CHAPTER NINE: IN PRAISE OF SMITHS

Prologue

In most cultures, names carry information about families. Often children carry the father's name (a patronymic), either as his family name, or as his first name. Usually in European cultures, the son carries the family name: John, the son of William Brown, is called John Brown. But in Iceland, the son carries his father's first name: Sigurdur, the son of Vigfus Asmundson, is called Sigurdur Vigfusson. (In modern Iceland, however, he may carry his mother's name, as Sigurdur Valasson).

In earlier European cultures, and in many non-European cultures, much more of the family history may be carried in the name of an individual, perhaps to several generations. So, for example, in Welsh the prefix "ap" means "son of." In the 15th century, Llewellyn ap Morgan ap Llewellyn ap Ivor, hereditary Lord of St. Clere and Tredegar, married Jonnet, daughter of David Vaughan ap David ap Llewellyn ap Philip of Rhuderin, and the names of these two people encapsulate their familial history as well as their property. However, once English bureaucracy overtook the Welsh with the ascendancy of the Tudor dynasty around 1500, the old system gave way, and Llewellyn's grandson and heir to the domains of St. Clere and Tredegar called himself simply "Sir John Morgan," which may be faster to sign but carries much less information and a lot less character!

The Welsh system, along with Nordic, Scottish and Irish traditions, linked generations in the name. Russians use a version of it, too: if you are on good terms with Mikhail Gorbachev, you don't call him "Gorby," you call him "Mikhail Sergeievich" because his father was called Sergei.

But south of these northern regions, the English, French and Germans simply used the father's name as the family name, which brings us to the point of this section. In early medieval society, "family" names were not needed by most people, for the simple reason that everyone knew everyone else. Only the tiny propertied class needed indicators for who they were, and those indicators came with their titles, or with the list of their properties. Only when people moved about more, had more property (which meant documents, and wills), and were paid in money (which meant accounts and lists of employees) did they need "family names." This happened in England in the 1300s, and it froze in place a fascinating insight into late medieval society.

When people chose (or were assigned) family names, they often used parts of the old Nordic/ Celtic system (Madison, Jefferson, Johnson, Wilson, Harrison, Jackson, even Nixon!) or they used specific or generic place names (Washington, Lincoln, and Cleveland are all place-names in northern England) or their region of origin (Fleming, Scott, Welsh, Deutsch) or their property (John de Clinton owned the medieval manor at Clinton); or they labelled themselves by the skills they possessed (Eisenhauer, Taylor). So there are no family names such as Professor or Astronaut or Programmer, and Kris Kristofferson clearly invented "Mr Marvin Middleclass" for one of his songs.

Instead, what we see, still preserved in the fabric of modern American society, is a reflection of the skilled artisans who centuries ago took the name of the profession they practised. The landed classes didn't do it; it wouldn't make sense to call all the peasants "Peasant" or "Churl." But the structure of European medieval society is as close to you as your phone book. Look in it and you will find the Fo[re]sters who looked after the trees, and the Sawyers and Carpenters and Turners and Coopers who cut them down and made things with the wood. The Millers and Brewers and Bakers and Cooks dealt in food and drink; the Sheppards and Herds looked after the animals, and the Fishers and Hunters and Butchers and Tanners produced meat and leather. The Fullers and Weavers (or Websters) and Taylors made textiles and clothing. The Masons and Wallers and Tylers and Thatchers built homes and barns. The Colemans were not dealing with coal, but with charcoal. The Potters made plates and bowls and jugs, the Carters and Drivers delivered the goods on waggons made by Wrights and Cartwrights, and the Clarks wrote it all down. And, everywhere, there are SMITHS.

