Lighting the Way (Part I)

Back in 1992, William Manchester wrote a history of the Middle Ages he called A World Lit Only By Fire.  The title called up a vision of the Dark Ages, with poor, bedraggled, lice-ridden people huddled around a fire while boojums and ghosties haunted the world outside their little circle of light.

Problem is, it’s historically wrong.

Because if you think about it, all of our lighting, right up until Thomas Edison’s light bulb (1880), was essentially fire.  Whether it was candles, tallow dips, oil lamps, kerosene, or gas lighting, it was all basically lighting by an open flame.

The Romans are sometimes credited with inventing candles, on somewhat dubious evidence.  Truth is, most of the Roman world was lighted by oil lamps, usually burning something derived from tallow, or animal fat.  The lights were dim, they smoked a lot, and they smelled to high heaven.

At its height, the city of Rome had about a million people in it.  Imagine this huge city, with a few districts of the very rich surrounded by warrens of tenements.  The movies light to show old Rome as somehow magically well lighted by torches.  Not true. The Roman world’s streets were pretty much at the mercy of moonlight, safe when the moon was full, dangerous when it was dark.  And inside those tenements all was dim, smoky lighting with the smell of burning, rancid oil.  Those lamps got darned hot, too, often causing people to spill hot, burning oil on their nice, flammable possessions.

Hence Rome burned with some regularity.

Now zoom our time machine forward to the Middle Ages.  The streets were still pretty much at the mercy of moonlight, and many houses were still dimly lit by oil lamps.  But the millennium plus years had brought one great improvement, something we would recognize: real, honest-to-goodness candles.

Of course, unless you were very rich, candles were still made of that charming material, tallow.  Which meant they were still dim, they still smoked a lot, and they still smelled to high heaven.  They had the added benefit that, like bad M&Ms, they tended to melt all over your hands and collapse in hot weather.  Still, they gave better light than oil lamps and were less likely to burn the place down.

On the other hand, if you happened to be among the gentry or the clergy, you might be able to use the new invention, the beeswax candle.  Properly made (beeswax being very expensive, lots of them were adulterated with…you guessed it…tallow) they gave a bright light, didn’t drop smuts all over everything, and only needed periodic snuffing. [Contrary to our usage, to snuff a candle meant to trim away the dead part of the wick, making the candle bright again.  If, instead of brightening the candle, you overdid it and put the candle out, you snuffed it out.]

But insofar as the out-of-doors was concerned, the situation really hadn’t changed all that much.  And most of the changes were for the worse.  Walking around on dark nights made you prey for footpads and cutpurses (i.e. muggers).  But while Rome had a splendid sewer system, medieval cities had none.  So the dark streets held noisome surprises that included dead animals, horse droppings, kitchen slops, and the dumpings from chamber pots.

Once again, if you were wealthy enough, things were a bit better.  You could hire someone called a linksman, to carry a torch ahead of you.  This warned the thieves that you were probably armed and gave you a fair chance of seeing the rude piles of this and that before you stepped in them.  Otherwise, your safety was still defined by the phases of the moon.

Eventually, cities started passing ordinances that required owners to put a lamp on the outside of their buildings on moonless nights.  Tallow oil lamps sooted up the glass in the lanterns in no time, so the early regulations called for candles.  Since most cheap candles contained some quantity of animal fat, they only delayed the process.  And since few owners took the trouble to keep their lanterns clean, the improvement, while real, was hardly curative.  Murphy’s Law being what it is, folks soon noticed that the shadows between the lamps always seemed to have the biggest piles of nastiness to trip over or fall into.

By the seventeenth century, Europeans had discovered that whale oil made better lamp oil (still smelly, though) and better candles.  Their households benefitted and so did the city streets.   (Needless to say, the whales didn’t benefit.)  Soon street lighting became a municipal responsibility and a considerable public expense.  As might be expected, the richer the neighborhoods, the more street lamps they were likely to have and the more likely they were to actually be lit.

Truth to tell, though, the British of the time still complain about the miserable lighting and unsafe streets.  It was a perennial problem that stretched far back in history and was never likely to be solved.

However, the Law of Unintended Consequences had a surprise and a virtual revolution waiting for them.

It seems Britain was running out of trees…

Due to space constraints, this column will be continued next month.

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