What Did People in the Middle Ages use for Light?

In most movies set in the Middle Ages torches are used to illuminate the inside of castles and homes. But that is not historically accurate, torches were rarely used to illuminate castles or houses. Instead, there were other devices used for light.

In the following, I would like to present what devices were used to illuminate the inside of medieval castles and homes and under what circumstances torches were used.

The cheapest and most common way to illuminate the inside of medieval homes and castles were rushlights made by soaking the peeled stems of rush in animal fat. Other options were fatwood, oil lamps, or candles. And although beeswax candles were expensive and almost exclusively used by the church and nobility, cheaper alternatives made from fat did exist for the less wealthy. Torches were generally not used to illuminate the inside.

Let`s find out more!

The use of torches in the Middle Ages

Most movies set in the Middle Ages portray the idea that torches were the main device used to illuminate the inside of homes and castles. In that case, the torches are usually held by metal mounts on the walls of the castle. And yes, these mounts did exist. But they were not used to hold burning torches to illuminate the castle.

Instead, these metal mounts on the walls of castles were put there to conveniently store torches that had not been lit jet so that somebody who left the house could grab the torch, ignite it, and use it to illuminate his way outside of the house.

By the way, have you ever wondered how people in the Middle Ages ignited fires or torches?

People in the Middle Ages carried fire steel that was used to make sparks with which a highly inflammable material was ignited. To light a torch it was usually enough to make sparks that landed on the highly inflammable fuel with which the torch was soaked.

Yes, you read that right.

A medieval torch was much more sophisticated than just a stick that was ignited by holding it into the fire. Here you can find out more about how torches were made in the Middle Ages and which highly flammable fuels were used in that process.

These fuels were one of the reasons why medieval torches were almost exclusively used outside of houses. As soon as the torch burnt and the fuel, oftentimes pitch or wax, became liquid these torches would start to drip. Needless to say that that was a fire hazard, especially considering the fact that most houses (and also parts of castles) were made out of wood. Having pitch dripping from a burning torch inside a wooden house doesn’t sound too good, does it…

Another reason was the rather short duration for which a torch burnt. Torches that were handled with one hand like they are portrayed in many movies only lasted 10-30 minutes!

So torches were, with one exception not used to illuminate the inside of medieval homes. Here you can find out more about that one exception to the rule and how long that exception burnt compared to normal torches.

One alternative to torches was the use of fatwood, although that had similar risks linked to it. Let`s take a look.

Fatwood as an alternative to torches

Fatwood is one of the oldest ways to create artificial light known to humankind. The famous Greek author Homer who wrote about the Trojan war already mentioned fatwood as a way of illumination.

And throughout time up to the 19th century fatwood was among the most common ways to illuminate the inside of homes!

Fatwood was usually made from especially resinous pinewood and was ignited by holding the tip of the piece of fatwood into the hearth fire. The big advantage of fatwood over a torch was that it burnt longer. The downsides of using fatwood were a high fire danger and the fact that burning fatwood produces a lot of soot.

Especially the fire danger must not be underestimated. A good example of the dangers of using fatwood can be found in 1581 when the city hall of Berlin completely burned down as a consequence of the thoughtless use of fatwood.

The other downside was that the soot that the use of fatwood produced plentifully, blackened the walls and ceilings of the houses and castles that were illuminated with fatwood.

But not only fatwood produced an abundance of soot. The next device to illuminate a medieval house, the rushlight, shared that disadvantage.

Rushlights – the cheapest & most common way of illuminating medieval homes

Rushlights were a simple and because of that extremely cheap way to illuminate the inside of medieval houses that could be produced at home. To make a rushlight two things were needed.

Rush, a common type of plant that could be found in moist and shady locations all over medieval Europe, was used as a wick and some sort of fuel, usually leftover animal fat, was used for rushlights which were cheap and common ways to illuminate medieval houses.

To make the wick, the stems of the rush were soaked in water, dried, and peeled so that only the spongy inside of the stems remained. Then some sort of leftover animal fat, for example from a meal or after butchering, was heated until it became fluid. Then the stems were soaked in the fluid fat.

The result was a rushlight that could be cheaply produced at home and that illuminated the inside of the home. The downside of the use of rushlight was that the results were pretty inconsistent. Additionally, the rushlights also produced a considerable amount of soot.