It's the same in Germany, with the names also transplanted to the United States: Förster, Sager, Zimmerman, and Böttger; Müller, Brauer, Bakker, and Koch; Shäfer and Fischer and Jäger and Gerber; Vollmer, Weber, and Schneider; Maurer; Heffner, Fuhrmann and Wagner and Richter; and Schreiber to write it all down. In German names there were more miners than in English (Bergmann). As in England, the Kohlers produced charcoal, not coal. And everywhere there are SCHMIDTs (and a few Eisenhauers).

Smiths were needed every working day, to shoe the horses, to mend everyday tools and implements and to make new ones. A medieval smith couldn't carry his forge and anvil and tools‹that's only possible with a trucks and a propane tank. Smiths had to be available within half-a-day's walk for every horse that needed shoes‹in other words, there was a smith in every village.

In the United States today, Smiths make up about 1% of the population of the United States, and you can also add in the Schmidts, Ferreros, Pereiras, and Lefebvres. The medieval trade-names that families took on about 500 years ago are still with us, three of them in the top ten family names in the United States. In order, they rank: Smith (1st overall!); Miller (7th); Taylor (10); Clark (19); Wright (32) [mechanical experts, sometimes specialists such as Cartwrights, Boatwrights, or Wainwrights; Richters in Germany]; Baker (38); Carter (41); Turner (47); Cook + Cooke (56); Cooper (65); Coleman + Colman (82).

Even the numbers are about right. Showing what an idle mind can conjure up, let's suppose that about one in five of American Smiths is an adult male. That works out at one adult male Smith for every 500 people, just about right in terms of medieval supply and demand! Using the same arithmetic, each adult male American Miller and his crew would have to grind the flour for 1200 people in his creaking wooden mill (organic and stone ground, of course) and that's about right too. The Taylor would make smart clothes for 1600 people, and the town Clark and his apprentices would write letters for around 2000 people.

European Ironsmiths

Iron has been worked in Europe for 2500 years. The Celtic smiths of northern Europe produced technological innovations that are still with us: iron horseshoes, iron rims for cart wheels, iron ploughs, chisels, files, scythes, and saws, and chain armor (which works on the same principle as today's Kevlar). Celtic smiths worked in gold, silver, and bronze as well as iron: the legendary smith Wayland Smith was Norse.

The major problem associated with iron in the West was the immense amount of labor needed to produce it, and the tremendous difficulty in reaching the high temperatures required to smelt most iron ores. For many centuries, iron remained a metal that was scarce, even if its quality was high and its qualities very desirable. Iron was recycled as bronze had been before it: beating swords into plowshares (and the reverse) was not just a political slogan or a religious exhortation.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, large-scale "industrial" mining went with it. But farmers still cleared forest and tilled fields, and warfare required iron weapons and armor. One of the properties of iron is that iron ores are widespread, and can be worked at a small scale (remember that each piece of iron in western tradition was hand-hammered). So iron-working could continue through the "dark ages" even as the structure of society broke down around it. In total, a lot of iron was mined, smelted, forged, and used. Medieval iron-working was small-scale only by comparison with the industrial revolution that came afterwards. Iron was valued, and valuable. Each village had its smithy, because iron was used in hand tools and in the heavy iron plough that revolutionized agriculture in western Europe, in harnesses, and in horseshoes.

The Anglo-Saxon King Ine of Wessex issued laws which included the case of a nobleman leaving his estate. He was allowed to take with him his three most valuable servants: the reeve (overseer of his estate),.the smith, and his children's nurse. Medieval towns had even more smiths: when the Christian missionary St. Aecgwin visited the heathen town of Alcester (in central England) around 700 AD, he complained that his message did not get across to the hard-hearted inhabitants because the smiths of the place drowned his words with the sound of their hammers and anvils. Every castle had its own smith, mostly busy on horseshoes and weapons. Typically, smiths were portrayed as honorable (as in Longfellow's poem a thousand years later). It was a piece of medieval folklore that the smith had refused to forge the nails required to crucify Jesus‹so his wife fired up the coals and did them herself! A Franciscan monk named Bartholomew wrote in 1260,

Iron is more necessary to men than gold in many things. Though covetous men have more gold than iron, without iron people are not secure against enemies, without dread of iron laws are not kept. With iron innocent men are defended, and foolhardiness of wicked men is chastened with dread of iron. And well nigh no handiwork is wrought without iron, land is not ploughed without iron and buildings are not built without iron.

