Everyday Life

Rush Lights: Illuminating the Dark Ages

Man has always needed to see in the dark. One humble yet effective lighting solution was the rush light.

Used primarily during medieval times, rush lights played a crucial role in providing illumination to homes, especially in rural areas.

Here we will delve into the origins of rush lights, explore their significance during the medieval period, and understand the reasons behind their widespread use.

Origins of Rush Lights

The use of rush lights can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The earliest evidence of rush lights can be found in ancient Egypt, where reeds or papyrus stems were coated in animal fat or beeswax and used as simple torches. The concept of rush lights gradually spread throughout Europe, finding popularity during the medieval ages.

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During the medieval period, rush lights were a common source of illumination, particularly in rural households. They consisted of the pithy stem of a rush plant, typically the common soft rush (Juncus effusus), which was soaked in fat or oil and then lit. The rush stem acted as the wick, while the fat or oil provided the fuel for the flame.


One of the primary reasons for the prevalence of rush lights during this era was the scarcity and expense of other lighting options. Candles, made from beeswax or tallow, were relatively expensive and mainly used by the wealthy. On the other hand, rush lights offered an affordable and accessible alternative for the majority of the population.

Rush lights gave off a lower flame than candles so intricate work was tricky.

Rush lights were particularly popular among peasants and rural communities who had limited resources. Rushes were abundant in wetlands and marshy areas, making them easily accessible to people living in such regions.

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The process of making rush lights was relatively simple and could be done at home. It involved soaking the rush stems in melted animal fat, such as lard or tallow, until saturated. Once dried, the rush lights were ready to be used.

Making of a Rush Light

Creating a medieval rush light is a straightforward process that requires just a few simple materials. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make one.


  • Rush stems (available in wetlands or can be purchased online)
  • Fat or oil (such as animal fat, vegetable oil, or beeswax)
  • Scissors or a sharp knife
  • Wick (optional, but can enhance the burning efficiency)


  1. Prepare the Rush Stems:
    • Collect fresh or dried rush stems. Rushes are long, thin plants that grow in wetlands or along riverbanks. Ensure they are dry if you’ve collected them yourself.
    • Cut the rushes into lengths of approximately 9-12 inches (23-30 cm). You can adjust the size based on personal preference or the availability of rushes.
  2. Soak the Rush Stems:
    • Fill a container with fat or oil. Animal fat, vegetable oil, or beeswax can all be used as fuel for the rush light.
    • Place the rush stems into the container, ensuring they are fully submerged in the fat or oil.
    • Let the rushes soak for several hours or overnight. This allows the stems to absorb the fuel, which will aid in their combustion.
  3. Remove Excess Fuel:
    • After soaking, remove the rush stems from the container.
    • Gently squeeze the stems to remove any excess fat or oil. This step is optional but can help prevent excessive dripping during use.
  4. Shape the Rush Stems:
    • Take one soaked rush stem and twist it tightly to form a compact shape.
    • Use your fingers to mould the bottom end of the stem into a base or flat surface, which will provide stability when the rush light is placed on a holder or surface.
  5. Light the Rush Light:
    • Place the shaped rush stem in a suitable holder, such as a rush light holder or a stable container.
    • If you’ve inserted a wick, light the exposed portion of the wick using a match or a lighter. Otherwise, use the twisted end of the rush stem as the lighting point.
    • The rush light should start burning steadily, providing a dim but consistent source of light.

Safety Precautions in the Dark

  • When working with open flames, always exercise caution and ensure you have a fire-safe environment.
  • Keep flammable materials away from the rush light during use.
  • Never leave a burning rush light unattended.

Remember, rush lights were a primary source of lighting in medieval times, but modern safety standards and conveniences have made them largely obsolete. Exercise caution when using any open flame and consider using modern alternatives for practical lighting purposes.

Reasons for Using Rush Lights

The widespread use of rush lights in medieval times can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, rush lights were an affordable option for lighting the dark. The cost of beeswax and tallow was significantly higher, making candles a luxury item for many. Rushes, however, were readily available and could be gathered from local surroundings, making them a cost-effective alternative.

Rush Light
Rushlight holders could be quite fanciful.

Additionally, rush lights were long-lasting compared to candles. A properly made and maintained rush light could burn for several hours, ensuring a decent amount of illumination during the dark evenings. This was crucial for people who needed to carry out various tasks after daylight had faded.

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Furthermore, rush lights provided a steady and reliable source of light. The flame produced by the burning rush stem was relatively steady and less prone to flickering compared to candle flames. This stability was advantageous, particularly in homes where drafts or wind currents could easily extinguish candles.


Another significant advantage of rush lights was their resilience to moisture. In regions with damp and humid climates, candles made from beeswax or tallow could soften or melt. Rush lights, being made from dried rushes and fat, were more resistant to such conditions, making them suitable for use in various environments.

Despite their practicality, rush lights had some limitations. They emitted a dimmer light compared to candles, which made detailed tasks more challenging in the dark. The light produced was often described as “a poor man’s candle.” Nevertheless, rush lights served as a vital source of illumination for basic household activities and provided a sense of comfort and security during the long, dark nights of the medieval ages.

Poor Mans Candle

Rush lights played a significant role in providing illumination during the medieval ages, particularly in rural communities where resources were limited. These humble lighting devices, made from rush stems soaked in fat or oil, offered an affordable, accessible, and reliable alternative to expensive candles.

Gathered Rushes
‘Green grow the rushes O’ Rushes were easily accessible to most.

Rush lights were easily made at home, using locally available rushes, and could burn for several hours, ensuring a steady source of light during the evening hours.

The popularity of rush lights can be attributed to their cost-effectiveness, long-lasting nature, resistance to moisture, and their ability to withstand drafts and wind currents. They were a practical solution for households that needed illumination for daily activities, even in damp or humid environments. While rush lights emitted a dimmer light compared to candles, they served as a crucial source of comfort and security during the dark medieval nights.

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The use of rush lights gradually declined with the advent of improved lighting technologies, such as candles made from cheaper tallow and the eventual introduction of oil lamps. The widespread availability of these alternatives made rush lights less necessary, and they eventually faded into obscurity.

The Light Goes Out

However, the significance of rush lights in illuminating the medieval ages should not be overlooked. They symbolise the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people in finding practical solutions to their everyday challenges. Rush lights shed light, quite literally, on the lives of ordinary people, their struggles, and their perseverance in making the best of what was available to them.

As ongoing excavations and research uncover more insights into the medieval period, the discovery and study of artifacts like rush lights contribute to our understanding of the daily lives of our ancestors. These simple yet vital tools remind us of the hardships endured and the innovative solutions devised by our predecessors to overcome the darkness and navigate their world.

The Last Flicker

These rush lights were a significant source of illumination during the medieval ages, particularly in rural communities. Their affordability, accessibility, and practicality made them a popular choice for lighting among the majority of the population.

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Rush lights provided a steady and reliable source of light, withstanding moisture and drafts. While they may have been dimmer compared to candles, they played a crucial role in providing comfort and security during the long, dark nights. The use of rush lights gradually diminished with the introduction of new lighting technologies, but their historical importance as a symbol of resourcefulness and adaptation remains.