Candles have been used as a light source for at least 5,000 years. During medieval times, candles were the only source of light apart from oil lamps and daylight and so were an important item in any household. The simplest candles were known as rush lights and were made by simply dipping rushes into kitchen fat. At the other end of the scale were the finest beeswax candles made for noble and royal households, which had a pleasant scent, were long lasting and gave off little smoke, unlike cheaper candles.
The Work of a Chandler in Medieval Times
The most common type of candle made by the chandler was the tallow candle, made from the fat of animals such as sheep or cows. The candle was a dark yellow colour, gave off a strong smell and was usually sold in bundles by weight. These gave off a brighter light than rush lights, but beeswax candles were the superior candle in terms of both appearance and light quality. The wealthy medieval church was one of the biggest purchasers of beeswax candles.
At the height of the Middle Ages, chandlers began, in common to members of other professions, to organise themselves into guilds. There were two guilds for chandlers – one for wax candle makers and one for tallow candle makers. Because tallow candles were made with animal fat, some chandlers also worked as, or alongside, butchers or skinners. The candle profession, like so many others in medieval society was heavily regulated, and it became canon law that the candles used in European cathedrals had to be composed of at least sixty percent beeswax. As the profession developed, candles were perfected which would burn for exactly 24 hours and therefore could be used as a timekeeping tool. So valued was beeswax that it could even be accepted as a payment for tithe, in place of cash.
Medieval Tallow Candles
Due to the strong smell associated with tallow candle production, tallow chandlers were often forced to site their business away from residential areas. The job was an unpleasant one, with the smell of animal fat which had to be added to lye, oils and ash to make soap, a by-product of tallow candle production. Tallow candles gave out an unpleasant acidic odour even when finished, and tended to burn unevenly, another reason for their unpopularity with the wealthy and the clergy.