Tag Archives: Beeswax candles

Beekeeping In The Middle Ages

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Last week Robyn, from Big Dreams for a Tiny Garden, asked a question in the comments section about honey in the Middle Ages and I had to admit that I have avoided tackling the subject. Not because I’m afraid of bees; I’m not and I love seeing them in the garden.  It’s because, if I think too much about them, I might be tempted to get a hive and turn out to be very allergic to bee stings.

Despite all this, bees and their products do deserve a post of their own, so here it is.

In the fourteenth century bees were kept in skeps – upside-down conical baskets with a small hole allowing bees to enter and exit. Skeps were usually kept in a sheltered place, since bees don’t like bad weather. As a means of keeping bees, skeps were far from perfect as they could not be examined for wax or honey without disturbing the bees.

Bees produce two things much in demand in the fourteenth century – honey and wax. You might think that honey was the more important of the two, but you’d be wrong.

Until sufficient sugar cane could be grown outside of the eastern Mediterranean to make it affordable for most people, honey was the main source of sweetness in food. Wax was the more valuable product, however, and theft of skeps was a perpetual problem. They were small enough to be portable and there were usually several of them kept together.

Honey was extracted from the wax by pressing it. The wax had to be washed to remove any remaining honey before it could be put to one of its many uses.

Honey was a versatile product. Its most important use was as a food flavouring. It was used to flavour ale and to add sweetness to the porridge with which many people started the day. This is certainly my favourite use for honey. Honey has antiseptic properties and was used to help wounds heal. This use of honey is definitely going to make an appearance in one of my novels. It was used in bread making and was also rubbed onto horse’s legs when they were sick.

Wax was much more important than honey. Both were imported into England as well as harvested here, but it wasn’t worth transporting honey long distances, because merchants could not make as much money from it as they could from wax.

The most obvious use for wax was for candles. Beeswax gives a pure and odourless light. This was particularly important in monasteries and churches. Monasteries kept bees in order to collect wax for candles, but they could not always collect enough. Wax was imported into England to meet the demand for wax candles by royalty, monasteries and nobles. Most of it was imported into London. Edward I bought a large amount of imported wax from John of London, a merchant living in Southampton.

Like honey, wax had medicinal uses and was included in a remedy for an abscess in the throat, amongst other things.

Pilgrims left wax images at shrines they visited as a sign of gratitude or as a reflection of their prayers.  Wax could be shaped as something relevant to the saint or to show the reason for pilgrimage.

The king and his nobles had another use for wax. They mixed it with a resin, melted it and attached it to documents, then they put their seals into it to show their agreement to whatever was in the document.

Seal of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford c 1218 to 1230

Wax was imported from Spain and Eastern Europe, mainly from Russia. Some also came from North Africa. The main African centre was Béjaïa, whose name gave the French their word for candle – bougie. France imported greater quantities of wax than England.

 

Sources:

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe – by Peter Spufford

The Medieval Cookbook – Maggie Black

Medieval Southampton – Colin Platt

The Medieval Cook – Bridget Ann Henisch

Tudor Monastery Farm – Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

 

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Wolf Hall, or throwing some light on the subject

Like many others I’m really enjoying watching Wolf Hall on the television, but I don’t want to write here about the wonderful acing, or the fantastic buildings, the amazing script or the many beautiful objects on show, although it has all those things. I want to write about the candles.

Most period drama would have you believe that houses in the past were as well-lit as they are today when the household gathered to talk or to eat or to do anything else at the end of the day. I think Cranford is probably the only one prior to Wolf Hall that showed people depending on candles for light after nightfall and gave the viewer an idea of what that means.

Wolf Hall has had two memorable, for me anyway, scenes showing candlelight. In one scene Cromwell’s sister-in-law is putting out candles in the room where he is sitting reading. As the candles go out the room gets darker, significantly darker. A small thing, you might say, but it clearly took a lot of candles to produce adequate light for him to read. Yes, I do realise that there was also artificial lighting for the cameras, but it was a useful reminder that houses were not full of light after sunset. In the second scene Cromwell returns from a night visit to the king with his sons. They all light candles to light them to their beds.

I mention this because I read many books set in times before gas or electricity were used for domestic lighting which forget candles. Often I’ve read about some nocturnal escapade and thought ‘what are they doing with the candle while they’re doing that?’ All suspension of disbelief vanishes.

Candles can be a useful literary device. They can be blown out at a critical moment, or show the emotional state of the person holding one or be difficult to find or light in an emergency, thus heightening the tension.

Candles can also be used to show the wealth or otherwise of a character. In the Middle Ages tallow candles were used by the poor and wax candles by those with money. Naturally enough the different types of candle had different qualities of light and different smells. Tallow was made from animal fat and the candles made from it smelt dreadful and gave off a lot of smoke. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, gave off a good light without much smoke. A story using light or smell to evoke atmosphere could make much of this.

Candle

In Regency times candles could also give clues about wealth. Tallow was still used in poorer homes and beeswax in richer ones. The tallow was of a better quality than that used in medieval times and the manufacture was slightly more sophisticated. Wax candles could be moulded or made of thin sheets wound around the core, as in the picture. A third type of light was made with rushes: the rushlight. This was made by drawing a prepared rush through waste household fat. Since candles were heavily taxed, there was a strong incentive to obtain them from places other than a licensed chandler’s. Apparently people could tell how long balls were intended to last from the length of the candles used to light them, although I’m not sure how easy, or relevant, it would be to weave such a fact into a narrative.

One of the things that taught me the most about lighting in the nineteenth century was seeing a gaming table at Hampton Court. In each of the corners of the table was a space in which a candle could be set. It makes perfect sense, of course. How else could card players see their cards? A whole host of dramatic opportunities opened up for future novels just from seeing that one object.

Wolf Hall may have a complicated plot and it may be difficult to work out who all the characters are, but every time I notice how dark it is I’ll be thinking about the importance of candles to our ancestors.

Are there things in novels set in the past that pull you out of a story or have you come across novels in which candles are used to good effect?

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