In 1377, his London neighbors complained that Stephen atte Fryth's forge was insupportable: "the blows of the sledge-hammers shake the stone and earth walls of [our houses] so that they are in danger of collapsing, and disturb [our] rest, day and night, and spoil the wine and ale in the cellars, and the stench of the smoke from the sea-coal used on the forge penetrates the halls and chambers."

Doors had iron straps and hinges, and iron nails were everywhere: the city of Calais had nearly half a million in its stores in 1390. The iron bars that reinforced the stonework of Autun Cathedral in Burgundy in 1294-1295 made up 10% of the cost. Iron was a vital strategic metal too: armor and weapons, horse shoes and nails were vital military supplies, even in an age before cannon. Richard I of England ordered 50,000 horseshoes in preparation for going on Crusade.

Iron, From Craft to Industry

Increases in efficiency‹therefore lower cost, wider use, and major increases in production‹came when water power was combined into iron-making. Water-mills that had originally been designed for grinding grain in a rotary motion were modified by building in cams and rockers so they could drive hammers for breaking up ore, and for forging, and to work bellows so that the working temperature of the forge could be controlled much more efficiently and accurately.

This innovation probably dates to the 11th century. As the technology developed, the greater control over temperature and the greater weight and uniformity of the hammer-blows, compared with hand hammering, produced iron of much more uniform quality with less physical labor. It meant that areas with streams that were easy to dam or control were favored for iron production. Since many of the small-scale industries of the time used mills or used water for washing or for defense systems like moats, hydraulic engineering was well understood. There were even proto-technical centers. Around 1250, Cistercian monasteries were great innovators in water-powered mills and in iron metallurgy, especially in Burgundy and Champagne, centered around the great Abbey of Clairvaux.

Sweden and the Basque country of northern Spain were distant sources of high-quality iron for medieval Europe. From about the 12th century, Swedish iron was exported to all the other countries in northern Europe. It was made from "bog iron" at this time, and was very low in phosphorus, allowing it to be made into superior steel. The London trading depot of the Hanseatic merchants who brought it was called the Steelyard. But throughout the densely populated areas of western Europe‹the plains of northern France and Germany, southern England, and northern Italy‹lower-grade iron that was suitable for most uses was processed locally.

In or before 1323, the increased temperatures available from power bellows allowed a new breakthrough. Furnaces were now built larger, and could reach much higher temperatures, enough to smelt iron ore directly to the high-carbon alloy that we call cast iron. (This was a re-discovery of the technique that the Chinese had developed about 2000 years previously [Chapter 5]). Smelters quickly learned how to produce either cast iron, or wrought iron, by controlling the amount of oxygen blasted into the charcoal by the bellows. The oldest well-described water-powered European blast furnace began producing cast iron in Italy in 1463, though there had probably been earlier ones around 1380, perhaps in the Rhineland or near Liège. This process spread through Europe, and made cast iron available on a large scale, in addition to the wrought iron which was being made in smaller furnaces already.

There was a limited market for cast iron until Renaissance times, especially as a blast furnace was more difficult and costly to construct and maintain, and needed much more fuel than a simple bloomery. Most ironworks continued to produce wrought iron, which was certainly the metal of choice for most uses of iron.

When the great silver mines of central Europe declined in the 14th century, and many copper districts with them, the European iron mines did not. It was a time of unrest in Europe, and it's likely that the increased demand for iron from the military market helped to keep the industry going. Rudyard Kipling said it best:

Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade
"Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall
"But Iron--cold iron--is master of them all."

Page last updated April 1999.

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