The Medieval Way of ‘Making Fire’
Richard Moore © 2002 Updated
In Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mankind (for which he greatly suffered as a consequence). Archaeological evidence has it that fire was discovered by our long-gone ancestors about 100,000 years ago and in conjunction with the ability of ‘reasoning’ placed us above fellow animals. Fire was probably carefully kept over from lightning-strikes after it was ‘accidentally’ found by Man that raw meat was more easily digested after a degree of cooking (perhaps devoured after an animal had been hit by a similar lightning-strike). In a similar way, it is suggested that ‘fire’ was then found to be generated by the action of striking certain kinds of stone together (flint or pyrites) and although aboriginals maintain their traditional ‘friction’ methods, with the invention of ‘lucifers’ or sulphur and phosphorus based ‘striking-matches’ in the 19th Century, all other forms of making fire were quickly forgotten in the ‘Western’ world.
Few historical presentations or demonstrations exhibit period-skill by ‘making fire’ in the old-fashioned way – especially if you then let your visitors ‘have-a-go’ at it themselves. A common modern observation is that ‘no medieval person ever bothered to write down how they did it’ but the action of ‘making fire’ was so commonplace in that period that I have remarked in a similar way, if any of us penned our memoirs today would we bother to include a detailed method of exactly how you tied your shoe-laces each day ? Hence- we are left to re-discover old ways … a visit to a ‘hands-on’ museum I made left them amazed as to how quickly I lit a fire using one of their exhibits when the curators did not know how to apply the exhibit themselves.
‘Rubbing two sticks together’ is quite difficult (method two, below) though it can be done with patience. The ‘bow-drill’ is the better application of this method (number four, below). Using a stick driven by a twisted rope or piece of string held on the top with your hand using an oyster-shell (to prevent a blister on your palm) and at the bottom in a piece of wood by a notch cut into it with your dagger. Driving the bow with your other hand will engender heat by friction which will eventually produce embers. What you then do with these embers is the point of this article … there is no getting away from the fact that making reliable ‘char-cloth’ I’ve found is the bit that stops re-enactors in their tracks in making fire using primitive methods. What you are seeking is ‘charred-cloth’ that will efficiently catch a spark from your flint-and-steel. Once you’ve learned that, it opens the door to many other primitive methods of ‘making fire’.
Try this quick and handy method of ‘catching a spark’ without char-cloth at first. Do it carefully as a flint edge is very sharp and can cause a deep cut on a finger (and wearing a glove makes the operation more difficult). Take your steel-striker in one hand and a good-sized flint in your other hand and put your wrists and elbows together – bear in mind that you won’t be able to do the strike at first. With the striker - in the same way as you would strike a match - try to use the steel-striker to strike ‘glancing blows’ off the flint – by all means change hands with the flint and steel if it feels easier and don’t be afraid to use a large piece of flint. Try this again by slowly moving your wrists and elbows apart gradually to form an angle with the flint at the apex somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees and have a few tries each time by adjusting the speed of the strike and the up-and-down angle of the flint : you will soon find that a glancing-blow at the required distance and the correct angle to suit your individual person throws off sparks. If you have a problem throwing any sparks it could be for two reasons – the steel-striker isn’t hard or tempered enough or the flint is blunt or bad. The sparks thrown should be deep-red to dull orange in color.
Once you’ve practised successfully throwing sparks this way, take a piece of your char-cloth and place it over the edge of the flint – hold the char-cloth firmly in place with your first two fingers and support the flint with your thumb (as above). The knack is to get the sparks to land on the char-cloth : as soon as a spark lands on the char-cloth and takes hold, blow on it gently : drop the smouldering char-cloth into a nearby ash-tray, saucer or dish for now – but you will be using this quick and easy method to make fire … see later.
On camp, a simple way to make ‘charred-cloth’ is to throw a piece of clean linen, cotton or calico on a fire and let it catch alight : remove it safely and either put the fire out on your cloth by placing a plate, dish or a bowl on it (to restrict the air) or put your booted foot on it on dry ground. When the fire is completely out, save the charred edges nearest the edge of the burned cloth and trim them with scissors or your knife as they are ‘char-cloth’ and the charred edges will catch a spark from flint-and-steel. However - a much more efficient method of making better char-cloth is to slice or tear up your clean cloth into two-inch square pieces and place them in a sealed tin for ‘burning’ on the embers of a campfire. Use your dagger to pierce a small hole in the tin - as seen, in both ends of the tin (both base and lid). Loosely pack the tin half-full with your torn-up pieces and place the sealed tin on the embers of a campfire. Smoke will soon issue from the holes in both ends of the tin – which will be noxious if it reaches your nose and eyes - but the basic idea is to char the cloth without burning by restricting the access of air. It doesn’t matter if the tin gets red-hot but you can assist the process by occasionally turning the tin around on the embers.
