See What You're Eating:

A how-to guide to Period (600 CE - 1600 CE) lighting for the feast table

by Master Bedwyr Danwyn

(mka Theodore Lazcano)


Where Was Such Lighting Used?

Lighting for the feast table can be referred to as spot lighting, as opposed to area lighting. Area lighting is designed to cover a large area with low level illumination (so you don't trip over the dog), whereas spotlighting is designed to put a higher level of illumination at a single place (to see your food or write a letter). We mundanes are spoiled by our excellent lighting options, and would consider medieval spot lighting to be inadequate for the task. But, as those who walk around at Pennsic at night can attest, if you allow your eyes to adjust to the lower level of light, you can see surprisingly well. Without 100 wart light bulbs ready to flick on, the human eye can do much better than many think.

In the Middle Ages, Summertime allowed the peasant to eat by natural light, as it lasted through the dinner hour. During the Wintertime, darkness came early but so did the fire in the hearth, to keep the home warm. Meals would have been taken near the fire, a single source for warmth, cooking and light. They would have occasion to use snot lighting elsewhere, sort of like using a flashlight to look under beds and such. For this use, the lights as described for the feast table would have been used.

Middle class folks would have followed the above pattern, but with a greater need for table lights. Bigger homes meant rooms away from the main fire, and less illumination. The middle class were more likely to live in towns, where people would have stayed up later to entertain, write letters or work on business ledgers, or simply prepare merchandise for the next day's sale. And, they would have been better able to not only afford spotlighting, but could easily find a merchant to provide fuel as required.

The wealthy people had even bigger homes and frequently entertained, sometimes throughout the night. They owned many lights, often of quality (and expense) fine enough to be recorded in their housebooks. Akin to them were the Churches, where the lights were required for the many interior rooms where sunlight would not reach, late night services, scribal work and even because certain religious ceremonies required them. So huge was the Churches' appetite for beeswax candles, they often maintained their own apiaries and still consumed large quantities of wax from the local market.

When Were Such Lights Used?

Oil lamps have been used for thousands of years (one has been dated to 20,00DB C) and are certainly the easiest and oldest spotlighting known to man. Around the Mediterranean Sea and on the old Roman trading circuit, olive oil was the fuel of choice for oil lamps, due to its availability and superiority. In the colder northern regions of Europe, fish oil would be a more likely fuel for oil lamps. Inland, in the great grain growing regions pressed grain oils might be used. All of these fuels were used throughout our period.

Candles were not as commonly used as many believe. While they were known, there is little evidence for their use much before the close of the Dark Ages. Candles could be made of beeswax or tallow, depending on ones station and purse. Candles were never common in the warmer areas, due to the low temperatures at which they soften. Beeswax and especially tallow soften at lower temperatures than the paraffin candles we are so familiar with. The main exception to this rule was the use of beeswax candles by the Church in hot areas, due to it being a religious requirement. Beeswax has a pleasant smell, is harder, and burns better than tallow, and was the candle substance of choice for the wealthy and Church. Tallow is rendered animal fat and while not as charming to use as beeswax and requiring more work to prepare, was less expensive than beeswax and therefore was the substance of choice for those who could not afford beeswax. Candles of no type appear to have been commonly used by the poor.

Poor people most likely used cressets or rushlights, both of which date back to ancient times. Cressets are metal vessels filled with resinous pine knots, and were either hung from a chain or placed on a stand. The pine knots were burned, and it was easy to add more as required. Rushlights are pieces of rush that have been trimmed, dried and then soaked in tallow; and then burned in special holders used to simplify this procedure. It has also been noted that pieces of rope may be soaked in tallow and burned, and my experiments have proved the validity of this claim.

How Were Oil Lamps Used?

Oil lamps were generally suspended from above on chains, or set on tabletops. If set on tabletops, they could be either low vessels (such as a dish) or placed higher up on a stand. Lamps could be hung individually or en mass in metal frames called polycandelons. It was common for lamps to be hung or set into stands, and as candles came into use, it appears that the lamp stands were the origins for candlesticks. Indeed, many early candlesticks could accommodate either candles or lamps.

