble. One basin, for example, weighed a massive 332 ounces (9.4 kg) and incorporated a fountain in the form of three women who spouted water from their breasts. In cold weather the groom for the King's mouth heated the water beforehand, in a chafing dish kept specially for this purpose.
Now the sewer, Lord Thomas Grey, Sir Percival Hart or Sir Edward Warner, and the carver, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Lord William Howard or Sir Francis Bryan, would be armed with linen towels, each measuring 9 feet 9 inches (nearly 3m) by four and a half inches (11cm) wide. The sewer would probably hang his around his neck like a stole.
... Having instructed the ushers where to place each of the dishes on the table, the sewer would go to the ewery table at one side of the Chamber and say to the ewerer, 'Give me a towel that the King shall wash with.' He would then lay the towel on his shoulder and go into the privy chamber, followed by an usher with a basin, then present the basin to the highest-ranking person present-- an earl or baron on a day of estate-- who then held it in front of the King as he washed."

For those interested in table linen theatre, at the end of the meal, after the table had been cleared and sweets had been served, Brears says,

"A sewer and a gentleman usher now brought a linen surnap and a towel from the ewery table, these having been carefully folded together in the form of a rectangular concertina. The surnap, as the name suggests, was designed to cover the napery, and was simply a long white linen cloth; the towel was another piece of linen damask, worked with lover's knots or fleur-de-lis and measuring some twenty-seven  inches (68.5 cm) wide. Placing these on the table end to the King's right, the usher would put his rod inside the surnap and towel and walk down the front of the table, drawing them out across the tablecloth and and reverencing the King when he was directly before him; then he would proceed a few feet beyond the far end of the table and kneel there, while supporting his end of the surnap and towel. Back at the end of the table, the sewer now knelt and firmly gripped his end of the surnap and towel, so that the user could stretch them taut and and fold the overhanging end up onto the table. Then he would rise, walk before the King to his right side, and slip his rod beneath the surnap and towel to form a single loose pleat called an estate. Passing before the King  with a further reverence, he made a similar estate to the King's left before returning to his end of the table, kneeling and straightening the towel once more. Having completed these duties, he again carried his rod before the King, reverenced him, and returned to his place. Now the nobles bearing the ewer and basin approached, so that the King could wash his hands and dry them on the towel. To complete this whole ceremony, the user slipped his rod into the folded towel and surnap at his end and pulled them along towards the King, while the sewer brought up his end at the same time so that towel and surnap were gathered together for the sewer to take back to the ewery table."

Brear's also mentions an ewery table in the Great Hall where those of lower rank would eat, but is not specific as to whether diners washed at that table:

"As well as laying the cloths, the two yeomen and groom ewerers for the hall, assisted by their page, set out the ewers and basins, probably of pewter, and also the linen towels, on an ewery table in an area called 'The Towel' close to the entrance screen."

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."

Washing waters are also mentioned in Boccaccio's Decameron-- rose, orange, lemon and jasmine.

Modern concerns

Modern people 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 people 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.)

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 at re-creational feasts, 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 :

If using essential oils as in Plat's suggestions,

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. 

Handwashing at Sangre, Sudor y Lagrimas
Handwashing at Sangre, Sudor y Lagrimas

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!

Update: I have an aquamanile, in the shape of a green boar, created by Master Hroar Stormgangr of Two Hearts Entwined Pottery (images posted with his permission). Compare it to this Ram-shaped Aquamanile in the Met:

Pig Aquamanile, view 2 Aquamanile in the form of a Ram Met Museum  2007.142. Scarborough England  ca. 1250–1350

More Aquamaniles from the Met:
Aquamanile in the Form of a Mounted Knight, circa 1250, Met Museum 64.101.1492Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllis, Netherlands, 14th-15th c. Met Museum 1975.1.1416Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion, ca 1400 Met Museum 1994.244

Others' experiences:


copyright 2001-2004, Jennifer Heise. Last updated July 26, 2023. For permission to reprint, email
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, as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used. Jadwiga's site: