February 19, 2013 by

How did medieval people light fires?

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , ,

The simple answer to this question is by striking flint and steel. Lighting a fire was a big deal in the middle ages–both incredibly common place and sometimes not that easy to do if the conditions weren’t right. Fires were kept lit in houses all the time and woe to the child who was supposed to be watching it and it went out 🙂

Lots about medieval fire lighting here:  http://www.sthubertsrangers.org/making_fire.htm

Even more here:  “Since matches did not become available until the mid-1800’s, prior to that time people had to make fires in other ways. The two most common methods of fire-making before the advent of matches were friction and percussion.”  http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/fire.shtml

Fire striker

Four medieval firesteels.

“A fire striker (or fire steel) is a piece of high carbon or alloyed steel from which sparks are struck by the sharp edge of chert or similar rock. Modern fire strikers or artificial flints consist of ferrocerium alloys.

From the Iron Age forward and prior to the invention of the friction match, the use of natural flint and steel was one of the most common methods of fire lighting.

More recently the term “fire striker” has become one of the names used for artificial flints, metal rods of varying size composed of ferrocerium, an alloy of iron and mischmetal (itself an alloy primarily of cerium) that can generate sparks when scraped with a sharp, hard edge. Iron is added to improve the strength of the rods. Ferrocerium is also used for the “flints” used in cigarette lighters.

When natural flint and steel were commonly used, the fire steel was often kept in a metal tinderbox together with flint and tinder.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_striker

“The process of starting a fire with flint and steel is straightforward. A spark is created by striking the steel down across the sharp edge of a flint or quartz rock. The rock shears off tiny flakes of metal, creating sparks. To nurture the spark into a flame, the spark is caught on a highly flammable material called char cloth (‘charcoal cloth’). Once the char cloth is glowing, it is transferred to a bundle of tow and blown into flame. The flaming tow is used to ignite successively larger tinder like wood shavings, dry pine needles and small twigs.”  http://www.mainlymedieval.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=2065

Char cloth is made especially to burn easily:  “On camp, a simple way to make ‘charred-cloth’ is to throw a piece of clean linen, cotton or calico on a fire and let it catch alight : remove it safely and either put the fire out on your cloth by placing a plate, dish or a bowl on it (to restrict the air) or put your booted foot on it on dry ground. When the fire is completely out, save the charred edges nearest the edge of the burned cloth and trim them with scissors or your knife as they are ‘char-cloth’ and the charred edges will catch a spark from flint-and-steel.  However – a much more efficient method of making better char-cloth is to slice or tear up your clean cloth into two-inch square pieces and place them in a sealed tin for ‘burning’ on the embers of a campfire.  Use your dagger to pierce a small hole in the tin – as seen, in both ends of the tin (both base and lid). Loosely pack the tin half-full with your torn-up pieces and place the sealed tin on the embers of a campfire. Smoke will soon issue from the holes in both ends of the tin – which will be noxious if it reaches your nose and eyes – but the basic idea is to char the cloth without burning by restricting the access of air.  It doesn’t matter if the tin gets red-hot but you can assist the process by occasionally turning the tin around on the embers. … in medieval experiments, a clay-pot with a lid did produce a similar result.  http://www.sthubertsrangers.org/making_fire.htm

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.”  http://www.jillwilliamson.com/2010/05/medieval-facts-lighting-part-three-oil-lamps/

6 Responses to How did medieval people light fires?

  1. Pingback: How to Make Char Cloth – Heritage Acres

  2. Torvelo

    Yes I’ve read that post before. It is fairly accurate except for the oval striking stone and amadou making. She suggests that amadou is first charred then boiled in strong urine.
    I dont think charred amadou would take much boiling before shattering since it is a lot more fragile at that point.
    I havent used much char cloth so Im not sure about this but doesnt char cloth/charred amadou get ruined(lose the spark catching ability) when soaked/boiled?
    But otherwise it seems ok to me.
    Thanks

  3. Torvelo

    Well we have information in here Scandinavia about viking age when amadou was really popular (just before middle ages). Obviously other fungy were used such as chaga and cramp balls. In my country people used widely amadou untill 1800’s. If you lived in city you could buy it in stores or just trek into woods and make some! I have made alot of amadou and it doesnt need much to be effective tinder.
    And to create the flame a roll of birch bark filled with shredded juniper bark was used to make fires, and at least in here, tow was not used.

    Have you found any information that tins were used to char material and tow was used for tinder?

    Thanks for replying have a great day!

    • Sarah Post author

      It may well be that you know a lot more about this than I do. I didn’t encounter mention of amadou anywhere until I specifically googled it for starting fires. That’s not to say you aren’t absolutely right. I found mention of using clay pots to create the char cloth. You are right that there isn’t much mention of anything to aid the steel/flint start of a fire until 1600, when char cloth is mentioned. This the best summary I’ve seen: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/fire.shtml She mentions both tow and amadou. I’ll add the link to the post.

  4. Torvelo

    Charcloth was NOT used in medieval, it was used in late 1700’s and even then very rarely cloth being precious commodity. Instead in medieval times they used amadou which is made from horses hoof fungus. Plus people didnt have metal tins in medieval times and even if they had it would have been very expensive just to poke a hole to char cloth?