Medieval London

Hanging Metal Lamp

Hanging lamp

Medieval lamps were made of different materials, including glass, ceramic, or stone. They were also built in different shapes and figures and made to hang or to sit on a table. Most lamp models used in the home were basic, though by the end of the Middle Ages, some luxurious lamps began to include lampshades as a new fashionable style. Hanging medieval lamps such as this one (made of a copper alloy) helped individuals to see during the night-time in closed areas. Archaeologists have found such lamps in Britain dating back to the Roman Empire. 

In addition to personal use, lamps were important for religious rituals and ceremonies in Christianity and Judaism. For Christians, lamps were used to light churches and altars. Even though candles were used in larger churches with bigger crowds, small convents and praying rooms often used small oil lamps as a reminder of the presence of God during prayer. 

The central oil container on this particular hanging lamp from medieval London has six spouts which held wicks, placed under a highly decorated tower containing the figures of three lions. This style of lamp was often used in Jewish homes on every Shabbat (Friday night) to symbolize the start of the holy day and prayer. It was also used on the evening before major religious feasts. Archaeologists have found similar lamps in other towns which were known to have had Jewish communities outside of London. Even though archaeologists cannot be certain if the true origin of the lamp is Jewish, the shape of the spikes and the locations where they were found are typical of Jewish culture. This lamp is dated to about the twelfth century, before the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. It is also possible, however, that Christians made the lamp for their own use or in a church or to sell, but in that case it would be a secular luxury item.

In a recent London excavation in Duke Street, archaeologists found pieces of a ceramic bird-shaped lamp, which might have belonged to a well-off merchant family since lamps made in the form of animals were more expensive and even luxurious. Medieval Londoners could display their wealth and status with decorated lamps. Metal oil lamps could also be shaped like a bowl or cylinder, could be decorated in various ways, and be different sizes, although the most popular were small in size. They were commonly hung from the ceilings of medieval houses or placed on tables. They were also used for religious purposes and to light the central hall during dinners. 

All oil lamps were a combination of four pieces: fuel, fire, a wick and often, a special chamber that would hold the fuel. The fuel could be any kind of oil that could burn. In medieval London, the most common oil would be fish oil, but as an alternative vegetable oil was available. Even though medieval Londoners had access to olive oil, it was used for other purposes since it was imported from the Mediterranean, but alternatives for peasants would be poppy, walnut, hazel or filbert oil . The fuel was poured inside the chamber without touching the wick. Different oils resulted in different brightness in the flame and the more expensive the oil stronger the flame in the lamp. The lamp flame only touched the wick; if it touched the oil, it could cause a fire that could spread. The wick was made from cotton or hemp and the fabric was twisted or woven together. Lamps could be dangerous when the wick material was running out and the flame could go to the oil and cause a fire. Many Londoners kept extra fabric to prevent this. A bowl or dish made of metal or nonflammable material would hang inside the lamp to prevent fires. 

-Manny Avila Garcia

Hanging Metal Lamp
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