So you have probably noticed that every device to light a medieval home that has been mentioned until now had the problems of high fire danger and the production of soot.

The next way to illuminate a house had, at least originally, avoided these problems.

Lamps as a way to illuminate the inside of a medieval home

Lamps are obviously not a medieval invention but have already been used by ancient Greeks and Romans. And some of these Roman lamps were actually still traded during the Early Middle Ages at a point when at least the Western Roman Empire had already long fallen.

Roman lamps were actually found at the excavations of Haithabu, an important Viking trading place in Northern Germany! So some of them were still used in the Middle Ages.

But the fuel that was burnt in these old lamps, just like the fuel that was burnt in medieval lamps made out of clay, glass, metal, or wood, was no longer the same one that Romans and Greeks had used in Antiquity.

Roman and Greek lamps used closed lamps made out of clay that had one opening for the wick and one opening to fill up fuel. Both Romans and Greeks used olive oil as fuel for their lamps since olive oil burnt without producing soot or reek. During Antiquity, the supply of olive oil was not a problem, not even in the Northern Roman provinces in today’s Great Britain or Germany.

However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the supply of Northern and Western Europe with Mediterranean olive oil collapsed. As a result, people in the Middle Ages could no longer use olive oil that burnt without producing soot or reet for their lamps. Instead, belly or kidney fat from pigs or cattle was used to fuel lamps. And these fuels did produce quite the amount of soot and reet.

Aside from these fuels, vegetable oil could also be used to fuel medieval lamps. And over time the use of whale and seal oil became common. As a result that whale and seal oil was exported from the North sea into the Holy Roman Empire.

Have you ever wondered why the Holy Roman Empire was called like that even though it had nothing to do with Romans? You can find out the answer to that in my article here.

The last option for artificial light was to use candles.

Candles as a way to illuminate the inside of medieval homes

Now I know what you are probably gonna say. How can candles be used to illuminate the houses of ordinary people in the Middle Ages? Weren`t candles extremely expensive?

And yes, candles that were made from beeswax were indeed extremely expensive and because of that almost exclusively used by the church and nobility. Especially the church needed so many beeswax candles since these candles were liturgically mandatory for certain events like funerals or baptisms. The demand for beeswax candles by the church was actually so large that beeswax had to be imported from Eastern Europe making it one of the important trading goods of the Middle Ages.

Beeswax candles had several advantages. Not only did Beeswax candles burn just as long as a piece of fatwood, but they also produced the same amount of light. And they did that without producing any amount of soot or reek! The downside to that was that candles made from beeswax were a lot more expensive than fatwood.

But there were cheaper alternatives to beeswax candles.

Cheap alternatives to beeswax candles were made from tallow, whale spermaceti, or fat while a single string of Linen, rush, or wool was used as a wick. Even less wealthy people could afford these cheap candles even though they, contrary to beeswax candles, produced soot and reet.

So there we have the main devices that were used to create artificial light in the Middle Ages. But two more ways are often overlooked when talking about how medieval people illuminated their houses.

Windows & Hearth fires – two overlooked ways to illuminate a medieval home

When we talk about how medieval people illuminated their homes than we usually jump to more or less elaborate devices that were used while oftentimes forgetting the two most basic ways: Windows and the heath fire.

Windows as a way to bring light into the inside of a medieval home

During that day a window was the easiest way to bring light into a medieval home. But while glass did exist in the Middle Ages it wasn`t really used in windows for most of the Middle Ages. That has to do with both the price of glass and the fact that especially during the Early and High Middle Ages the production of large sheets of glass was almost impossible.

But that didn`t mean that medieval houses didn`t have windows.

Depending on the wealth the windows in a medieval house were either left open and covered with a wooden shutter or closed with more or less transparent animal bladders. Glass was originally only used in the windows of churches but spread after the 11th or 12th century to the homes of wealthy families.

Another source of light was the hearth fire that was used to cook food and was as such a center of the medieval house and oftentimes the only option to heat at least one room.

So there we have it, the different ways how medieval people illuminated the inside of their homes and castles. For more information on why castles were built you can check out my article here.

And if you want to find out more about how besieging a medieval castle worked then you might want to check out my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Der Alltag im Mittelalter (Mainz-Kostheim 2001).