Oil lamps could be quite simple and inexpensive, or very elaborate affairs only the most wealthy could afford. They could be made of pottery, stone, metal, clay or glass. They might have but a single wick or several. Wicks might be made of dried moss, linen, hemp, cotton or even strips of old cloth. Cotton proved to make the best wicks, and replaced all others as it became common. Records warn that wool makes poor wicks, and this is true. I have tried wool to find that it mainly melts under the heat. Wicks could be floated on top of the oil, or placed in to the oil to rest on the edge of the lamp, or be supported in the oil by a metal spring or clip. I have even heard speculation that wicks might have been supported by free standing lead cones.

How Were Candles Used?

Candles were made either of tallow or beeswax. Tallow is animal fat which has been boiled and strained. As a great number of large animals were slaughtered at the onset of winter, a lot of fat became available for use, just in time for all of the dark evenings. Beeswax was of course produced by bees in warm weather, and merely had to be collected, cleaned of honey and bee bits, and melted. Candles were produced by the following four methods: 1)dipping, 2)pouring, 3)rolling, and 4)casting.

l)Dipped candies are made by first taking a bit of wick and soaking it in molten beeswax or tallow. It is then straightened while it cools. To simplify this, I like to affix a lead fishing weight to the bottom of the wick. This piece of wick is then dipped into a tall vessel, filled mainly with hot water on top of which is a layer of molten beeswax or tallow, about 2 - 4 inches deep. The wax should be on the cool side of molten, to decrease the chances of it being hot enough to keep from sticking to the wick. After a dip in the molten wax, the wick is then dipped into a tall vessel filled with cool water. This is to lower the temperature of the growing candle, to ensure that the hot wax will stick to it and make the candle grow. This process is continued until the candle reaches the desired diameter. It is easy to make good candles this way, but the process can become fatiguing if many candles are to be made.

2)Poured candles are made by first tying a wick to some form of support. Molten beeswax or tallow is then poured down the wick. As it flows down it will cool and the candle will be built up. A pan is placed under the wick to catch the drippings, which are remelted from time to time. This process is continued until the desired size is reached. If only a few candles are desired, this can take quite a while. Since the candle is not dipped in water to cool it down, time has to be spent between each pouring to allow it to cool on its own. Otherwise, it will be too hot and the next pour simply runs off. In large scale production, pouring makes sense since a great many wicks would be tied to a horizontal wheel. After each pouring, the wheel is advanced one wick, and by the time any given wick has revolved back for its next pour, it will have cooled down on its own. Very long candles can be poured by this method, and candles several feet long do appear in period illustrations.

3)Rolled candles are made by first pouring molten beeswax onto a pan of hot water, and allowing to cool. Once cool, the sheet of wax on top of the water is removed and dried. It can be cut to size with a knife, and reheated under very hot tap water until it becomes pliable. Then it is rolled around a piece of pre-stiffened wick and formed into a candle. This method is fairly fast and easy, bit will not work with tallow, which is too soft.

4)Cast candles are made by obtaining a mold and affixing a wick in place, inside. Then, molten beeswax or tallow is poured into the mold. As the beeswax or tallow cools, it will shrink into the mold, and needs to be topped off a few times. Or, just cast your candle longer than required, and trim off the shrunken part. Once the candle is cold, it will want to stick to the inside of the mold. To release it, run your mold under very hot tap water until it is too hot to touch. Your candle will be ready to slide out. If will be hot and slightly soft, so be prepared to catch it with a clean rag soaked in cold water. Casting candles gives the best results, but over the counter molds are expensive. I have discovered that copper pipes and end caps from the plumbing store are quite cheap and actually work even easier than commercial molds, which do not have removable end caps. Candle molds themselves begin to appear in the 1300's, but do not become common until the Renaissance.

How Were Wicks Made?

