I'm a witch flying on my broomstick over 14th century England. I've got regular human eyes, and my cruising height is 500 metres or up to a kilometre, depending on the weather. Assuming it is a moonless night, around 3 AM. My goal is to find my house (which is inside the city walls), with minimal risk of being seen by any insomniacs that happen to be staring at the night sky.

Can I discern farms, villages, cities from my height? Were there enough lights so that I could tell one city from another? And was there enough artificial light for me to find my house? How about any other house? If any of these tasks are impossible, how low must I fly before I can accomplish them?

  • $\begingroup$ True, but I have to fly every night to do my witch things. So once every month there will be no moon to help me. The question is the worst-case scenario. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Nov 7 '19 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ This belong to History SE, as the Q is about real world. IMHO, city will have night guards with lights. Villages will likely be dark. Most cities will be on rivers, and you can probably see those from above. And just how fast are you flying if you can end up in the wrong city? You realize going more than 30 mph will require goggles and winter clothes? $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Nov 7 '19 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @ KeizerHarm To find your house, place upon your roof several lights in a distinct pattern (pentagram?). You will need pretty fat candles to last for several hours, and you can use silver cups to direct their light upwards (it will help avoid questions from nozy neighbors too). $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Nov 7 '19 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ Public illumination is an 18-century invention. Until then there was no public illumination whatsoever; if you wanted to go out at night you needed to bring your own torch or lantern. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 7 '19 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ @BaldBear: "City will have night guards with lights": that is, in a particularly rich city, there will be a patrol going out from time to time carrying a lantern. Not even the richest cities had roving bands of lantern-bearing guards. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 7 '19 at 21:15

Three factors enter into how well you can see a medieval city from the air at night.

First, outdoor lighting is almost exclusively torches and oil/fat lamps (depending on the situation). These aren't very bright, compared to modern streetlights or yard lights. Second, due to cost, such lighting is likely to be as sparse as it can be, without too much inconvenience to the nobles and merchants (i.e. the slums will be very dark, the better parts of town merely quite dim).

Third is a matter of how well nourished your witch is -- many, if not most in medieval times were undernourished, if not flat out malnourished, and the latter, especially, will greatly affect night vision -- to the point where someone near starvation will be effectively blind after dusk. The same may be true even if your witch has enough calories in his/her diet -- if they aren't getting enough of certain nutrients (protein and vitamin A), they may find even a night lit by full moon still so dark it's very hazardous to fly at all after dark.

Also worthy of note is that most of the time, in most uses, outdoor lighting was applied only when needed. Torches wouldn't normally be kept burning all night, they'd be lit and doused as needed; if there was a torch in a holder outside the tavern door, it was probably cold and there for convenience in case of the need to greet a lord's carriage. Indoor light leaking out of windows won't contribute much, either, as shutters or curtains would likely be closed after dark except in the hottest weather.

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    $\begingroup$ Flight hazard. A great way to start a story! $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Nov 7 '19 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ The lighting situation you describe probably applies until at least gas lighting, which didn't show up until round-about 1790. Until then, lighting up the outdoors just never occurred to people. Probably an additional part of that is such lights would attract insects. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Nov 7 '19 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, forgot to mention that outdoor lighting, even where used, wasn't left burning unnecessarily. Fire hazard, for one thing, and of course why burn money when no one is using the light? $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Nov 7 '19 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to economy, lights and fires were prohibited by official order after a curfew bell was rung in some cities in England. William the Conqueror started it. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Nov 8 '19 at 0:10

You will use landmarks.

Canterbury Cathedral https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/aug/01/canterbury-kent-walk-medieval-streets-attractions-cathedral

Depicted: Canterbury cathedral. It has been there a long time. Most towns of any size in the period would have at least one church - if not a cathedral, some built thing with bell towers. At altitude it would be visible from a kilometer, even by starlight. People still orient themselves in cities this way.

Cathedrals are asymmetric and so make good landmarks. If I am approaching with the nave between myself and the tower I can orient myself over the town and then drop down into my neighborhood.

Other landmarks would include green spaces or large trees. The river (most towns had running water of some sort) would also be useful because if you were way out in the country or visibility was low you could sweep back and forth until you saw it, then turn and follow it in.


Interesting question.

If your which lives in a larger city, for example London (in 1417, Sir Henry Barton, Lord Mayor of London, ordained "lanterns with lights to be hung out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemasse.") or Paris (in the beginning of the 16th century, the inhabitants were ordered to keep lights burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets), there would be some light, albeit very dark compared to now.

Outside of larger cities, you're pretty much relying on the Watch - you're not really going to see any light sources in medieval times. Though light sources were not as unavailable as you may think, glass windows were either very small or non-existent, so even though it may have been light inside, very little will have spilled outside.

However, you have a flying witch, which means you have magic! You may want to use magic to "improve" the technology level to Georgian levels. Gas Street Lighting was introduced in London in 1809, so why not have something like that?


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