Medieval Occupations: Candlemaker

Candlemakers didn’t just make candles; they also had to know about the substances required for their craft. 

Candles were commonplace throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and candle-making was a relatively easy craft that provided just a modest income. 

Candles were made from animal fats, tallow from cows or sheep, and later beeswax, although this material could only be afforded by the rich and for certain churches and royal events.

History of Candlemakers

Candles were invented and developed independently by different groups of people as far as 5000 years ago. The Romans made them from tallow as early as 500 BC, while the Qin dynasty in China used whole fat around 221–206 BC. In India, temples boiled cinnamon to make candles, and the early Greeks used them to honor the goddess Artemis. The wicked candle is believed to have originated in Rome by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, olive oil, the most common fuel for oil lamps, was suddenly widely unavailable throughout Europe. This is one reason why candles became more widespread, usually made from fats saved from the kitchen and accompanied by the manufacture of sauces, vinegar, soap, and cheese.

The most used material was tallow, fat from cows or sheep. Its smell was so unpleasant that its manufacture was banned by ordinance in several European cities. Fortunately, beeswax didn’t share the problem. However, only the rich could afford it. 

Candle making became a guild craft in England and France in the 13th century.

A manuscript showing candles. BL Royal 20 D IV Lancelot du Lac, 1300-1325 Arras, France.
A manuscript showing candles. BL Royal 20 D IV Lancelot du Lac, 1300-1325 Arras, France. Image courtesy of Medieval Miniatures.
Medieval bees in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 151v. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Tallow and Beeswax

Tallow is a rendered form of beef or mutton fat made up mostly of triglycerides. It can be stored for extended periods without the need for refrigeration, as long as it’s kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation. Tallow was the chosen material for molded candles for most middle ages and continued to be a cheap alternative after wax varieties became more widely available. 

Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honey bees of the genus Apis, who produce them using glands in their abdominal segments. Chemically, beeswax is mainly made of fatty acids and long-chain alcohols. It’s believed that one kilogram of wax is used to store 22 kg of honey. Beeswax burns readily and cleanly, it never goes bad, and it can be heated and reused. 

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