Posted by: kljolly | November 7, 2016

Seeing to Write

I fell down another research rabbit hole.  Like Alice in Wonderland, I enjoy the free fall and sights along the way, although it began to feel more like this Arthur Racalice_in_wonderland_by_arthur_rackham_-_15_-_at_this_the_whole_pack_rose_up_into_the_air_and_came_flying_down_upon_herkham illustration from later in the story.

My intention was to use a rare free day (free of grading, meetings, and other tasks) to belatedly reflect on the paper I gave in early October on “Writing Spaces” at the Material World of the Early Middle Ages conference at Pacific University in Portland, OR.  It was one of those wonderful small conferences where everyone is working on fascinating subjects that end up intersecting with each other.  As a consequence, I came away with more questions than I arrived with about my topic, the physical spaces in which scribes worked.

The rabbit in question is indoor lighting for scribal work, with a special focus on tenth-century Northumbria and Chester-le-Street.  As my longtime colleague Robin Fleming pointed out, most indoor spaces were likely dim and smoky, depending on the fuel used to light or heat the space.  So how did they see well enough to do the detailed work we find in manuscripts like Durham A.IV.19?

Durham Cathedral Cloister in winter

Durham Cathedral Cloister in winter

My initial concerns with the architectural space revolved around wood versus stone buildings and the degree to which early medieval English scribes might customarily do their work in a semi-covered cloister area, as is evident in later structures, for example at Durham Cathedral (left).  The advantage of a cloister walk is that the openings into the green provide abundant light during the day, while offering shelter in carrels for the scribe’s workspace, as well as cupboards for storage.

Setting aside whether tenth-century Chester-le-Street even had a cloister, the colder climate in the north and the shorter days in the winter suggest that scribes would need indoor spaces to conduct the amount of scribal stints they seem to have accomplished between church services and other duties.

Whether these indoor spaces were rooms set aside specifically for the task, or ad hoc locations set up in the church or in other buildings, windows cannot have been the only source of illumination for their work.  Windows in many buildings, stone or wood, were likely small:  Old English words include eag-duru, eye-door, and eag-þyrl, eye-hole.  Such windows were unlikely to be covered with something transparent enough for strong light transmission, such as expensive glass, although they might have oiled sheets, shaved horn, or simply curtains or shutters.  Windows are also problematic if open to wind and cold, not to mention useless as a light source when the sun is down.

So I went searching for lamps, lanterns, candles, torches, and other sources of firelight, as well as their accoutrements and fuel sources.  These are my ramblings so far (keep in mind the image above of Alice with the cards flying around her).

I would divide these devices into two generic categories:  things with wicks and things without wicks.  A wick (OE weoce) is a wonderful invention allowing a steady flame for periods of time without having to feed or adjust it while it draws on the fuel source (oil, fat, or wax, but more on that later).

First, things without wicks.  A fireplace or a brazier burning wood or tinder of some kind usually is used for warmth and would be located in such a way as to funnel as much smoke as possible out of the room, so is less likely to be near enough to help a scribe unless he sat or crouched beside it with a lap table (and risk setting his parchment on fire).  Based admittedly on my experiences as a Girl Scout roasting marshmallows over a campfire, by the time you are close enough to see to read by it (or get your marshmallow over the best coals), you are way too hot.

The stereotypical medieval torch (Lat. fax, facula, OE þæcele) is basically a stick with a bundle of something (straw, wood, cloth?) dipped in fuel, a giant wick if you will, that can be carried or placed in a sconce.  We usually imagine them as unpleasantly smoky and hard to see by (cue visuals of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark wading through a pit of snakes…).  Certainly a candle, lamp, or lantern would be a preferred source of light, easier to handle and set in a convenient place to see by.


Roman oil lamp, probably for the poor (Rita Roberts blog)

A lamp is an ambiguous thing:  OE blāc-ern (“light-place”) and leoht-fæt (“light vessel”) glossing Lat. lucerna or lampas and variations, can be light itself, candle, lamp, or lantern. Enclosed Aladdin-like lamps or open bowl lamps with a wick seem common enough:  a Roman oil lamp, with diagram; Viking Shetland lamps (the discussion posits fish oil as a fuel source); and later medieval cresset lamps that could be placed in a holder.  These devices seem to rely on oil, not solid wax or fat.  However, oil (OE ele), whether olive, fish, or vegetable, occurs mostly in liturgical and medicinal contexts for anointing and may not have been readily available in a cheap enough form to burn in Anglo-Saxon England.

