More on Rushlights

Thinking about the rushlight story, these would only have been readily available to the poor where there was easy access to animal fat. This could have been a problem when only the elites ate meat on a regular basis. Perhaps we can envisage a scenario where rushes were collected and stripped and the pith ‘wicks’ dipped in melted fat in the autumn, when animals that could not be fed over the winter were slaughtered?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of devices were made for holding rushlights. Unlike wax candles, they don’t drip, so carrying them around was not a problem, but they don’t stand up on their own. The Victorian Web has an interesting little piece by Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English gardener, written in 1904 and it includes some helpful photographs.

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6 Responses to More on Rushlights

  1. Hi Sally – yes, I imagine if you had to make a choice between calories for lighting and calories for eating, you ate in the dark! Same problem with oil lamps.

    From what I’ve read about them, rush lights were often made from mutton fat, which can be disagreeable smelly, rather than pork or beef tallow. Were sheep killed before winter, as pigs and cattle were?

    Rendered beef tallow melts at a much higher temperature and doesn’t smell as much as mutton. Tallow candles gave a good flame – not as sweet smelling as wax, but perfectly adequate for the servants’ hall.

    • I believe rush lights to be the poor man’s version of a lamp or a candle. I believe that in the 7th century, a candle (either tallow or wax) would have been an expensive commodity and not readily available. Re the amount of calories available in a rush light, I would imagine it would be very small, is it just a rush dipped in fat after all. In episode 2 of the great programme, Tudor Monastery Farm, the presenter Ruth Goodman shows how to create some rush lights. They don’t seem to use a useful amount of fat to make a light. I am not sure of the historical evidence for them back in 7th century, but I have characters using them in my books.

      • A link to the programme here: Unfortunately, it is not currently available on BBC iPlayer.

      • Sally says:

        Thanks Matthew. Yes, I understand that each rushlight only used a small amount of fat, but I have also read that each light did not burn for very long – perhaps 15 minutes? As is so often the case, we novelists have to make it up (!) but I envisage that firelight would have been the only light after dark (apart from moonlight) for most people most of the time. Given that they were easy to carry around, perhaps rushlights were lit from the fire if you needed to go outside for something? A sort of poor man’s medieval torch.

        • I don’t think they would be of any use outside, as they would just blow out. I would imagine a much more likely scenario would be that everyone was sat around the fire, as you say. Then, perhaps someone wishes to retire to a separate partitioned area (sleeping quarters of a lord in a hall, for example) and they would light a rush from the fire and carry it with them to illuminate their way and for them to see while preparing for sleep.

    • Sally says:

      Thanks Marion. Yes, there seems to be lots of information out there about how to make rushlights and about the various rushlight holders (now, I understand, much sought after in the antiques world), but much less information on the source of fat. The 18th century and later sources take it for granted that the fat was readily and cheaply available, but I don’t think we can extrapolate this back more than a century or two. As you say, if it was a choice between hunger and light, eating in the dark would win every time!

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