|One of my own Christmas decoration arrangements.|
In the UK during the month of December, dawn arrives at around 8 AM,
and the sun sets just before 4 PM, giving us around 8 hours of daylight out
of 24. If the weather is murky, those 8 hours can easily become swallowed in twilit gloom. Sitting in my study, drinking my mid morning coffee with the electric light still on, I wondered about the kind of
lighting mediaeval people had at their disposal. 800 years ago, how would I have coped?
Since all cooking and heating relied on fires, ambient
firelight would have provided a certain amount of light, but with very dim
parameters and not always useful. One of the reasons that meals were eaten
early in the day in the middle ages was that trying to perform tasks in a
kitchen without clear light was a hazard. Certainly in a castle
kitchen there might be fires for heating water and cooking food, but the fire
was at ground level and any preparation would have to be done on tables which
would be cast into shadow, so in itself firelight, while providing warmth and
cheer was only of background usefulness.
Actually for kitchen work in dark circumstances, the most often used
lighting appears to have been something called a cresset. This was a series of
hollows in a stone block.
The hollows would be filled with oil or fat and a
wick floated in them. The lamps would be placed on a flat surfaces or in a niche. There are frequent references to cresset lamps as
items of kitchen equipment. Candles and candlesticks seem not to have been as
popular in a kitchen environment but to have been used elsewhere.
Bartholomew the Englishman was of the opinion that there should be plenty of light from candles, prickets and torches when people were eating "for it is a schame to soupe in derknes and perilous also for flies and other filth." I am reminded of my father in law on active service in North Africa in 1942. He said he always waited until after dark to eat his rations because then he wouldn't see the weevils!
the peasant household and the less well off, lighting was provided by tallow candles and by rush
lights. These were frequently home made in the summer months by carefully
peeling the long, cylindrical pith of the juncus rush, and dragging it through
molten animal fat. These however, burned down quickly and could not be used for
any length of time. They were better than nothing, but not ideal. People made use of local resources, and some communities living near the sea would make
lamps out of a fish called a thornback. The fish were stuffed full of linen
waste, and pressed until the wick was saturated, and then actually burnt as a candle. Two or three tied together in an iron holder made a
torch! The phosphorescent light cast by rotting fist was sometimes used to light the way up the garden path.
|Thornback fish lamp|
aristocracy and the church opted for candles made from beeswax. These gave a
clear burning light and a pleasant smell, and were long-lasting. Although
beeswax was locally available, there was never enough to satisfy demand in the
big cities, and supplies were augmented from the forested less sparsely
populated areas of Europe such as Russia, Hungary and Bohemia. People in Royal
service were entitled to candles (or remnants of them) as one of the perks of
their job. So if John Marshal, my hero of A Place Beyond Courage was eating
outside of the court he was entitled to a daily provision of one small wax
candle and 24 candle ends. (Royalty only burned fresh candles, and whatever
stubs remained at the end of each day were cleared away and finished off in the
departments of the household officials).
If John was working in-house on a particular day he was entitled to an
ample supply of candles all the time. John's ushers were entitled to 8 candle
ends a day for their own use. Candles could be placed in candlesticks, wall
mounted holders, ceiling suspended
holders, or arranged on large multi-holder candle stands – whatever suited the
So basically it wasn’t a world without light,
but it was certainly one more deeply shadowed, more golden, more smokily
scented (among other smells!) than ours. It couldn’t be had for the flick of a
switch, but provision of light had to be thought about and toiled over. What you never have, you never miss, but a
thousand years ago, the return of daylight as the Northern hemisphere turned towards Spring, must have come as a truly keen
pleasure of life.
Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears Prospect Books 2008 - chapter on kitchen lighting
|Candle holder that could be used either free standing|
or on a wall bracket. Museum of London
Ceramic lamps were another form of
lighting. These look a bit like ice cream cones and are ubiquitous in mediaeval
illustrations. There are frequently found in museum exhibits. Basically they worked on the same principle
as the cresset lamp and were often suspended by chains from the ceiling. There are references in the Pipe rolls to the
use of oil in lamps. Queen Alienor ad 30
shillings and 5pence worth of oil bought on the Surrey account for use in her
lamps in 1176/1177 ‘Et pro oleo ad lampadem regine .xxxs. et
v.d.’ In 1159 that sum was greater but only by 2
pence. The second sum appears time and again
throughout the reigns of Richard and of John while she was still living. Were they for religious or personal use? The Pipe rolls don’t say.
|Candle stick fit for a queen - 12th century. V&A|
|Hanging lamp from the Maciejowski Bible mid 13thc|
When one needed to carry a light
about, lanterns proved useful and there are many surviving examples in the
archaeological and illustrative record.
|Norman ceramic oil lamp: Museum of London|
|Ceramic Lantern from the Poitou region|
Torches were also used but we don’t
know a great deal about them as they have not survived well in the
archaeological record and it’s an area that still requires more study. There’s an interesting article on lighting
here, which talks a little bit about torches and has more information about
lighting in general. http://www.markland.org/docs/lettherebelight.pdf
|Lantern held aloft: Maciejowski Bible mid 13thC|
During the broad spread of the Middle Ages and in various circumstances, there were rules about lighting, George Duke of Clarence's household ordinances for December 1468 give the detail that wood and candles should only be issued between 1st November and Good Friday, at the rate of two shides (unit of measure of which I don't know the equivalence) and three white tallow lights to be shared between every 2 gentlemen of the household. At the monastery of Barnwell, the monks were forbidden to sit by a lamp in the dormitory to read, or to take candles to bed in order to do the same. We might think it was because of the fire hazard, but no, it was because reading in bed was discourages as at that time, reading aloud was the norm and would have kept everyone else awake, not to mention the light!
Food in England by Dorothy Hartley published by LittleBrown (for the fish light examples!)
The senses in Late Medieval England by C. M. Woolgar - Yale University Press
The Museum of London website http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/