Strike-a-lights, flints and tinders: which historical sources?

This is a guest piece by Andrea Carloni

When talking about lighting a fire, especially for domestic use, modern man automatically thinks of matches and lighters, because collective memory actually ignores that, for thousands of years and at least up to the end of 19th century, this task had been invariably performed through strike-a-lights, flints and tinders. The longevity of this outdated custom is confirmed by many historical literature quotes, even from worldwide known works, such as I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni (1842) which reads in a passage: «...cava fuori esca, pietra, acciarino e zolfanelli ed accende un suo lanternino» (transl. «...takes out tinder, flint, strike-a-light and sulfur sticks and lights up his little lantern»).

Manual strike-a-lights, which have to be ascribed to the first of five evolutionary phases [1], are archaeologically attested from the 5th century A.D. [2] Though now used with some difficulty by re-enactors, it’s a tool of quite a simple structure, consisting of cemented steel, or rather an iron-carbon alloy produced through hardening and quenching. The latter is essential as it allows the crystallization of the atomic iron grid in a particular form called “martensite”, which is extremely hard (the same process was commonly applied on blade edges) [3]. Original strike-a-lights are mostly bars, variously shaped and stretched out, with inward twisted ends forming opposed curls of equal size; more simply, they could be provided with loop handles -one or even more - in order to assure a steadier grip.  Likewise, closed types are not so infrequent, such as drop-shaped (a few have been dug out at Puchberg Castle, now displayed at Schneeberg Museum in Puchberg-am-Schneeberg, Austria) or ellipse-shaped artifacts (i.e. a merovingian finding excavated at San Gottardo Castle in Mezzocorona, near Trento, Italy).

 


Above: Strike-a-lights from Puchberg Castle ruins,
Schneeberg Museum, Austria photo courtesy: Andreas Bichler).
Below: Strike-a-light from San Gottardo Castle, Mezzocorona, Italy (see note no. 6 below).

Also according to Lorenzo Brunetto, one of the most experienced strike-a-light collectors around, whom I had the pleasure to talk to in 2007, the classification of these items is still a highly debatable and controversial topic: considering we lack for metallographic examinations and other specific lab tests, a gap consistent - alas! - with the low regard for fire-lighting tools archaeology has held so far, a punctual dating for Middle Ages findings can hardly be defined. 
Nonetheless, we can generalize and state that from Roman Times to the early 20th c. some shapes have been virtually left untouched, though at least starting from the 18th c. onwards one can note a production of larger sized strike-a-lights; finger-loop types seem to have been more widespread across Eastern Europe (i.e. Bulgaria), while those provided with “curls” appear to be widely attested throughout Central Europe.        

Having said that, one thing is certain: collectors must pay much attention, for many fakes are on the market! A good empirical method for identifying them is checking out the surface on the side exposed to friction, as typical wear marks are often missing on replicas.


A few original strike-a-lights from the author’s collection, mostly found out in Germany and the Balkanic Area, dating back to Roman Times until the 17th century (photo courtesy: IMAGO ORIGINIS).

Manual strike-a-lights functioning was made possible through briskly rubbing by a flint, already well-known as a “silex” under the Romans (this term indifferently referred to hardstones, including the ones able to produce sparks). In addition to flint, also quartzite, jasper quartz, pyrite, marcasite were fit for purpose, as well as any stone with a higher hardness score than steel: sparks, in fact, are anything else but microscopic chips of metal, ignited by rubbing friction. A properly cut stone counts much more than its size and shape: that’s why you need as many “sharp corners” as possible, made through a careful chipping action, to achieve a heavy spark ejection [4].

Just a curious aspect: it’s hard to distinguish between strike-a-light flints and prehistoric “blades”, as they may look quite similar to the unskilled eye. According to some scholars, this is possible only examining the marks left by the specific manufacturing process [5].


Left: some flints  from the author’s collection (photo courtesy: IMAGO ORIGINIS). Right: drawings depicting 13th-14th c. flints discovered in  the “Busa dei Preeri”, Avio, Italy (see note no. 4 below).

Giorgio Chelidonio, a renowned italian authority in the field, reported that «already in 1100, strike-a-light shape appears stylized in the Bulgarian Kingdom coat of arms. Its use had apparently become a symbolic synonym for fire and ‘magical’ values referred to it: in medieval heraldry symbolism, in fact, one can find strike-a-light shapes» [6].

By way of demonstration, one of the heraldic emblems adopted by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1422-1482), which has been interpreted by some as expression of fierce resistance against the attacks of the enemy, consists of three strike-a-lights rubbing a single flint, displaying the latin motto «non quovis teror» («I’m consumed in no parts») [7].

Always in the matter of 15th c. examples, one can’t avoid quoting the wonderful collar of the “Golden Fleece”, an order of knighthood established in Bruges on January 10th, 1430 by Philip III the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467) and lasted until the domination of Asburgic Empire. The collar is formed of strike-a-lights and flints strictly linked together, with no interruption, for the total amount of thirty elements, as many as the knights of the Order. Duke Philip actually incorporated flint and fire-steel into his coat of arms when he ascended the throne in 1419, as well as an illustration of his motto «ante ferit quam flamma micet» («It strikes before bursting into flame»); Charles the Bold (1433-1477) just kept displaying the same emblem, which was bequeathed far beyond his death, at last becoming sort of a “national badge” of Burgundy [8].


Left: collar of the Golden Fleece, late 15th c., Kunsthistorisches Museum - Schatzkammer, Vienna, inv. SK WS XIV 263. Right: embroidered emblem of the Duke of Burgundy , 1450-1475 c., Historisches Museum, Berne, inv. 310 a (see note no. 8 below).

Surveys on  the outliving of surnames connected with lighting tools proved to be very intriguing: it's been ascertained that at Bregenzerwald (Austria) is present a family lineage possibly dating back to at least 15th century and bearing the surname Feuerstein (= flint), together with the presence of marcasite minerals in the territory of Dornbirn. This has led to hypotesize that extractive and commmercial activities developed by specialized people had later made them acquire a surname whose spelling is right the same as the goods they used to deal with [9].

Let’s get down to practice now: what was the right process for lighting a fire with flints and strike-a-lights?  Well, it stands to reason that just through a few sparks, you couldn’t have - nor could nowadays, of course! - lit any fire directly. First of all you’d have needed to pre-ignite some sort of light, small-volume and highly inflammable stuff: this is more properly called a tinder.
 
Though historical sources are particularly lacking in references to this issue, I’ve nonetheless managed to spot a late Renaissance evidence about the use of tinder-mushrooms, specifically dried and then treated with saltpetre. In the Herbario Nuovo by Castore Durante (1585), for example, you can read the following passage: «I fonghi...che nascono ne gli arbori mantengono il fuoco cotti nella liscia, poi si asciugano, si battono, poi si ricuociono in acqua con nitro» (here follows an English translation attempt: «mushrooms… sprouting in trees keep fire when boiled in lye, then they have to be dried, crushed and boiled again in water and saltpetre») [10].

Such mushrooms have been primarily identified as the fomes fomentarius species, a lamellar parasite of the “Polypore Family” widespread in temperate and tropical environments, which can still be found out at our latitude, from spring to fall, on the trunks of various broad-leaved trees (especially beeches and birches but also chestnuts, walnuts, ashes and willows); in addition, some quote the ungulina betulina, which is parasitic on birch.

The lighting tests performed with those chlorophyl-free trunk mushrooms, actually turned out to be very productive, as their inner part (called “amadou” by archaeological experimenters and “flesh” or “mycelium” by mycologists) is particularly sensitive to sparks. Given that Durante mentioned them in the late 16th century, it’s not illogical to assume tinder-mushrooms might have been used in 15th century too or even earlier, all the more so if  we consider that Otzi, the world famous Similaun mummified man found in September 1991 and dating back to 3350-3100 B.C., kept in his belt-pouch a few fragments of fomentarius [11].