Wicks were made mainly of linen or hemp, and were replaced by cotton as it became more available. Throughout our period wicks were given a uniform twist, which required frequent clipping by snuffers (those cone things which put the candle out are actually called extinguishers). Wicks had to be matched to the candle in width and length to burn cleanly; and while the width would remain constant the length would grow as the candle burned down. If the wick wasn't occasionally shortened, it would lengthen until the flame cooled and smoked and sputtered. I suspect that the frequent attention demanded by candles until the invention of the braided wick (post period) was a primary reason why candles were never as popular as oil lamps, which are almost entirely maintenance free.

What About Candlesticks?

Since early candles were rarely cast, their diameters would vary, making the use of socketed candlesticks difficult. Early candlesticks were generally of the pricket style, which is to say that the candle was pushed down over a sharp spike. The diameter of the candle would then be of no consequence, and both tallow and beeswax are softer than modern paraffin candles that do not do well with prickets. These candlesticks had drip trays on the bottom, both to protect the surface that the candlestick was on, as well as to simply the collection of the dripped wax which would be reused. The socketed candlesticks had drip trays, too; and in general, as time progressed these trays moved higher up the candlesticks.

Moving into the Renaissance, candles became very popular. Candlesticks became quite grand and expensive, with floor models holding a score or more candles. Candlesticks copied the form of the polycandelons, and turned into what we think of as chandeliers, sometimes of massive size, drip trays and all.

In closing, we take a peek at an interesting sidenote, that of the taper. This was a long piece of cord or wick, which was coated with beeswax and rolled into a ball. It was slowly unrolled as it burned, and could be carried around and used to light all of the candles on the grand candlestands. Perhaps on occasion they might have even been the sole source of light for a bachelor eating his meal alone in the middle of the night, the final chapter o "see what you’re eating".


Lighting Bibliography

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____(1979) Historic Glass from collections in North West England. Merseyside County Museums, Merseyside County Council, St Helens, UK. Pgs 7, 29

Campbell SD (1997) The Malcove Collection. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. Pgs 43-59

Caspall J (1993) Fire & Light in the home pre-1820. Antique Collector's Club, Woodbridge UK.

Conisbee, P (1996) Georges de La Tour and his World. Yale University Press, New Haven. Page 110

Egan G (1998) The Medieval Household, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London. HMSO, St. Crispins UK. Pgs 126-151

Eveleigh DF (1995) Candle Lighting. Shire Publications Ltd, Princes Risborough UK.

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Han V (1975) The origin and style of medieval glass found in the Central Balkans. Journal of Glass Studies 17: 114-126

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Hough, W (1928) Collection of Heating and Lighting Utensils in the United States National Museum. United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC

Israeli Y (1998) The Wonders of Ancient Glass at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Pgs 50-51

Koch, HW (1978) Medieval Warfare. Bison Books Limited, London. Pgs 72, 118

Matheson SB (1980) Ancient Glass in the Yale University Art Gallery. Yale University Art Gallery, Meriden, Conn. Pgs 98-99, 113

Newby MS (2000) Glass of four millennia. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Pgs 40-41

Salvini R (1965) Giotto GB Affreschi di Assisi, Forma E Colore 4. Sadea/Sansoni Editori, Firenza, Italy. Pgs 7-8, 26

Savage G (1965) Glass. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. Pgs 30-31, 45, 60-61 Sherman DR (1993) Domestic Lighting, Candles, Lamps, and Torches in History, Compleat Anachronist #68. Society of Creative Anachronism, Milpitas, CA.

Tail H (ed) (1999) Five Thousand Years of Glass. British Museum Press, London. Pgs 100-101, 122-123, 134-135

Thwing L (1958) Flickering Flames, A History of Domestic Lighting through the Ages. Charles E, Tuttle Co for the Rushlight Club, Rutland, Vermont

Young SH (1993) A preview of seventh-century glass from the Kourion Basilica, Cyprus. Journal of Glass Studies 35: 39-47

Webster L, Brown M (eds) (1997) The Transformation of the Roman World AD 400-900. British Museum Press, London. Pgs 14, 136, 169

Whitehouse D (1986) An Anglo-Saxon cone Beaker from Faversham. Journal of Glass Studies 17: 120-122

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