In most Computer games it is pretty simple to make and use a torch. But everybody who has ever tried to ignite a stick and use it as a torch will agree that it actually takes much more to make a torch than just holding a stick into the fire until it burns.
Making a torch is and was a sophisticated process!
Because of that, I would like to present how torches were made in the Middle Ages and how long a torch lasted.
Medieval torches consisted of a stick, preferably made from resinous wood, to hold the torch, and a piece of coarse fabric like jute that was soaked in fuel like fat, beeswax, Harz, oil, or pitch. The soaked cloth was fastened to the stick with some wire. A torch that could be held with one hand would burn for 10-30 minutes while large man-high torches could burn for hours.
Let`s find out more!
How were medieval torches made?
As mentioned, just holding a stick into the fire until it ignites does not make a torch. That burning stick would quickly go out. Because of that medieval torches were much more sophisticated and generally consisted of 3 parts.
A medieval torch was made a stick at which the torch could be held, some sort of fuel that would actually burn for some time, and some sort of cloth, wire, or natural fiber with which the fuel could be fastened to the stick.
The time for which a torch would burn was heavily dependent on the used fuel.
The most simple version of a torch was to fasten a fuel such as spruce needles to a stick by wrapping them and the stick with a piece of cloth. The disadvantage of such a simple construction was that the torch would not burn much longer than the already mentioned stick that was ignited by holding it into the fire. As soon as the cloth had burnt the entire torch fell apart.
A slightly longer-lasting construction was to tie the spruce needles to the stick by using a piece of wire. In that case, the torch would not fall apart but the spruce needles would have still burnt down extremely quickly. Of course, a piece of string could also be used instead of wire but that combined the disadvantages of the spruce needles with the disadvantages of wrapping the entire thing with an easily inflammable piece of cloth.
So another type of fuel that would burn longer and another, more robust way to bring the individual parts of the torch together was necessary.
The solution was to soak a coarse fabric like jute in fuel like fat, oil, Harz, pitch, or beeswax. That soaked fabric was then wrapped around a stick and fastened with a piece of wire.
It was important to use a glove or a special piece of leather that could be put over the hand to protect the carrier from hot beeswax, oil, or pitch that could drop down from the soaked fabric when it was lite.
Ideally, the stick that was used as a handle and the center of the torch was made from resinous wood so that it would at least somewhat burn.
These torches could generally be built in any size. Some torches, like the typical videogame torches, were built in a size that allowed the carrier to carry them in one hand that was held over the shoulder for the best possible illumination. But there were also much bigger torches that were built following the exact principles. These large torches could have the height of a man and be, according to depictions used to illuminate the interior of castles and houses for big celebrations.
However, the small one-handed torches were not used to illuminate the interior of castles and houses despite what video games like to depict. You can find out more about the items that were used in the Middle Ages to illuminate the interior of castles and houses in my article here.
But for now, I would like to quickly look at how long medieval torches burnt before I would like to give a brief outlook on the alternatives to torches, especially for the use in the interior of houses and castles.
How long did medieval torches burn?
As already mentioned, answering the question of how long a medieval torch burnt is like answering the question of how long a piece of string is. It obviously depends not only on the size of the torch but also on the quality and amount of the used fuel. So the numbers that I give must be taken with a grain of salt.
Small torches that were carried one-handed like they are portrayed in many video games would burn for 10-30 minutes. But there were also large torches that had the same height as a man and that could burn for up to two hours.
So with that duration in mind, we can now look at whether or not torches were regularly used to illuminate the interior of medieval castles and homes.
Were torches used to light the interior of houses & castles?
So when a torch burned for 10-30 minutes then that already gives us a hint as to whether or not torches were used to illuminate the interior of castles and homes.
Torches were usually not used to light the inside of castles or medieval houses. The mentioned large torches that were specially made to illuminate parties are the famous exception to the rule. Instead, several alternatives were much better and because of that much more commonly used for illuminating the interior of medieval houses and castles.
There were other alternatives to torches that were much more effective in illuminating the interior of houses and because of that were much more common. You can find out more about these alternatives and their advantages over torches in my article here.
Alternatives to torches
The most commonly used alternative to torches was probably the rushlight, more on how rushlights worked and how they were made in my article here. The rushlight had several advantages like being extremely cheap compared to other ways of illumination like beeswax candles or lamps.
Generally, beeswax candles were so expensive that their use was mostly limited to the church and nobility!
But more about candles and the alternatives to torches as well as the advantages and disadvantages in my article here.
Should you also be interested in other parts of the Middle Ages, especially medieval warfare, then I would like to recommend you my article here with more information about the effectiveness of medieval knights (and what made them so effective).
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time