Medieval Facts: Lighting, part three: Oil Lamps

We are spoiled. Electricity is an amazing convenience. People have lived without it since God created the earth until Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb in 1879. Before then, oil lamps were the main source of light at night or in dark buildings. People had plenty of light because fuel was abundant. Oil lamps were usually placed on tabletops, shelves, or in stands. They were also hung on walls or suspended from ceilings on chains. Oil lamps were simple, useful items or elaborate and expensive decorations. They were made from stone, pottery, glass, and metal. There were all kinds. The kind you carry, the kind you set somewhere, or candelabras. They might have had one wick or dozens.

Oil lamps were a combination of four ingredients: fuel, a chamber to hold the fuel, a wick, and fire.

The Chamber
The chamber was a container or dish that held fuel. These were made out of anything that would not catch fire and burn. Common materials for oil lamps were stone, pottery, glass, and metal. Originally these lamps were very basic. A simple dish with a handle on one side and a groove to hold a wick on the other. Later they became ornate and even included lampshades.

Any kind of oil will burn. One of the most common fuels was olive oil. People also used fish oils, whale oil, caster oil, vegetable oils, ghee, paraffin, and oil from nuts, grains, and cheeses.

The fuel was poured into the chamber. As long as the bottom end of the wick touched the fuel, the lamp would burn bright.

The Wick
Wicks were made from cotton, hemp, and linen. The fabrics were twisted, braided, or woven together. The tighter the wick, the longer it burned.

The wick was threaded though the nozzle, or opening, and into the fuel chamber. Most lamps had one nozzle for the wick to come out of. Some had more than one nozzle, which made the lamp brighter but consumed fuel faster.


Before John Walker invented matches in 1826, fire had to be created a different way. The trick was to produce a spark from friction. Friction can be created by striking stones together, drilling or sawing wood against wood, or using a firesteel that rubbed flint with steel. Check out this site for information on how to start your own fire the old-fashioned way. Cool, huh?

I imagine people tried to keep a small lamp burning or coals smoldering in their stove or hearth to light lamps and candles each night and to cook food throughout the day so they wouldn’t have to strike up fire again and again. But maybe that’s just me. 🙂


See all the posts on Medieval Lighting here:

Lighting, part one.

Lighting, part two.

6 Responses to “Medieval Facts: Lighting, part three: Oil Lamps”

  1. WordVixen says:

    Great post! Our family was friends with a family from Russia, and they told us how they would light the table at dinner time (not sure if this had to do with curfew or lack of electricity- but either way they didn’t have access to bright lights). They would take a glass dish, some olive oil, and a piece of cotton, such as a cotton ball. They would take the cotton, stretch it out, and then twist it tight. They’d pour a tablespoon or two of oil into the middle of the glass dish and roll the cotton over it, and then lay the cotton across the dish and pool of oil with the end sticking out and light that. It doesn’t sound like much, but they said it would last all through dinner.

    Also, that’s exactly what they did according to Little House on the Prairie. A fire was kept burning, and if it went out they would have to go through the hassle of starting it up again.

    But, cheese oil? Seriously? Now that’s funny!

    • novelteen says:

      Wow! How cool about the Russian family, Lori. I’ll have to try that sometime with my kids, just for fun.

      My family grew up with a woodstove. In winter, I remember Dad being happy if he got up in the morning and found a bit of a fire left to work with. He also used to take some coals outside and put them under the van to warm the engine so it would start. Ah, my own little LIttle House in Alaska story. 🙂

  2. Scott Berry says:

    It’s amazing how simple some of the early oil lamps were, like the picture of on in your post. So many people today wouldn’t be able to use such a thing . . . there’s no switch to turn it on. I lived in England for three years and my house had a coal-burning fireplace. It didn’t take too many freezing cold mornings to learn the importance of banking the fire the night before so that there were some embers remaing the next morning to get ease restarting the fire! Enjoyed your other “medieval” articles. Congrats on your nomination as well!

    • novelteen says:

      I think it would be fun to have a no electricity day at our house. I wonder how my kids would react.
      My dad built his own woodstove out of an oil barrel. He still uses that stove to heat the house.
      Thanks, Scott!

  3. reich says:

    I appreciate the post, really helpful. Though could you elaborate on the fuel. As in how they obtained it. And just for curiosity sake it possible to make a lamp from human bones and fat. I know it sounds strange just would like to know. And if it is can you tell me if there is an historical account of it. What did the vikings use as fuel.

    • Thanks! I don’t know the answers to your questions, though. I am not an expert on this topic. I wrote that post back in 2010 when I was researching one of my fantasy novels. Good luck with your research!


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