Medieval Rushlights


Rushlights are pretty much 'what it says on the tin'. They are a rush that has been treated in a certain way that when lit, burns a little bit like a taper - a precursor to the candle. Rushes grown on wet land or by rivers and streams all through the summer season and the thicker the rush the better the light. This means that its best to pick you rushes in mid summer when they are at their maturest.

After picking the rushes the first step is to peel between approx 85-90% of the green outside of the rush off, revealing the white, spongy pith inside. This can be fiddly and time consuming and requires patience and gentle hand, if the pith gets broken or damaged it will affect the flame produced by the rushlight. Once peeled they are then left to dry out a little.

Then in a special elongated pan, called a grissett I warm some tallow over the fire t until the tallow is clear and runny. Tallow is rendered animal fat and most of the time I used Beef tallow. This would have been available at the time as the grissets were placed underneath meat as it was cooking to catch the dripping. This dripping can then be reheated and the impurities removed to produce tallow.

The peeled and dried rushes are then dipped or dragged through the liquid tallow to ensure a good coverage. Once fully covered in tallow the rushes are left to dry on a willow mat that has been kindly woven for me by one of our talented members. As long as they are kept out of the sun after having been dipped they will harden and then they can be tied up and stored ready for use in the winter when the day light hours are really short.

The rushes would have been picked by the small children of the family and peeled by the mother or older sisters. They could be picked all through the summer and then dragged through whatever fat was available, when it was available and then stored away for winter.

When needed, the rushlights would be lit by placing one end in the dying embers of the fire and then placed in a rushlight holder - a metal clamp that holds them in place. The angle of the rush in the clamp determines the brightness of the flame and the speed at which it burns. Suprisingly a level, 30 cm rush can burn for between 20-30 minutes. The light given off is similar to that of a lit match and although not particularly useful to do fine needlework by, it would have been used as a social light or a light to do non-detailed tasks by.

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