7th century iron lamp, Clobb's Row, British Museum (Woruldhord)

7th century iron lamp, Clobb’s Row, British Museum (Woruldhord)

We do have early Anglo-Saxon evidence of iron tripod stand lamps.  Presumably these were meant to be closer to people with the object of providing illumination.  They have been found primarily in 7th century high status burial sites like Sutton Hoo (scroll through Bartholomew’s World to see it), Clobb’s Row to the right (British Museum, available at Woruldhord), and this same? one from the British Museum.  Did they have wicks?  These examples have the remains of beeswax in them, which suggests yes.  Were such items still in use in the 1oth century?  Send me examples if you have them.

A single candle with wick in a bowl or other holder might do for a lone scribe, or better yet a candelabra with multiple candle flames.  OE candel occurs commonly, mostly in religious contexts, along with a variety of candel-compounds indicating various stands, holders, and snuffers for them, as well as a surprising number of candel-kennings for the sun (for example, dæg-candel).

What is the solid fuel of which the candle is made?  Does Lat. cerea and OE weax refer only to beeswax?  Beeswax would be pleasant-smelling but expensive, while tallow or fat much less pleasant, if more readily available. OE smearu (fat, tallow) occurs primarily in recipes and as a gloss to Lat. unguentum and salve, so it is unclear if animal fat is associated with candles. A scribe in a religious community would have access to beeswax candles, paid as dues to the church.  But would they be reserved for liturgical use and only sparingly for writing?

Moreover, those who have tried reading by a candle when the power is out know that it is not ideal except when held in clear glass to increase luminosity.  Glass bowls certainly existed in Anglo-Saxon England, but is there evidence of candle wax is any of them? The single use of OE glæsfæt and glæsene leohtfatu to describe a glass lamp (in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues Book 1.7 story of the miraculously restored glass lamp that Nonnosus broke while washing) suggests they were precious objects in church use.

You can also put a candle in a lantern.  For us, if not for Anglo-Saxons, a lantern is distinct from a lamp or a candle holder.  We picture a semi-enclosed device designed to hold a candle or oil with wick apparatus and transparent sides directing or increasing luminosity.  Asser famously describes King Aldred’s innovative time-keeping candle-lantern:

104.  When he had thought about these things for some time, he at last hit upon a useful and intelligent solution.  He instructed his chaplains to produce an ample quantity of wax, and, when they had brought it, he told them to weigh it against the weight of pennies on a two-pound balance.  When a sufficient amount of wax, equivalent in weight to seventy-two pennies, had been measured out, he told the chaplains to make six candles out of it, each of equal size, so that each candle would be twelve inches long and would have the inches marked on it.  Accordingly, once this plan had been devised, the six candles were lit so as to burn without interruption through the twenty-four hours of each day and night in the presence of the holy relics of a number of God’s chosen saints which the king always had with him everywhere.  But because of the extreme violence of the wind, which sometimes blew day and night without stopping through the doors of the churches or through the numerous cracks in the windows, walls, wall-panels and partitions, and likewise through the thin material of the tents, the candles on occasion could not continue burning through an entire day and night up to the same hour that they had been lighted the evening before; when this happened it caused the candles to burn up more quickly than they should, so that they had finished their course before the appointed hour.  Alfred considered how he might be able to exclude the draughts of wind; and when he had ingeniously and cleverly devised a plan, he ordered a lantern to be constructed attractively out of wood and ox-horn—for white oxhorn, when shaved down finely with a blade, becomes as translucent as a glass vessel.  Once this lantern had been marvellously constructed from wood and horn in the manner I have described, and a candle had been placed inside it at night so that it shone brightly without as within, it could not be disturbed by any gust of wind, since he had asked for the door of the lantern to be made of horn as well.  When the apparatus had been constructed in this way, the six candles could burn one after the other without interruption through the course of the twenty-four hours—neither more quickly nor more slowly.  And once these candles were consumed, more were lighted. [trans. from Alfred the Great:  Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other Contemporary Sources, ed. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Penguin, 1983]


For discussion, see David Pratt, Political Thought of King Alfred, pp. 137, 186-87, 207.  I also found this Time Team Canterbury 2000 reproduction that looks like it is based on this description.

Several things are notable in Asser’s description:

  • The use of wax candles, presumably beeswax, was an expensive item but used in a royal and devotional context.
  • Drafts were a problem even in well-appointed royal buildings, as well as churches, enough to make candles gutter and burn unevenly, but apparently not strong enough to extinguish candles in ordinary holders.
  • This was a portable system, meant to be used on the road (in tents) and whatever church or building the king found himself in.
  • Alfred’s invention is designed to measure time, not serve to give light to read or write.
  • Yet the description does mention how bright the lantern light was, given the translucency of the covering.
  • The concept of a lantern does not seem to be new.  What is innovative in Alfred’s design is the time-keeping accuracy because of covering the lantern, including its door, with translucent white ox-horn (presumably expensive) to prevent drafts from reaching it.  This suggests that most lanterns had an open side to shed light.

Would such a lantern be useful for reading or writing by?

