Large central fires, candles, rush lights, burning torches, or lanterns provided medieval lighting. Candles, which have been used since Roman times, were manufactured from animal fat or, if you were affluent, beeswax. These lights look especially well in high-ceilinged spaces or barn conversions. They are not recommended for use in a bedroom because they may cause heartburn due to the smoke and heat of the candle.
Lamps appeared in Europe around AD 1000. They were made from clay, stone, wood, or metal and used oil or whale fat as fuel. The best-known lamp today is probably the hurricane lamp which uses a glass chimney to channel wind across a pool of oil that gives off light without smoke. These were popular with sailors and explorers before electric lights became available in the 19th century.
Fire was the main form of illumination until electricity came along. It is easy to underestimate how much fire was used in past centuries; it was everywhere, even in homes! Fireplaces were built into most English houses between 1450 and 1850, so they were always well-lit. Windows were mainly left unglazed to prevent arsonists setting buildings alight during disputes over land ownership. Even in the 18th century half of all London houses had no roof lights.
There were several reasons why people didn't want their houses dark at night.
All Romans utilized pottery lamps as a source of light. Throughout the Roman Empire, artificial light was prevalent, and earthenware oil lamps provided an alternative to candle light. Candles made of beeswax or tallow were less expensive but did not last as long. The oldest known piece of street furniture in Rome is a lampstand dating back to 75 B.C.
Beeswax was harvested from hives located within the city walls of Rome. When enough candles had been collected, they were combined with olive oil to make one large batch of oil that was used throughout the year. This way the supply of wax would never run out even during times of scarcity. The making of candles was an important occupation for many people throughout the world. In Europe, Germany was the leading producer while France consumed more than it produced.
The Greeks are credited with first introducing the idea of using lamps for lighting purposes. They used them to light their streets and houses. However, it was the Romans who developed this technology and put it to use on a large scale. By 225 A.D., there were approximately 3,000 lamps in use in Rome. They were placed about every 20 feet along the roads leading into the city from the surrounding areas. These roads were called luci di navio ("lights by the sea"), because they were usually well-lit at night.
The principal light sources were candles, oil lamps, rushlights, and braziers. Candles or oil lamps would be utilized in floor-standing candelabras or ceiling-mounted chandeliers. Torches were also utilized, although mostly for transportable lighting within castle walls. Rushlights consisted of a bowl of glowing embers with a wick protruding up into it. They were easy to carry but gave off very little light.
Braziers were baskets filled with coals with a wick stuck in them. They were used primarily for cooking but could also be placed on tables next to candles or lamps.
Households also made use of peepholes in doors for observing what was going on outside their homes. These holes usually had no glass inserted into them and were often just holes cut out of the wood itself. People would stand outside and through this opening they could see who was approaching and maybe even talk to them through the door before they opened it.
In the winter months people would keep fires burning in their homes to provide heat. In the middle ages these fires were mainly made of coal but sometimes wood was used instead. Fires could be seen from a distance down the street if there was anyone walking around with a fire inside their house. This is how people knew when someone was trying to warm themselves at home during cold days.
In the middle ages most houses did not have windows.
"Garderobes" were simple bathrooms found in castles. Candles or oil lamps supplied light, rather than the powerful torches represented in Hollywood films. Fires were still lit in the center of the Great Hall throughout the early Middle Ages, frequently with a lantern tower above to allow the smoke escape. Smoke would have blocked vision on the ground level, but people would have used their sense of smell to find their way around.
As time went on, more elaborate facilities were built into the walls of the castle. Small windows allowed some daylight into these rooms, but most had only one entrance and exit, which made lighting them up at night very important.
The "chapel" was a private room within the confines of the castle wall for prayer and meditation. These usually had no window and were brightly illuminated by candles or lamps.
Larger buildings such as halls and great chambers had windows along one side, allowing some natural light into these spaces during the day. But at night they were dark, dreary places where only the faintest glimmer of light penetrated from outside. It is here that the art of illumination came into its own, using color, glass, and precious stones to transform darkness into beauty and guide those who wandered in from the road or field back to their families.
Medieval castles were often home to many servants and workers.