In the Middle Ages, chandlers made two kinds of candles, tallow and beeswax. The chandlers of each had their own guilds, the Tallowchandlers and the Waxchandlers, with their own rules. In London, for example, if a Waxchandler added tallow to his beeswax candles, all of his supplies could be confiscated as punishment.
Tallow candles were the kind that the peasants used, a one-pound candle costing about a day's wages. They were made from rendered animal fat. Sheep fat was the best, followed by deer, beef, and finally pig, if nothing else was available. Sand was sometimes added to the mix to keep them from burning too hot. The candles were formed by either dipping the wicks into the tallow, or by pouring the fat into a mold, or sometimes by sandcasting them. As you can imagine from their ingredients, they were quite smelly! They also gave off a lot of smoke, burned very quickly, required constant trimming, drooped, stuck together in warm weather, and even worse, went rancid after a while.
Candles made from beeswax were much better… if you could afford them. In 1136 England, the rights of the high nobles to have candle ends from the royal household were spelled out, such as 4 per day. The nobility and the church were the largest users of beewax candles. Bees were viewed as blessed by God, so it was fitting that candles made from beeswax were burned in the churches. They were expensive, but burned slowly and didn't smell badly or give off very much smoke. To make this type of candle, beeswax was poured over the wick or pressed into a mold. Wicks in medieval times were made by twisting reed pith, linen or flax. The practice of braiding the wicks didn't come into practice until much later.
Other Uses for Beeswax
Beehives could be found in fruit orchards, forests, fields, and monasteries. About 10 pounds of beewax could be harvested from each hive annually. Other craftsmen in the medieval community had uses for it, in addition to the chandlers. Fletchers used it to wax their bowsprings made of linen, hemp or gut. This prevented the strings from absorbing water and helped them to keep their shape. Woodworkers used beeswax as wood polish. Metalworkers used wax molds to cast delicate works of gold and other metals. And hidecrafters used it to wax the threads that they pulled through the heavy leathers, and also for waterproofing seams.
"Bees and Bee-keeping".
Bishop, Morris. The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages.
Doms, Keith R. "Let There Be Light".
Galloway, Priscilla. Archers, Alchemists, and 98 other Medieval Jobs You Might have Loved or Loathed.
~Write-up by Kester*
*) denotes a former staff member.