Olives and lighting in Dark Age Europe1


Within a religious milieu that gave little concern to imposing a shared material culture, early medieval Christian authorities sometimes obsessed over the procurement of olive oil for lighting fuel. This article traces the cultural and environmental forces that shaped that demand. By weaving together poetry, hagiography, and inscriptions, it first argues that artificial light itself was central to the creation of a Christian institutional identity, as it allowed the religion to supplant classical/pagan norms of public assembly, moving celebrations indoors and locating them in the crepuscular contexts of dawn, evening, and night. Clerics developed personal prestige through lights, using them to showcase reflective patronage and demonstrate a pious form of conspicuous consumption. The second part of the article then explains why Christian authorities went to great lengths to fuel their lamps with olive oil, despite availability of other combustibles. A praxis of nocturnal interiority, it argues, demanded a scale and use of artificial light that privileged olive oil’s chemical signature, including a long-burning, smokeless flame.

Publication Title

Early Medieval Europe