Through interventions of experimental archaeology, some have checked the effectiveness of an alternative tinder, which is not attested in the sources gathered so far but proved to be of equal - if not even better - availability in nature: I’m referring to the downy efflorescence of typha latifolia, a very common swamp reed in Western Europe, provided with a stalk up to 2,5 mt high and a dark brown cigar-shaped “spike”on top: it reaches full maturity during summer season and, once hashed between fingers, it can be easily reduced to almost impalpable fluff, very soft and extremely…inflammable! 


Above: an efflorescence of “ typha latifolia”(swamp reed) picked up by the author, showing what inner fluff looks like. Below: a sliced “fomes fomentarius” (tinder mushroom).

Although I couldn’t gather specific sources concerning the Medieval and Early Renaissance period, it comes naturally to think that, apart from mushrooms and reed fluff, our ancestors might have chosen from a wide range of other tinders. We may consider plausible, for example, the use of wood powder, pine cone chips, dried grass or tow, which were used, as a matter of fact, until the Premodern Era. Thus, while waiting for more certainty on such issues, nothing is left to do but give free rein to experiments!


Heavy sparkling igniting tinder, performed by the author (photo courtesy: IMAGO ORIGINIS).

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Bibliographical References

[1] G. CHELIDONIO, Tracce linguistiche della storia del fuoco...in rete, in "Storiadelmondo" n. 41, 24 aprile 2006;

[2] V. CACCIANDRA – A. CESATI, Fire steels, Allemandi, 1997;

[3] AA.VV. Come funzionavano gli antichi acciarini, Dipartimento di Chimica dell’ Università di Firenze, Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino, 2007 (published on the following website: www.aspoitalia.net);

[4] I would like to highlight a group of genuine flints, dating back from 1256 and 1329 AC, excavated in an Italian cavern, called “Busa dei Preeri”, situated in Avio, not far from Trento. Ref. M. AVANZINI – T. PASQUALI, Le pietre focaie della Busa dei Preeri (Vallagarina, Trentino meridionale): un insieme di reperti litici di epoca medioevale (XIII sec), Ann. Mus. Civ. Rovereto, Vol. 10 (1994), pp. 23-40;

[5] AA.VV. (coord. G. CHELIDONIO), Le pietre del fuoco.“Folénde” veronesi e selci europee, printed in the occasion of the display held at Piazzotto Montevecchio (Bassano del Grappa, Italy) from May 7th to June 19th, 1988, under the patronage of “Comune di Bassano del Grappa” and “Cassa di Risparmio di Vicenza, Verona e Belluno”;

[6] G. CHELIDONIO, Due acciarini per fuoco da Castel Corno (Vallagarina, Trentino occidentale),  Ann. Mus. Civ. Rovereto, Vol. 5 (1989), pp. 75-84;

[7] L. CECCARELLI, “Non mai”. Le imprese araldiche dei Duchi d’Urbino e loro gesta, Krimisa, 2000, p. 74;

[8] S. MARTI - T. BORCHERT - G. KECK, Charles the Bold (1433-1477). Splendour of Burgundy, Mercatorfonds, Bruxelles, 2009, pp. 275-276;

[9] It seems that the surname Feuerstein is widespread throughout other Austrian provinces, as well as Bavaria and even the United States. Ref. CHELIDONIO, Tracce linguistiche… (see above);

[10] C. DURANTE, Herbario nuouo di Castore Durante medico, & cittadino romano con figure che rappresentano le viue piante, che nascono in tutta Europa, & nell'Indie orientali & occidentali. ... Con discorsi, che dimostrano i nomi, le spetie, la forma, il loco, il tempo, le qualità, & le virtù mirabili dell'herbe ... Con due tauole copiosissime, l'vna dell'herbe, et l'altra dell'infermita, et di tutto quello che nell'opera si contiene, in Roma - Giacomo Tornieri - appresso Bartholomeo Bonfadino, & Tito Diani, 1585 (“Bartholomeo Bonfadino, & Tito Diani” printing house, Rome, 1585);

[11] B. RAIMONDI, L’accensione del fuoco nella preistoria europea. Dati sperimentali sulla confricazione dei legni e sulla percussione delle pietre, Quad. Mus. St. Nat. Livorno, 19 (2006), pp. 23-49.

 

By Andrea Carloni, guest author