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The Middle Ages Unlocked: Starting a Fire

Middle Ages Unlocked

The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300, is a new book by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania. Now available from Amberley Publishing, the book explores a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed. In this series of posts, Gillian and Katrin write about how this book was created.

Katrin Kania: The Middle Ages Unlocked is not only built on sources and scholarly research – it also incorporates aspects that can only be learned through Living History.

When I first got involved with the Middle Ages, it was through Living History events. Over time, and in connection with my studies of Medieval Archaeology, these events gradually turned from having a nice weekend out with friends to exploring certain aspects of daily life in history through personal experience, making connections between these experiences and scholarly knowledge.

One of the reasons why Living History is such a fascinating thing to do, and such a helpful complement to classical scholarly research, is the possibility to really experience little bits of a time long gone by. It is a wonderful way to try and understand why some things were just like they were, and to find out about misconceptions.

One very good example of misconceptions we have today about a bit of boringly daily life in medieval times is fire – or, more specifically, lighting fire. Most of us modern westerners do not light fires on a daily basis anymore. We do it on special occasions: when there is a festivity that needs a bonfire, or when we fire up the barbecue (though that is a different sort of fire and started differently in many cases). There are convenient firestarters that will help get the wood or charcoal going, and they are easy to light with a lighter or some matches.

British Library MS-Royal 2 B II fol 1v detailHowever, not doing this very often, and consequently not knowing a lot about how to do it efficiently, means that lighting a fire can still be a longish procedure that does take an effort. And here’s the slippery slope for our misconception: if it is not easy with our modern firestarters and lighters, it must have been much, much harder and have taken an even longer time back in the Middle Ages.

Hence, probably, the assumption that the fire was never to go out in a household, because it would take hours of hard work to get it started again.

Let me tell you very clearly here and now: that is not so. It is no problem at all to light a fire using medieval equipment and techniques: a piece of flint, a fire-steel, some tinder and suitable material. When I have my usual equipment and the spark settles on the tinder right away, it takes me about ten minutes from pulling out the bag where I store my things for lighting the fire and the first merry flame burning. It is no problem when it’s a bit windy, either – actually it is quite helpful since the wind will fan the little nest of embers.

Now, when we first tried this in our group, it did take us a long time to light a fire. There were three, sometimes four of us, working really hard, with one of us continually fanning the embers, or flames (using a blowpipe), and the others trying to feed the tiny little flame that sometimes came up with tiny little bits of fuel. It went out again more often than not, and if we’d managed to do it in under an hour, we felt like the kings of the world. We were young then, and had no idea, and the wealth of knowledge that is on Youtube did not exist back then.

Then, one day, I helped run a charcoal kiln (which is a different story, and was utterly wonderful and utterly interesting). A charcoal kiln is basically a huge, very dense stack of wood that is covered with a mix of soil, coal dust, and small coal pieces. That cover keeps most of the oxygen out of the kiln, so when it is started, it only smoulders and does not burn. Smouldering and thus turning the wood into charcoal starts at the top, and the huge, very hot ember inside travels inwards and outwards.

I learned about this during my time as a charcoal burner’s hand, and the next time I sat down with my flint and steel, something went click in my brain. The way I had tried to build the fire before was not the proper way to do it. I was trying to light a fire according to the system you use when you have the modern firestarters – those things that you light with a single match, and they burn with a nice hot flame for a good while. The flame’s heat travels upwards, so you usually make a small tipi or something like that and place your starter underneath.

When you use flint and steel, though, you do not produce flame right away. If you fan your little nest of tinder and straw and wood shavings to a flame, that will not burn long enough or hot enough to make the wood you built up catch fire – you have an ember in that little nest, and its heat will travel downwards and outwards.

So I started building my fires upside down: a slab of wood at the very bottom, to catch and reflect any heat and insulate the starting fire from the cold of the ground. Then small bits of wood, stacked up like a log building, widening a little so it looks like an upside-down pyramid. Around that some larger pieces of wood, also in log-house formation. Once that is done, I make a nest from straw and wood shavings, strike a spark into my tinder (for ecological reasons and convenience, I usually have charred cotton cloth as tinder), and place the piece of tinder into the nest. I close the nest and gently blow on it until it’s quite hot, then I place it into the upside-down pyramid and put an extra piece of wood on top to keep it nicely compressed.

Charcoal kiln - photo BY Katrin Kania
Charcoal kiln – photo BY Katrin Kania

Once that is done, if I have set up everything correctly, all I need to do is wait for a few minutes, and the fire will burn nicely. It’s about five minutes of activity, tops, to set things up, followed by about ten or so minutes of waiting (or doing something else) until it burns. On Living History events, I’ve had perfect days when I did this, went to the toilet, and once I came back the fire was burning nicely enough to start making breakfast.

From several people working hard for up to an hour to five minutes of very light activity, all because I had finally understood an underlying detail… that made all the difference. Of course it can be difficult to get the fire going if the wood is wet, or it is raining heavily, or if you don’t have good starting materials (I swear by straw and find everything else much harder to work with). I can understand completely that when you were travelling in the Middle Ages in bad weather, you might have been unable to get a fire going, which may have led to hypothermia and death. (Note, though, that I have once tried to get a fire going using five lighters, a batch of fire starters, and even a camping gas stove without any success. The wood was wet, and we even built a log-house stack on top of the gas stove. As long as the stove ran, things were okay – but if we turned it off, the fire was out. Instantly. And it wasn’t even raining! So even modern equipment is no guarantee for getting a fire started when you want to.)

Experiences like this are why I love doing Living History. Those experiences can lead to real lightbulb moments that will profoundly change how you see something, or how much you appreciate something, and might teach not to take things for granted. And lightbulb moments like this are why I think that gaining some personal experience, preferably with the company and assistance of somebody well-versed and knowledgeable in the task, are immensely helpful for research.

Some parts of The Middle Ages Unlocked would have turned out very, very differently without my many years of experience in Living History…

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at www.pallia.net and her blog at togs-from-bogs.blogspot.com.

Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels are Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Art of Effective Dreaming (both Satalyte publishing). Find her webpage at www.gillianpolack.com.

Click here to learn more about The Middle Ages Unlocked from Amberley Publishing

Click here to buy this book on Amazon.com



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