Pyromancy: Does Magic Heat Equal Easy Street?

Give a man the ability to conjure fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life. But he might still starve to death.

Now we know how fireballs work. Good for us. Make as much fire as you like, you still can’t eat it.

The standard narrative runs along the lines of ‘bloke with fire rolls into non-specific dwelling of generalised discontent creation, burns a bitch and gets something in a chest’.

Lucky bloke. Now what?

How many conveniently evil nutters in poorly concealed lairs per square kilometer are there? What are they doing with all this gold they seem to have acquired – waiting for the invention of the stock market? Presumably, the pool of other nutters who can make balloon dogs out of your barbeque is not limited to just the one aforementioned bloke. There cannot, presumably, be that many ‘collect ten bear arses in a cave’ quests on the go, even if your pool of fire fetishists is extremely limited. Run the same idea across a couple hundred years. The ‘collect ten bear arses’ market starts to look pretty competetive. What the ratio of pyromancer to ‘bloke in a tin pot with a pointy stick’? Probably pretty high in pointy stick man’s favour, I’ll assume.

So, given that even an above-average idiot probably can’t strike it big by murdering random denizens in poorly defined ‘dungeons’ or defeating the 69th guy going through a goth phase and sticking spikes all over the kettle, how does the pyromancer eat? Well, the same way everyone else does: be useful to someone.

Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire

Fire is pretty useful in medieval society. Heat and fuel are an overarching concern – cooking, heating, light, industry, burning witches at the stake, etc.. Without fire a surprising amount stops working, even in those pre-industrial ages. Fire-dependent pre-industrial societies consume fuel the way sodium hydroxide goes through protein. Societies relied on wood, charcoal or peat, and consumption was highly inefficient.

The Dark Profit Saga‘ by J. Zachary Pike elaborates on these financial themes, tongue wedged firmly in cheek, to illustrate the point that generic fantasy economies make precisely zero sense. In fact, in trying to make the economics work at any functional level, the setting becomes compelling in its own right.

Primitive burgeoning industry inhales fuel. James Galloway et al.‘s essay ‘Fuelling the City: Production and Distribution of Firewood and Fuel in London’s Region, 1290-1400.‘ (The Economic History Review 49(3), 447-472 (1996) – available on ResearchGate and JStor) provides insight into the specifics of urban centre fire wood circulation in the 14th century.

London burned through 141,000 tonnes of firewood per annum in 1300, with baking and brewing industries estimated to have consumed 29,100-31,800 tonnes of that total. Assuming an output of 2 tonnes per acre, London required 70,000 acres of woodland to meet demand. If transaction costs and profit accounted for 20%, the radius for supplying London with wood was approximately 11 miles overland, which puts the outer limits somewhere around Enfield and Romford. If you include water, you have an elongated cone of supply areas extending out to Henley – about 35 miles away – but only along the Thames valley. That’s a significant amount of wood. And that was just London and not taking into account any other fuel sources such as charcoal.

So unless there are an inordinate number of pyromancers knocking about, your medieval society is not going to replace the need for basic fuel sources anytime soon. This is to say nothing of the problems of heat ‘dynamics’ for lack of a less pretentious term. Consider that a pyromancer cannot replace something like a pottery kiln. While they can supply plenty of flame and heat, they cannot replicate the specific conditions of a kiln because they physically cannot act as an oven. Sure, they can stand there all day blasting clay vases with magic flames, but just blasting clay vases with a pre-mechanical flamethrower is not what a kiln does.

Got a light?

Ok, but what about that – just being the guy that makes the fire? If everyone needs fire, wouldn’t a pyromancer be able to just wander about the place providing flames to the flameless and charging for it?

This one might work, but it’s dubious. We live in an age of efficiency, speed, and convenience. If we want fire, we light a match or we turn on a stove. This is a very recent state of affairs, but because most of us have never known anything else, we are likely to think of this being the standard mode of operation. So when it comes to lighting fires in the pre-match world we tend to just assume everything works like a match: do the thing that provides a spark that makes the flame. But the striking match was invented in 1826. And if everything worked like a match up until the match, then why would we have needed to invent the match in the first place?

The materials for starting a fire would have been fairly ubiqitous – flint and steel tinderboxes were common, but they needed to be kept topped up. Charred rags were often used for tinder. The firesteel was a product of the iron age and continued until the invention of the friction match.

It’s telling that people found preserving a fire more important than simply starting a new one – one indication is that merely starting a fire wasn’t as blase an occurance as might be thought. A great deal of effort went towards preserving hot coals and keeping something smoldering so you could relatively easily rekindle a flame. Catching a flame requires a number of specific conditions that we don’t generally
need to consider in the modern world – everything has to be dry, protected from draughts, there needs to be enough fuel to keep the flame alive, etc. In a world where stone buildings and glass panes were rare, just having something dry to light was not necessarily a given.

Prices for firesteels in medieval coinage aren’t common, but at an educated guess there’s a reasonable assumption that they may not have been particularly expensive. They don’t take a great deal of resources, time, or effort to make, and presumably would have been in reasonable demand. If there was a small consistent profit, they may have been a solid production option.

The length of time it took to start a fire seems to be incredibly variable. With modern equivalents to steel and tinder, and in the perfect conditions, it seems to be a relatively simple matter to a create the start of a fire within a couple of minutes. When using ‘authentic’ materials, if attempting to produce a spark in the dark, or conditions aren’t perfect, producing a flame might have been a more lengthy process than expected. If it had been raining, the chances of a fire weren’t something to place a bet on.

On the other hand, these were people with time on their hands. From a purely speculative perspective, the morning scramble out of the apartment and through the commute that permeates today’s professional life probably wasn’t as much of a concern in a period where you looked at the sky or the shadow of a long pole in order to make a relatively loose estimate of the time. Agriculturally concerned people may have thought more in seasons than hours.

Which is to say that, while a pyromancer could go door to door in the mornings offering an easy light, the chance that they would actually have been needed, or that people would be willing to pay for their services based on convenience alone, seems quite limited in contrast to the modern world in which convenience drives a significant portion of the entire global economy. The firestarter, twisted firestarter, had a great deal more competition because starting fires wasn’t simply a destruction-rooted creative impulse.

Ashes, ashes…

So being able to make fire at a whim, while useful, in and of itself against the macro context, isn’t going to ensure anything more than a fairly bare-bones subsistance. It may seem an obvious conclusion, but it’s clear that the fire is only truly worth what the pyromancer can actively do with it. So here’s the question: besides throw it around… what could they do with it?

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