Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: How to Hold a Torch

How to hold a torch is almost certainly on the list of things I never thought I’d have to write about here. I mean, it’s pretty straight-forward, right?

I thought so, yet here I am.

I just returned from my first foray at DragonCon, you see. Due to other obligations, I was there for only a day, but I had a genuinely fine time with some genuinely fine people. I sat on a couple of panels, which are a great way to meet fellow authors and amazing fans. The whole thing was just grand and I hope I’m back next year (with more panels and more fans!).

Anyway, on one of these panels one of my fellow authors wanted to make a point about how mistaken most folks are about the reality of what I’ll term “adventuring”: there are a great many matters about which Hollywood and other popular culture have miseducated the public. He was observing, in other words, that there’s a gap betwixt real reality and perceived reality, and that those of us who know the real reality would do well to try to bring the perceived reality closer to it.

Thumbs up from me. I mean, I’m a professor of matters medieval whose career (and this column) is built on that gap … so, yeah, I totally agree. Educating is a good thing.

My fellow author then went on to stake a claim for his own expert status relative to the clearly uneducated and inexperienced masses. He made this point by standing up and announcing that people don’t even know how to hold a torch.

Further down the table, I perked up.

Said expert first held his hand (with its imaginary torch) out in front of his face. This is how everyone thinks you’re supposed to do it, he said. But holding it in front of your face blinds you!

In a dramatic sweep of his arms he then shifted his (still thankfully imaginary) torch into position behind his body. This is how you do it, he said. Only a fool would do it any other way!

Boom. Mic drop. Expertise established.

Only … well, um, that’s still not how you hold a torch.

I didn’t say anything at the time. It didn’t seem right to hijack the panel from the beginning with a discussion of proper torch-wielding techniques. And for all I know, said author was tired and just made a mistake. It happens.

But just in case …


Torch-holding 101

Since I can’t dramatically swing my arms around in front of you, let’s see how not to hold a torch by using the example of Medieval Bob, a terrible stick figure on a terrifying journey (which simultaneously serves as evidence of my complete non-expertise in artistic endeavors).

Out on an adventure, Medieval Bob has entered a cave. Unbeknownst to him, a bonnacon lurks within its lightless depths. Indeed, at the very moment in which we join our hapless hero, the bonnacon is deploying its acidic flatulence upon another traumatized warrior somewhere in the near darkness ahead.

Frightened, Medieval Bob lights his torch. First, he tries holding it in front of himself:

That's not going to work.

Silly Medieval Bob.

Nope. That isn’t going to work. He’s blinded by the light.

Well, it just so happens that Medieval Bob once heard an expert opine that torches ought to be held behind oneself. So he gives it a shot and finds that while he’s no longer blinded by the light (woo-hoo!) … he’s now casting his own shadow forward upon his path (doh!). He also realizes he faces other problems. In no particular order:

  • He’s in a sub-optimal stance to move freely.
  • In attack or defense, he’s disabled half of his abilities by taking his torch-hand out of use.
  • He significantly increases the chance of setting himself on fire.
Still not quite right.

Still not quite right, Bob.

What will Medieval Bob do? Is all hope lost?

It is then, in this moment of potential despair, that a lightbulb quite anachronistically goes off over his head. Medieval Bob remembers that the sun doesn’t blind him when it’s high in the sky. Neither do the ceiling lights in Merlin’s house. If he could find a way to get the light of his torch over the line of his brow, why surely …

That'll do, Bob!

That’ll do, Bob!

Huzzah! And behold! By the light of the Two Trees, there’s that dastardly bonnacon with its dung of doom! Medieval Bob needed only to lift his arm to see it clearly without blinding himself or hampering his ability to fight it.

Yes, folks, if it works for Lady Liberty and Muhammed Ali, it works for Bob and you and me.

As his arm tires, Medieval Bob will later discover that the torch held to his side will also work quite well. It is perhaps not quite as enlightening as an overhead hold — for the same reasons that ceiling lights tend to illumine a room better than floor lamps — but it’s a bit easier on the shoulder over the long-term.

Indeed, if you look across ancient and medieval statuary, reliefs, manuscripts, and other artifactual evidence — in other words, if you look at what the folks did who actually lived in a world of torches — you’ll see again and again that these two holds are standard. Here’s a 14th-century manuscript illumination of the Last Supper that actually depicts both:

Image from the Velislaus Bible, fol. 145r.

Image from the Velislaus Bible, fol. 145r.

Long story short: Torches aren’t held in front of your face or behind your back. They’re held high above the brow or off to the side of the body.

gates-hellMichael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. The Gates of Hell, the follow-up to The Shards of Heaven, his historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, comes out this fall from Tor Books.


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