What Was a Scullion?
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a scullion was a male servant hired to do menial jobs around the house, especially in the kitchen. After the Renaissance, such servants certainly existed, but they began to be supplanted by scullery maids, and by the 20th century, scullions were essentially nonexistent, replaced by a variety of modern conveniences which rendered their jobs obsolete.
The work of a scullion would have been dirty, grueling, and miserable. By convention, scullions were at the bottom of the complex hierarchy of household servants, and while a scullion would have been officially under the direction of the kitchen maid, he would be expected to obey orders from essentially anyone employed in the house, which meant that a variety of tasks might fall under his job description.
The word “scullion” is taken from the Old French escouvillon, which means “dishcloth,” giving you a good idea of the worth of a scullion in the household. In the kitchen, scullions did the heavy cleaning of pots, pans, and utensils, while finer kitchen items were cleaned by higher-ranking members of the staff. Scullions also took care of the more unpleasant aspects of food preparation, such as peeling potatoes, plucking fowl, pitting fruit for preserves, and a variety of other tasks. They would also have been responsible for scouring the kitchen floors, which could get quite messy after cooking for a major event.
Outside the kitchen, scullions scrubbed floors, cleaned fireplaces and stoves, emptied chamberpots, and performed other menial tasks. Scullions typically remained out of the way of the occupants of the house, and they would not have been entitled to livery. As a general rule, most scullions would have aspired to jobs further up in the ranks, where they might be able to access perks like discarded candle ends, discarded food, and so forth, which they could in turn use, trade, or sell.
Another important job of the scullion was laundry. In the Middle Ages, doing laundry was not a pleasant task. Garments, sheets, rags, and anything else to be laundered would need to be boiled over an open fire in a massive kettle, stirred with heavy paddles, and cleaned with harsh soaps made from lye. Once the laundry was sopping wet and extremely heavy, it needed to be rinsed, wrung out, and then hung on drying lines. Often, the task would require several scullions to manipulate the heavy kettles and damp material, and they risked burns from steam, boiling water, and the fire in the process.
I am the youngest of eight children, two older brothers and five sisters. The two oldest brothers were either out in the field helping our father or in school or working elsewhere, while I was always left indoors to help my mother and sisters.
My sisters were very bossy and always gave me the dirtiest jobs in the house like scrubbing the toilets and cleaning out the litter box.
I can remember my mother telling my sisters to stop treating your brother like a scullion and share the responsibilities once in awhile. I was very young and didn't know then what it meant but I knew my mom was on my side.
Anyway, all that dirty work paid off because today I'm the head chef at a five star restaurant on a resort in the Caribbean.
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