“The tavern is dimly lit by ten, foul-smelling, sputtering candles spaced around a chandelier that looks like a repurposed wagon wheel with broken spokes.”
Wow! What a challenging word! Thank goodness I am here to tell you what a chandelier is, right? Or else you would never know. Obviously a chandelier is a hanging fixture that holds multiple candles for the purpose of shedding light on a situation. But, light is actually kind of a tricky thing.
It turns out that the European Dark Ages (and the Middle Ages) were kind of… well… dark. We don’t appreciate it now, but lighting was a big problem. Basically, if you wanted to light a house, you didn’t have a whole lot of options. You had your kitchen hearth where you burned wood, charcoal, or dried peat, but that wasn’t exactly portable. If you could afford an oil lamp and oil to put into it, you had that. You could use wooden torches, which were a major fire hazard. And, you had candles.
Candles were the most popular. Tallow candles were relatively cheap and could be made at home. Basically, you dice up some animal fat (suet) and boil the hell out of it, and you get this horribly foul-smelling, waxy substance. Then, you dip a wick into it over over and over and over and you get a candle. While many people made candles at home, professional candle makers, called chandlers (yes, that’s where we get the name from) also existed. And the process of rending animal fat to make tallow was so foul smelling and disgusting that it was often banned from cities or city centers and kept to the outskirts. And, when you consider the hygiene standards of Middle Ages cities, for them to say something was too foul smelling to tolerate, it must be pretty horrible.
Hey, speaking of foul smells, you know what else chandlers sold? Soap. Yeah, it turns out soap is just rendered animal fat. The thing is, soap works because fats (more specifically fatty acids) naturally repel water molecules. The thing with water is that it tends to stick together because of hydrogen bonds. That is why water clumps or beads and why it will actually defy gravity crawling up straws and things. Well, fatty acids repel water and thus naturally break up water’s stickiness. So the reason soap helps get you clean is because it breaks up the water and makes water wetter. Then the water can dissolve whatever you’ve got on your skin or clothes or whatever. Actually, there’s more to it than that because the fat also clumps around things that won’t dissolve in water (like oil and grease) and allows it to stick to the water molecules so it does dissolve, but let’s not go crazy because this isn’t Chemistry Word of the Week. Wouldn’t THAT be fun (not pictured: me rolling my eyes).
To make soap, you needed a ready supply of rendered animal fat. And what was left caked in the vats after you dipped and dipped and dipped your candles? Basically soap.
So, some of the foulest smelling individuals in the Middle Ages industrial world also eventually starting selling something people use to stop smelling so foul. Kind of like Charon, the centaur doctor who could cure everyone but himself. How tragic.
How can you use this in your game? Well, admittedly, this is the sort of thing that is more flavorful than useful. Firstly, remember that lighting was problematic and that most places were really dim at night. But secondly, thing about how you arrange your cities. City planning was actually a thing. Just like when you play SimCity and keep your Industrial Zones away from your Commercial Zones, foul smelling industries were often isolated and kept to specific neighborhoods. Fat renders and chandlers shared the neighborhood with tanners and other stink-ridden industries. Wealthier folks avoided these neighborhoods, especially because of the theory that bad (foul smelling) air caused diseases. So, when you’re planning your city maps, use what Wil Wright and Maxis taught you.