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The Men Behind the Metal

By Danièle Cybulskie

This week, I’ve been reading a great book on medieval technology, called Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies, and it got me thinking about one of the most vital members of the medieval community: the blacksmith. Medieval blacksmiths were loved, hated, thought to have magical healing powers, and able to fend off the devil. Here’s a quick look at the men behind the metal.

medieval blacksmith - photo by Hans Splinter / Flickr
Medieval blacksmith – photo by Hans Splinter / Flickr

If you try to imagine day-to-day medieval farming, building, and cooking without metal, the use of the blacksmith’s art becomes immediately clear. Add to that forestry, mining, and warfare, and the list of metal tools required becomes even longer. Blacksmiths were rarely without a job to do, and their work had been steady (and noisy) since antiquity. Business boomed, however, with the rise of knights.

Not only did the knightly class require weapons and armour for warfare and tournaments, but they also needed horseshoes and defensive metalwork for their castles. Knights and the aristocracy were generally the only ones who could pay for good weapons and armour, adding to their elite status. The Gies estimate that “a coat of mail… was worth sixty sheep” (p.58) and “a good sword cost as much as three cows” (p.64). Being a castle blacksmith would have been an enviable (and usually hereditary) position.

Peasants had their own needs, such as for pots, ploughs and axes, and growing centralized towns could support more than one smith in their need for new tools and repairs of old. According to the Gies, “a study in Picardy showed no trace of a village smith before 1125 but counted thirty by 1180” (p.126). With this much demand, metalwork was split into many different specialties such as locksmith and armourer (p.62), with separate smiths working with precious metals. In the 14th century, blacksmiths even branched out into making clocks (p.214).

Beyond the obvious ability to work metal, blacksmiths were thought to hold the power to heal. This may seem a little odd to us, but it does make sense if you think of things more symbolically, as medieval people did. For example, barbers were also surgeons as their specialty was cutting; likewise, blacksmiths were healers (especially of ailments like broken bones), because their specialty was repairing or “reforging”. Who better to supervise the healing of a bone that has broken apart than someone who routinely heals broken pieces of something as hard as metal?

Not surprisingly, blacksmiths’ sooty work with fire and furnace, and their ability to turn rock into metal tools, easily led to associations with the devil. Smiths were too essential to the community to actually become persecuted for this, but some colourful legends sprang up, such as those associated with St. Dunstan (909 – 988 CE), an Archbishop of Canterbury who had spent time as a metalworker. (Project Gutenberg has a fun 19th century poem about this – with great pictures – that connects St. Dunstan to the reason horseshoes should be nailed over the door.)

British Library - Harley 6563 f.68v
British Library MS Harley 6563 f.68v

Because it’s hard to imagine the time and skill it takes to create just the everyday, mundane tools of the medieval world without visuals, here are some fun ones to check out. I hope you enjoy these short clips from the BBC’s “Secrets of the Castle”, filmed at Guédelon:

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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