Medieval Lighting - Life in Medieval Days

If you watch Cast Away (with Tom Hanks) you realize just how much we are tied to light cycles. If we had NO light at all artificially, then when the sun goes down, that's it. We go to sleep. We wake up when the sun comes up again. When Tom gets back to civilization, he sits in his hotel room, turning the lights on - off - on - off - to remind himself how amazingly easy it now was to get light.

Medieval people were very much in the dark-means-sleep situation. Yes, they had candles - but the light they gave off was not wonderful.

The candles of the time were made either from tallow (i.e. animal fat) or bee wax. For tallow, mutton (sheep) fat was best, followed by beef (cow) fat. Tallow candles would sputter and burn smokily, and would smell. On the other hand, beeswax candles were very expensive and were a luxury. These were used by churches and nobility. They would burn cleanly and without smoke, and had a clean aroma.

Candles at this time did not have self distintegrating wicks. When you burn a modern candle, you just light it and walk away. The wick burns down by itself. In medieval times, the wick did NOT disappear - and if you just left it alone, the flame would get lower and lower because of that extra wick sticking up. You had to go trim the candle regularly to keep the flame burning properly.

Candles were hand dipped. You started with a wick, and lowered this into a vat of tallow. It would come up with a thin coating of wax. When this dried, you'd do it again and the wax would be thicker. After a while you'd end up with pillar candles. They didn't have molded candles until the early 1400s. These would have been tallow, not beeswax. Beeswax was too hard to mold back then.

Oil lamps needed liquid oil to work - meaning you had to be somewhere warm where the oil would not congeal. This was fine in Italy, but not so great up in France and England.

Candles were so important to medieval people that often servants and workers were paid in candles for at least part of their payment.

Candles were sometimes used as clocks. They would know that a candle of a certain thickness would take an hour to burn X amount - and therefore by watching the candle burn, they could know how much time had passed. Note that the candle had to be properly trimmed during this time, so that it burned at a constant pace. You couldn't just light it and leave it.

There were not "street lights" in towns until around the 1400s. Before then, either you carried a lantern (i.e. a candle in a metal holder to keep the wind from blowing it out) or you kept along a route where homes had candles in their windows to help guide your way. Most people simply stayed inside, where they were safe from vagrants and wild animals.

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