So, having floated past a number of curiosities, I arrive in Wonderland still looking for my rabbit:

  1. How did Anglo-Saxon scribes use candles, lamps, or lanterns on or near their writing surfaces to illuminate their work?  Is that why they are often depicted in images and ditties as hunched over?
  2. Was the fuel source oil, wax, or tallow?  What are the pros and cons of each in terms of availability, cost, burn rate, luminosity, and smokiness? Has anyone tested parchment for smoke residue?

    Arthur Rackham, “off with her head”


What light (ahem) does the linguistic evidence of Aldred’s Old English gloss shed on these questions?  This post is overly long, so I will leave that material for another post and another free day–perhaps the U.S. “holiday” tomorrow, when I will need a distraction from the election news.  Speaking of Wonderland, tea parties, and through the looking glass….


  1. Fascinating post, thank you.

    • Thanks Victoria. Any suggestions on northern artifacts that might be suggestive of lamp or lantern?

  2. Re: evidence from Aldred’s gloss
    Aldred uses ‘ðæccelle’ to gloss both ‘lucerna’ in Durham A.IV.19 and ‘lampas’ in the original collectar. In Lindisfarne ‘lucerna’ and ‘lampas’ are glossed by ‘lehtfæt’ as well as ‘ðæccilla’. The term ‘lehtisern’ (light-iron) is his usual gloss for ‘candelabrum’.
    There may be a clue to Aldred’s world in the gloss for ‘candelabrum’ in Luke’s Gospel where the metaphor of hiding a light under a bushel occurs twice. Typically, Aldred uses this opportunity to gloss the same Latin words in different ways. In Lk8.16 he glosses ‘lucernam’ with ‘lehtfæt’ (to which he later adds ‘ðæcilla’) and ‘candelabrum’ with ‘lehtisrn’; in Lk11.33 ‘lucernam’ is glossed by ‘ðæccilla’ alone and ‘candelabrum’ by ‘lehtfæte’.

    By associating ‘lehtfæt’ and ‘lehtisern’, is Aldred imagining a lamp in the form of an iron vessel like the iron tripod stand lamps you mention?

    • Aha, James, you jumped ahead to my next post.
      Aldred never uses blāc-ern, preferring as you note leht- compounds and ðæccille (four times in Durham A.IV. 19 as well). His is an unusual spelling for a less frequent OE word, þæcele, an alternate spelling of fæcele, used only in glossaries and derived from Lat. fax, facula, torch.
      Leht-isern is only used by Aldred, so yes, maybe he was familiar with iron tripod stand lamps. Thanks for that suggestion.
      Also check out his gloss of John 18:3 [fol. 250v] in the passage describing Judas’ arrival at the garden “cum lanternis et facibus et armis” by glossing it with “mið spear’ vel mið lehtfatu’ 7 brondu’ vel ðæccillu’ 7 woepnum.” Spear’ is presumably an abbreviation of spearca (spark), although Skeat wrongly makes it spearum. So why does Aldred use alternatives here, particularly in this double pairing where spark and brand are relatively low tech fire sources, while light-vessel and maybe torch are a bit more constructed?
      I guess I don’t need to do another post.

      • In Mark, Owen also glosses ‘candelabrum’ with ‘leht-isern’, as you might expect using the same word as Aldred. So maybe the term was limited to Northumbria, folks further south preferring combinations with ‘candel’ (Farman: ‘candel treow’; West Saxon Gospels: ‘candel stæf’.
        Thanks for the clarification on ‘spearum/spearca’. The double id-est-vel glosses on ‘lanternis’ and ‘facibus’ appear necessary as ‘spear’’ and ‘brondu’’ could be read as weapons, bearing in mind that ‘brond’ was used metaphorically to denote a sword and in Late Old Northumbrian the long /e:/ phoneme in ‘spere’ was regularly confused with the dipthongs ‘ea’ and ‘eo’.

  3. Good point about brond and perhaps spear/c as weapons. That reading still raises questions about how Aldred pictured the arrival of Judas and his cohorts.
    Going back to candel: am I correct that Aldred never uses candel or any candel-compound? I am not seeing any reference in DOE.

    • I don’t know of any example of candel- in Aldred’s work. Ðæccelle seems to be the only term he uses for something of that shape. In the prefatory material to Matthew he uses it to gloss ‘lampades’ which occurs together with ‘scintillae’, meaning sparks. ‘Scintillae’ is glossed ‘gloetas’ in the Plures Fuisse (f7v) and ‘gloedo’ in the original collectar (f41v). BT cites these examples under ‘gled’, a word which usually refers to burning coals, c.f.Aldred’s and Owun’s gloss of ‘prunas’ in John’s Gospel. I wonder if Aldred uses the same word for sparks and burning coals because this is what he saw sitting round the fire (although probably not toasting marshmallows).

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