Candles have been an essential part of human civilization for thousands of years, providing light and warmth since before recorded history. But it was during the Middle Ages in Europe that the art of candlemaking truly flourished and helped illuminate the so-called "Dark Ages."

In this article, I will explore the history of candlemaking during medieval times, how candles were made, the importance of candles and candlemakers in daily life, and the impact this arcane art had on European societies as they emerged from the fall of Rome.

The Rise of Candlemaking in Medieval Europe

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, much of Europe fell into disarray and declined economically and culturally. This period from around 500-1000 AD is commonly known as the Dark Ages.

During these centuries, candlemaking evolved from a household chore into an established trade plied by skilled craftspeople. Unlike the Romans who used expensive beeswax, Europeans turned to cheaper tallow rendered from animal fat.

Candlemaking guilds emerged in major cities to regulate the quality of candles and protect the interests of wax chandlers. By the 1100s, the worshipsful Company of Wax Chandlers held a royal charter from Henry II in London. Candlemaking had become an essential and respectable profession.

How Medieval Candles Were Made

Making candles was a complex, labor-intensive process in the Middle Ages. Tallow had to be rendered, wicks prepared, and candles formed entirely by hand.

First, raw tallow from cattle or sheep would be rendered by boiling to purify it. The wicks were made from natural fibers like hemp, flax, or rush. The wick was repeatedly dipped into the tallow until the candle reached the desired thickness.

Beeswax candles were enormously expensive by comparison so they were mainly used in churches.

"In the days of the early Middle Ages, beeswax was precious, more precious than gold. Down to the thirteenth century it was the only wax known or used in the Church." - Isabella M. Anderton

Skilled chandlers learned to produce straight, smooth candles that burned slowly and evenly. They used special tools like candle molds and could add dyes or scents as well.

The Vital Role of Candles in Medieval Life

In the dark interior of medieval houses, candles provided rare illumination. Candlelight allowed people to extend their days beyond sunset to socialize, work, study, or read.

The Catholic Church relied on candles to light up elaborate religious services. People also used devotional candles to pray at home.

Candles enabled craftspeople to practice detailed trades like jewelry, embroidery, or miniature painting that required strong lighting.

Doctors, dentists, and surgeons worked by candlelight. The famous physician Guy de Chauliac wrote that candles "illuminate our path and light up what we have to do."

Even in the Near East where oil lamps were common, travelers often carried candles which were safer and more portable.

Growth of the Candlemaking Industry

By the 13th century, candlemaking developed into a substantial industry across Europe. Candlemakers formed their own guilds and fraternities.

Major candlemaking centers thrived in Paris, Bologna, and Venice. Venice in particular was renowned for its superior candles which were famously banned from export to protect the secrets of production.

Beeswax candles remained the gold standard. The enormous candles used in Catholic cathedrals could weigh up to 300 pounds each!

As demand grew, candlemakers had to get creative with sources of tallow. They scavenged animal parts wasted by butchers, collected grease from roasted meat, and even melted down human bodies from battlefields or cemeteries.


In the so-called Dark Ages, the rise of candlemaking sparked an illumination that helped European civilization flourish again. Skilled candlemakers turned tallow into an artificial light that shaped medieval life.

The history of candlemaking demonstrates how an arcane art transformed culture and society during a vital era. The humble candle enabled religion, education, commerce, medicine, and craftsmanship to advance despite the darkness of the early Middle Ages.