Sunday, December 16, 2012


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.
cresset lamp

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!
For 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

                The 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 purpose.
Candle holder that could be used either free standing
or on a wall bracket.  Museum of London

Candle stick fit for a queen - 12th century.  V&A

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.
Hanging lamp from the Maciejowski Bible mid 13thc

Norman ceramic oil lamp: Museum of London

When one needed to carry a light about, lanterns proved useful and there are many surviving examples in the archaeological and illustrative record. 
Ceramic Lantern from the Poitou region
Lantern held aloft: Maciejowski Bible mid 13thC

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.
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!

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

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


Anonymous said...

Great post. It's true what you say about the seasons - it's no wonder they were better at celebrating them than we were. I do wonder how the fish lamp was first invented, though. You wouldn't have thought that idea would have come easily!

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Fascinating post! What has chiefly caught my attention though is the Maciejowski Bible, whose story is fascinating indeed. It encountered numerous adventures and literally was a time-travelling book (its long and eventful journey ended at the beginning of the 20th century). Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski, bishop of Cracow and my fellow countryman was one of the owners and the manuscript remained in his possession before he sent it to Persia. I'm very proud of this Polish connenction :-)

Martin Lake said...

This is an illuminating post, if you can forgive the pun. We take light and heat so much for granted yet, as you point out, for out ancestors it was a luxury item and one which required either wealth or lots of work to produce.

It was fascinating to read about the types of lighting, particularly the fishy ones.

Bill Bryson's book 'At Home' also gives an illustration of how murky ancient lives were, comparing it in lumens I seem to recall.

As a child I found out that my parents viewed electric light as a luxury item not to be wasted so I made much use of a torch to read at night in secret. Perhaps this frugality was not such a bad thing though.

Martin Lake

Nicolaas Vergunst said...

A delightful post, Elizabeth, and one I enjoyed reading under an energy-saving lamp.

I once heard, or rather saw, a medieval art historian (British, I recall) demonstrate the relationship between colours used for glazed pots and the lighting available in public houses. In short, the brighter the wine jug the lower the tavern's lighting. On average, medieval life was dark. said...

This is the same discussion I have been having with folks for what feels like forever. Next the printing press, I feel the invention of home illumination from a non-candle source is one of the greatest inventions that have changes our world.

Thanks for bring some light to this subject, pun intended.