Remove the tin when the plume of smoke ‘lessens’ (a simple ‘rule-of-thumb’ here when first making char-cloth is to leave the tin on the embers for thirty seconds longer than you think is necessary) and stand the tin to one side to cool. Don’t use your bare hands to remove the tin from the fire for obvious reasons – use a glove, a pair of tongs or a stick - and opening the tin before it has cooled will admit a rush of air which could vaporise your ‘char-cloth’. When the tin has cooled enough to handle with fingers, take out a piece of the char-cloth and see if it will take a spark from your flint-and-steel : if not, put the lid back on and put the tin back into the fire for a minute or two (it does require ‘experience’ and judging the heat from the embers to get the burning just right). The finished char-cloth should come apart easily in the fingers but be above crumbling to soot.
If you don’t have a tinderbox and use a bow-drill instead (the most efficient and least-energy-requiring of the above primitive methods) the knack is to use a conjunction of soft-wood and hard-wood (in which a broken arrow-shaft or quarrel from your crossbow as the drill and a piece of fallen deadwood as your base-wood is perhaps the most convenient). Using your dagger, round or square-off both ends of your drill. Cut a slight notch near to one side of your chosen base-wood where it lies flattest to the ground and bore a slight depression to connect to this notch by using the point of your dagger in a twisting and circular motion. A stone or rock with a slight depression in it - or a scallop or oyster shell if you are a medieval pilgrim but you can bore a notch in a piece of wood with your dagger and use that - on the top of the drill prevents damage to the palm of the hand, but you can use a piece of thick leather in a pinch. Slice off a springy greenwood branch and notch it at both ends to tie on your chosen string - twist a leather thong or an old bowstring around the chosen drill once from your chosen green-wood bow (which should have still a degree of ‘spring’ in it to tension the rope or string once twisted onto the drill - you will need to experiment to get the correct tension (if it is correct the drill once twisted-in should spring away if you take your top-hand off which has led me to speculate that this is how the idea of the bow-and-arrow was devised by primitive man). Start with short brief strokes - try and form a steady horizontal motion to keep the string from moving up or down the drill - if it drives the drill to your satisfaction in principle, progress to longer and quicker swipes, back and forth - you should find that heat from friction engenders in the place where drill and base-wood meet and eventually see and smell smoke rising and burnt embers emerging from the notch. Well done if you have got this far - take a break at this point as the next step in ‘making fire’ requires the prior preparation of ‘char-cloth’ - by placing a piece of char-cloth beneath the drill or in the notch it will take light from the driven-embers and you can then use this smouldering char-cloth to make fire. Try not to work too small with the required items – and you may have to place one of your feet on the base-wood to prevent it spinning with the drill if you don’t have a partner to help and you don’t have to perform the operation on the ground – you can use a table-top if you have one. If you wish to keep the bow-drill for future use, you can squirrel away the top and bottom pieces in your snap-sack and keep the bow-drill in your quiver.
Once you’ve achieved the above methods, try your dexterity and skill to light a candle by applying smouldering char-cloth to a wax or tallow candle to melt the wax onto the char-cloth by ‘blowing’ and then make the char-cloth take flame via the melted tallow or wax on it to light the candle. Once the char-cloth is smouldering, roll it up with the fingers like a hand-rolled cigarette - and in experiments don’t stint on the size or amount of char-cloth used (as you can always make more) and use the glowing tip to melt the candlewax. You can always use the char-cloth to ignite a sulphur-spunk to light the candle but the real knack of ‘making fire’ this way is to do it at home blind-folded (but under observation by someone to prevent accidents) or even more demanding alone in a dark tent when you are drunk – if you can light a candle in these circumstances, you’ve really achieved something … and a tip here is to either safely leave a trimmed candle burning or put a handy candle in a holder on a flat surface in your tent or quarters before you go out and imbibe to excess so you know where it is when you return after dark !
