Random research of a distracted writer: How to light a candle in the middle ages.

I love research, and I love facts and details just as much. As a writer, this is a good thing. We research plane crashes, wilderness survival tips, survival rates from various gunshot wounds, and how to fight with a sword. Amongst other things…

If anyone looked at our internet history, they’d be thoroughly disturbed. (Well, unless they were another writer who knew about our work in progress!)

I completed my degree in history. It required a ton of research and a lot of time in the library. I loved it. I miss my little corner and my chair. The views around campus too:

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Getting nostalgic for the lakes, and the ponies!

I can’t resist using my research skills when I write. I’ll look at pictures, read books, and watch Youtube in the effort to bring a scene to life. The best descriptions suck the reader into the scene and make you feel like you’re really there. They make your heart clench with fear as the character teeters at the edge of a cliff, and bring the wonder of a beautiful waterfall to life. 

Poorly researched information can distract from the magic of a story. A characters leg twisting in a way that’s not possible during a fight scene, for example. Want to write a fight scene? Learn to fight. Or, failing that, visit Youtube, where you will probably get distracted and end up with far more information than you need (and not all of it relevant!)

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Like that time I was in the library doing a history essay, and I got distracted because my Fullmetal Alchemist necklace was in a history textbook!

One of my current works in progress, Dragonspire, is set in a medieval style fantasy kingdom. The moon has a longer orbit, and there’s magic and dragons, but other than that, the kingdom where the story begins is similar to medieval Europe.

Sure, the castles are cool, but there’s no electricity. They’d use candles. But, in a world with no modern lighters, how (when the fire breathing dragons are unavailable) do they light them?

When my character went to light a candle in his bedroom, I froze in my frantic typing to wonder how he’d light it, and what type of candles they had in the middle ages.

Now I could have just written, ‘he lit the candle,’ and left it at that, but I was curious, and I wanted to be able to show how he did it, just in case I ever wanted to use it…

What were candles like in the middle ages?

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Beeswax candle

According to my research, candles in the middle ages were made from animal fat (Tallow.) These candles, when lit, smelt worse than manure and gave off a smoky flame. They were common in general home use because they were cheap.

If you were rich, or a beekeeper, you’d have candles made from beeswax. These burned cleanly, without the smoke, and smelled sweet and pleasant. They were often used during church ceremonies. Only the wealthy used them at home because they were expensive!

In Dragonspire, the village my main character lives in is self sufficient. They keep bees to make honey, and make their own beeswax candles. In the kingdom below the village most people use tallow candles, and when Arckia first experiences one the smoke and smell shocks him.

So, two types of candles. Now, how to light them?

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Unless you’re a mage or have a fire dragon, you’ll need flint and steel!

Tools to make fire:

My research found that matches were not invented until the 1800’s. Therefore, my characters would always carry the following, stored in a tinder box, to light candles and fires.

  • Flint.

  • Steel.

  • ‘Char’ cloth.

Char cloth is cloth that has been partly burned. Partly burned material catches a spark much easier. In the middle ages, it was likely to be made of linen.

To see how flint and steel worked, I went to one of my favourite places for research: Youtube.*

To light a candle, the char cloth is placed on the back of the flint, near the edge. When the flint is struck, a small spark is created, and the cloth should catch the ember. Shield the ember, take it to the candle, and blow on it to encourage the ember to become a flame. Then light the candle. The cloth can also be transferred to the tinderbox and coaxed into a flame in there.**

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Exercise caution when playing with fire. You don’t want your MC to burn the house down. (Or do you?!)

I used my research to write a scene where a character lights a candle. I ended up with this:

Arckia placed the candle on his desk and stuffed his hands into his pockets. After some rummaging, his fingers closed around a small, metal box. He pulled it free and took out some flint, and a battered steel striker. At the bottom of the box, a small piece of cloth sat, and Arckia pulled it free to rest it on top of the flint, sharp edge facing upward.

Steel striker in hand, he struck the flint a few times, until a spark caught the cloth and it began to smoulder. He shielded the cloth with his hand and placed it near the wick of the candle. A gentle blow was all it took to ignite the wick, and the candle burst into life, flame dispelling the shadows and brightening the corners of the room.

Of course, this scene may be too descriptive, and may not be used. At over 200000 words, book one of Dragonspire is already an untameable monster that needs many darlings killed!

Thanks for reading! What’s the strangest thing you’ve researched for writing? Have you ever lit a candle with flint and steel? Do your stories end up as long as mine do?

*Libraries are good too. Warning. Youtube is highly addictive. If you have deadlines, or want a hope of getting anything done, approach with caution.

** Don’t try this at home, not without supervision and a fire extinguisher or water dragon on standby!

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7 responses to “Random research of a distracted writer: How to light a candle in the middle ages.

  1. I don’t think I ever have researched anything specifically for my writing (although I have done when beta reading for people – medical matters always catch writers of histfic out. Pretty much every medical procedure and treatment you can think of dates from the 1870s at best). Being a huge history buff I have used a lot of my existing knowledge in my work though; archery, eating habits, sailing ships and yes, tinder boxes. I’ve even stolen a few lesser known historical incidents wholesale …

    Liked by 2 people

    • The history of medicine is a fascinating subject. I could have wandered around the science museum in London for days. I did a little research on medieval treatments when I was trying to figure out how to treat an arrow wound my character got. I went with honey, which I think is all I could do for the poor bugger!
      I’ll have to pick your brain on archery sometime. I’ve shot arrows a couple of times myself, but my female main character is supposed to be an expert and I was pretty useless!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Must have been so brilliant to find your necklace in the textbook! That’s the sort of thing I’d find thrilling.
    I love research – follow endless links upon links to ever more obscure articles in my attempts to resolve some perplexing question! Nothing I could pick out as odd though – to me they’re all perfectly normal queries, haha!
    Loved this post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was one of the highlights of my history degree 🙂
      I do the same. It’s amazing what you can learn, and how far you get from the original question sometimes. As writers, we’re entitled to think our queries are normal. The looks I get from my other half sometimes suggest otherwise haha!
      Glad you liked the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: A warm welcome & updates schedule! | Dragonspire UK·

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