By Chris Comstock
Medieval Blacksmiths has as much influence on shaping the age they lived in as they did on the metals they worked on. Medieval Europe was the time of the first great advancements in science and technology and new practices in farming, fabrication, construction and fighting were constantly being introduced. None of these would have been possible without the blacksmith.
The medieval blacksmith first came into being as a part time metal worker. In small settlements scattered all over the continent, a person with the right physique was chosen, or volunteered, to do his best in heating and shaping iron to meet the needs of the community her lived in. This was part time work to be done only when the primary duties were completed. However, as the part time iron worker’s skills kept improving, the demand for these goods also grew and so producing and selling metal work became a profitable profession.
As the settlements grew in size and more blacksmiths set up shop, the first guilds came into being. There guilds where more than just trade unions. They set the basics standards that the blacksmiths would work to and allowed the sharing of knowledge among the members. Although most tradesmen guilds of the time were secretive, the blacksmiths guilds were more so than most because theirs was a trade that not everyone could undertake and which also required specialized knowledge which was kept closely guarded. This gave the medieval blacksmith an important and powerful position in the society of the times. Blacksmiths had to be treated with respect or else the house builder would find his nails bending or the knight his sword breaking in battle.
The guilds adopted the apprentice approach to teaching young men the trade. Boy of 15 or so would be apprenticed to a master blacksmith and would live with him as part student and part servant. The apprentice would do all the cleaning and menial chores in both the forge and, if need be, in the blacksmith’s home. He would normally live and sleep in the forge itself and would be responsible for its upkeep, cleanliness and ensuring the forge was lit and ready to use. Initially he would just observe the master blacksmith at work but slowly, as time passed would be allowed to participate in minor aspects of the forging process until such time as he could perform simple blacksmith jobs on his own. Once the master blacksmith was confident of the apprentice’ skills, he would be given more complex work to do, always under the supervision of his master, until such time as the master was satisfied that the apprentice had learned all that the master could teach, at which time he was allowed to go forth and set up his own forge.
The blacksmith was an important member of society and in times of civil unrest or war was allowed to live and work within the premises of the local castle, which was the most secure place. The army needed it armaments and having their blacksmiths captured or killed by the enemy meant that the army’s ability to fight was severely limited. Blacksmithing was not a glamorous profession in medieval times unlike the writer, artist or knight; but his contribution to the society he lived in was as much, if not more, than those to whom he supplied his goods.
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