The Easy Part …
Once you’ve got your char-cloth smouldering – what do you do with it ? Again, back to preparation – I’m not going to describe the best way to make a ‘pyramid’ or a ‘wigwam’ campfire here as that is pretty basic ‘boy-scout’ … but don’t confuse kindling with tinder). A handy handful of dry straw or hay from someone’s bed - or an old birds-nest from a hedgerow - is ready-made tinder for fire-lighting (you can back it up with a pinch of hemp from your tinderbox). Drop in your smouldering char-cloth and blow via pursed lips – standing with your back to the wind – blow steadily and you will feel the heat on your face and should find you quickly have a blaze : transmit the ensuing blaze to your prepared campfire - in the correct place and upwind - fan the flames gently with your hat, cap or dinner-plate until they take hold and away you go.
Four-inch square paper ‘squills’ (as I call them) – especially from old, dry newsprint – are handy but unlike the availability of paper in the late 18th Century medieval ‘purists’ may object to their use in ‘making fire’ as paper wasn’t a usual commodity (but they do have an alternative use if you forget to pack toilet-tissue). Place your smouldering char-cloth in a piece of this old newsprint and lightly ‘clinch it’ with the fingers, blow firmly and steadily as before and the newsprint will easily take light – transmit the flame to the tinder and kindling in your prepared campfire.
‘Spunks’ or ‘sulphur-match’ go back to Roman times. Dip bits of soft-wood (or split matchsticks after nipping off the striking-heads as the wax they are impregnated with does help) into melted sulphur flowers in an old dessert-spoon using a candle for heat (it stinks, so be careful) and then let the ‘spunks’ dry. Add the sulphur-end of a spunk to smouldering char-cloth and blow and you will see they easily take a flame. But - be careful when they do take flame that they don’t drip burning sulphur onto flesh, cloth or furniture – and don’t try and pinch the flame out with the fingers as it will adhere - and some people do find the smell of burning sulphur oppressive to both nose and eyes. But – if you are living in a tent or disreputable quarters the stink of burning sulphur will repel insects and mice !
Neanderthal Man wasn’t as stupid as he is often made out to be - you can similarly experiment with Fomes Fomentarius and Boletus Ignarious (two fungi spark-catchers that occur in nature – remains of both these have been archaeology-unearthed at Iron Age sites) but when compared to good char-cloth you will be disappointed. A roll of old cloth with picked-out fibres to form a frayed end, human or animal hair, dry grass, bark fibre, dried leaves of mullein or coltsfoot, dried fungus (such as ‘puff-ball’ or ‘birch-bracket’) to catch a spark will work … but great patience is often required and these materials should all be completely dry (once you’ve found your fungi you can dry it in strong sunlight or bake it in an oven on a low heat) and only be considered in making fire ‘in emergency’ (… or perhaps, desperation).
Char-cloth is anhydrous (it will absorb damp) so keep it in as a tight-lidded container as you can and safe from damp inside a snap-sack - if it is really damp, stuff the tin in a woolly bag and keep it in your armpit on top of your shirt. Char-cloth will dry out – but be careful as pewter will melt if placed too near a campfire and wood will obviously scorch. Put damp char-cloth back in your burning-tin and give it a quick roast on the campfire embers (if you have managed to light one). I find in making char-cloth that old shirts or washed-out dishcloths of linen work best – always use clean fabric and avoid new or coloured material as it sometimes has ‘size’ or starch in it or dye which will detract from success.
or worn-out files if reheated, forged into shape then quenched at ‘blood-hot’
color in cold water make good ‘strikers’ - but if you visit museums or seek to
buy a striker from a sutler, bear in mind that medieval strikers were quite
large by comparison to strikers of the 18th and 19th
Century. Plenty of re-enactment blacksmiths make flint-strikers – try and choose
a design to suit your period and
make sure that it will fit into your chosen tinderbox. Flint that has been
exposed to frost will not throw as good a spark as flint that hasn’t been
exposed to frost : flint is pretty common but use a good-sized piece at first
until you’ve learned the principle - ‘Black
Floorstone’ flint is by far the best material but evidence suggests
that medieval folk also used chert, agate or obsidian in lesser degrees.
‘Lighten our Darkness …’
A common ‘fine’ or punishment in the medieval era was often made if the soldier or servant responsible for the fire in the castle, guardroom, common-room of tavern or inn - or indeed, house - let it go out and the flint-and-steel then had to be used to relight it. As with all things historically ‘practical’ - if you wish to learn anything worthwhile, thirty minutes spent in an on-site ‘hands-on’ demonstration from someone who knows what they are about is worth thirty pages of reading about it. Have–a-go - it’s not as difficult as you think - and then you can amaze your friends and visitors by leaving out the matches, a Zippo or a propane gas-lighter and it will also add greatly to your ‘living-history’ presentations. But - as in most things - Practice makes Perfect.