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What Was a Scullion?

A scullion was the unsung hero of historical kitchens, toiling tirelessly behind the scenes. Tasked with the humblest duties, they scrubbed pots, cleaned floors, and ensured the culinary heart of the household beat strong. Their story reflects a tapestry of service and tradition. Discover how the scullion's role shaped our dining customs and kitchen hierarchies. What secrets do their experiences hold?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A scullion was responsible for the heavy cleaning of pans, utensils, and pots.
A scullion was responsible for the heavy cleaning of pans, utensils, and pots.

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.

A scullion, or male servant, performed menial jobs around the house during the Middle Ages, such as cleaning floors.
A scullion, or male servant, performed menial jobs around the house during the Middle Ages, such as cleaning floors.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the role of a scullion in historical kitchens?

A scullion was a junior domestic servant in charge of washing dishes and performing basic kitchen chores in large households or institutions during historical times. They were often the lowest-ranked staff members in the kitchen hierarchy and were responsible for maintaining cleanliness, handling menial tasks, and sometimes assisting with food preparation. The role was physically demanding and less prestigious compared to other kitchen positions.

How did the position of a scullion evolve over time?

Over time, the role of the scullion evolved as kitchens became more modernized and technology improved. The introduction of dishwashing machines and other kitchen appliances reduced the need for manual labor, leading to a decline in the traditional scullion role. In contemporary kitchens, the duties once performed by scullions are often distributed among various kitchen staff or are automated, reflecting changes in social structures and technological advancements.

What was the typical workday like for a scullion?

The typical workday for a scullion was long and arduous, often beginning before dawn and ending well after the last meal was served. Scullions were expected to maintain a constant supply of clean cookware and utensils, manage kitchen refuse, and ensure the cleanliness of the kitchen area. Their work was essential to the smooth operation of the kitchen but was also repetitive and physically taxing.

Were scullions found in both private households and public institutions?

Yes, scullions were found in both private households, particularly those of the wealthy and nobility, and public institutions such as monasteries, boarding schools, and inns. The size and wealth of the establishment typically determined the number of scullions employed, with larger and more affluent households or institutions having multiple scullions to manage the extensive kitchen work.

What can the existence of scullions tell us about social hierarchies of the past?

The existence of scullions highlights the rigid social hierarchies and class distinctions of the past. Their position at the bottom of the kitchen staff hierarchy reflects the broader societal structure where manual labor was often undervalued and associated with lower social status. Studying the role of scullions provides insight into the daily lives of the working class and the functioning of large households or institutions in historical contexts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Markus

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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    • A scullion was responsible for the heavy cleaning of pans, utensils, and pots.
      By: Dario Lo Presti
      A scullion was responsible for the heavy cleaning of pans, utensils, and pots.
    • A scullion, or male servant, performed menial jobs around the house during the Middle Ages, such as cleaning floors.
      By: Sandra Cunningham
      A scullion, or male servant, performed menial jobs around the house during the Middle Ages, such as cleaning floors.