Medieval Occupations: Blacksmith

Blacksmiths were a staple of every medieval town. They created objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal with tools to hammer, bend, and cut, and produced objects such as weapons and utensils. 

The “black” in “blacksmith” refers to the black layer of oxides that forms on the surface of the metal during heating. Smith, on the other side, might come from the old English word “smythe” meaning “to strike”.

Blacksmiths heat pieces of metal until it becomes soft enough for shaping with hand tools, such as a hammer, an anvil and a chisel.

History of Blacksmiths

During the Bronze Age, humans in the Mideast learned how to smelt, melt, cast, rivet, and forge copper and bronze (the last one being harder, more resistant to corrosion and having a lower melting point). Much of the copper came from the island of Cyprus, and most of the tin from the Cornwall region. Because copper and bronze cannot be hardened by heat-treatment, they have to be hammered for a long period of time.

Before the Iron Age, iron was not thoroughly understood – plus, it didn’t significantly improve on the qualities of existing bronze artefacts (unalloyed iron is soft, doesn’t hold an edge as well and needs more maintenance). Iron ores were, however, more widely available. 

In the medieval period, blacksmithing was considered part of the set of seven mechanical arts. The original fuel for forge fires was charcoal (coal only began to replace it during the 17th century).

Blacksmiths in the 1303 manuscript Psalter of Queen Isabella of England.
Blacksmiths in the 1303 manuscript Psalter of Queen Isabella of England. Image courtesy of Medieval Miniatures.
Blacksmiths in the 1310 Gorleston Psalter. Image courtesy of Medieval Miniatures.
Blacksmiths in the 1308 manuscript Roman de toute chevalerie.
Blacksmiths in the 1308 manuscript Roman de toute chevalerie. Image courtesy of Medieval Miniatures.

Books about Blacksmithing in the Middle Ages

Books about Medieval Life

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Aydon Castle. Image courtesy of Flickr Commons, Author: Mr. Evil Cheese Scientist

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