Jake M

The object i decided to do my object biography on is the blacksmith’s hammer. I chose this item because i have always been interested in medieval warfare and had always thought of the blacksmith as a large contributor to that field. His hammer was an important item in every day life in early modern Europe. At first, when i thought about the hammer and thus the blacksmith, i thought more about their contribution to warfare like i mentioned. I assumed that this would be the main way that the blacksmith and hammer would effect daily life in early modern Europe. Now in the early beginnings of the blacksmith, of iron working specifically, my assumption would have been correct.

Smelted iron began around 13th century BCE and as it began to be produced at a much larger scale it became a strong political and martial tool [1]. During this ancient period the iron works produced by the blacksmith’s hammer were seen by everyday people as objects to be feared. They saw them as evil in nature and as tools for the ruling elites to exercise political control over them [2]. To best demonstrate iron’s main role, and thus the blacksmith’s, in ancient human history, Historian Randi Haaland uses this quote, “…iron, a metal which is once the best and the worst servant of humanity, for to bring death more speedily to our fellow man, we have given wings to iron, and taught it to fly”[3].

As stated before, I had thought that the hammer’s role would continue along this path in Early Modern Europe. However, my trip to the frontier culture museum would show me otherwise. According to the blacksmith there, the main role the village blacksmith played in every day early modern European life was making objects that are basically the complete opposite of weaponry[4]. The blacksmith makes his business and fills an absolutely necessary role by fashioning and repairing the basic metalworking necessities of village life[5]. This would include any metal farm tools of the day as well as horseshoes[6]. He was respected and well liked within the community and nothing demonstrates this better than these excerpts from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith, “…The smith, a mighty man is he,… His brow is wet with honest sweat,…And children coming home from school Look in at the open door; They love to see the flaming forge,…He goes on Sunday to the church, And sits among his boys; He hears the parson pray and preach, He hears his daughter’s voice, Singing in the village choir, And it makes his heart rejoice.”[7] This shows the perception of the village blacksmith through every day people’s eyes. He is seen as an exceptionally physically fit man, an honest hard worker, a kindly man, and a godly man. All of these would be considered high values in Early Modern Europe.

To this valued man nothing was more valuable than his hammer. Technically, the blacksmith utilized several different hammers. The one most identified as the blacksmiths hammer is called the rounding hammer, however, the cross peen, straight peen, and diagonal peen hammer all have their specific uses as well [8]. Even sledge hammers are attributed to forge work[9]. Aside from the sledge hammer which is much larger and heavier, the only real difference between the rounding hammer and the other four is the angle of the head on the shaft and the angle of the face[10]. These different angles are used to change the way the metal bends or folds when struck[11].  Despite the different types of hammers their actual composition is pretty much the same. According to Georgius Agricola an early modern European scientist, in his book De Re Metallica the hammer’s head was made of iron [12]. According to historian Roger Jørgensen, ancient forge tools, “very much resemble modern smithing tools” and it is to modern blacksmiths that i looked to for the composition of the handle[13.] Most modern blacksmith’s use whatever indigenous wood that best holds up to the constant hammering (hickory and ash seem to be the favorite) so its no large stretch to assume that the early modern European blacksmith would do this same, especially since resources would be much more limited in their case [14]. This video demonstrates the process by which a modern blacksmith creates a hammer. Also, starting around the 7 minute mark the blacksmith goes over the important aspects of the final product, citing balance and an appropriately ground face as two of the most important indicators of quality [15].

 

Historically blacksmith’s were typically male. According to the archaeological dig discussed in Jørgensen’s article 10% of the male graves in the late iron age period that they excavated, contained blacksmith tools[16]. This may not initially seem like a lot until one takes into account that this means that 10% of the male population is concentrated into one occupation. This concentration supports the notion that it was a mostly male occupation. However there is also some evidence that women possibly practiced the trade as well. There were nine female graves that contained blacksmith tools, and while 7 of them were explained away on account of them being double graves (as in they were buried with their husband) there were 2 female graves containing blacksmith tools that were single graves[17]. While this may not necessarily mean that they were female blacksmith’s it is also not impossible that they were. In the 18th century Sweden, women’s participation in iron working was confirmed according to one of Jørgensen’s sources, “There is a fairly small fire inside a pit like a walled-up cone, so it is not necessary for more than one woman to stand by the bellows, and while she treadles them, she can go on knitting her stockings or something else.”[18]. This further supports that, while women may not have ever been fully involved in the process of blacksmithing, rejecting their participation with certainty would not be prudent.

While the hammer may not have been a commonly used item within every day modern European life, it still had a great effect on it. It was involved in the production of many of the more commonly used items in every day life, from the farm tools essential for survival to the nails that held the house together. Essentially everything made of metal came from the blacksmith and thus is a product of his hammer. Hopefully, the information from the Frontier Culture Museum in combination with the scholarly works of Haaland and Jørgensen, who seem to be the main scholars on this subject and even reference each other, gives a clear representation of how important the blacksmith and his hammer were to every day life throughout history and the Early Modern period.

 

[1-3] Haaland, “Technology, transformation and symbolism,” 2-3.

[4-6] Trip to the Frontier Culture Museum.

[7] Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith.

[8] Consummate Dabbler “Blacksmithing: Essential Tools, Techniques & Methods

[9] “sledgehammer to crack a nut,”

[10-11] Consummate Dabbler

[12] Agricola, De Re Metallica 423.

[13] Jørgensen, “The Social and Material Context of the Iron Age Blacksmith in North Norway.” 2.

[14-15] van der Steeg, “Blacksmithing tools,”.

[16-18] Jørgensen, “The Social and Material Context of the Iron Age Blacksmith in North Norway.” 3, 5.

Bibliography

 

Agricola, Georgis, Herbert Hoover, and Lou Henry Hoover. De Re Metallica. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.

“sledgehammer to crack a nut, take a.” in The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 2005-01-01. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100511147.

Blacksmithing: Essential Tools, Techniques & Methods: The Consummate Dabbler http://theconsummatedabbler.com/2014/03/blacksmithing-everything-you-need-to-know-to-begin-working-metal/

Haaland, Randi. “Technology, transformation and symbolism: ethnographic perspectives on European iron working.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 37, no. 1 (June 2004): 1-19.
Jørgensen, Roger. “The Social and Material Context of the Iron Age Blacksmith in North Norway.” Acta Borealia 29, no. 1 (June 2012): 1-34.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. n.d. The Village Blacksmith. Raleigh, N.C.: Generic NL Freebook Publisher, n.d. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost)

© Kampot | Dreamstime.com – <a href=”https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-blacksmith-image10680456#res17253698″>Blacksmith Photo</a>

van der Steeg, Joey. “Blacksmithing tools- Forging Chirs’ 2,5 lbs Cross peen hammer” Youtube video. February 10, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_DkmRilXyU