What discussion of Medieval technology would be complete without a look at arms and armor? I’ll confess, it’s not actually my favorite subject (I’m much more interested in people than battles). But then again, one of my earliest memories connected to history was seeing the Arms and Armor exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was an elementary school kid. Even back then I wanted to stay in that room and look at everything, but my young classmates rushed through and the teacher had to push me along to keep up with the group.
Anyhow, the developments in metallurgy and arms-making techniques that took place during the Middle Ages really defined the age to a certain extent. The Roman Empire had reached a certain level of advancement in mining and forging, but a lot of that knowledge was lost as the empire dissipated. The mining that remained was mostly open-pit mining on a local level. Production wasn’t very high.
In those early days of the Middle Ages weapons-making was closely tied together with plow and tool-making. It was all done by the same guy, the village blacksmith. If you were going to be a craftsman in the Middle Ages and if you wanted respect that was nearly level with that of the lord of the manor, you wanted to be a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were the fulcrum around which everything of manor life revolved. They forged the plows that farmed the earth, they made the tools that allowed other craftsmen to do their jobs, they shoed horses so that work could get done, and they made the arms and armor that the lord used to fight. They also cast or broke spells for the mystic-minded population, cured disease when there were no doctors around, and set broken bones. In a Medieval village, the blacksmith was the man.
Like I just mentioned, most mining in the early Middle Ages was open-pit mining. The raw ore would be taken to the smiths to be smelted, washed, and roasted so that it could be broken down into pieces that could be worked in a reduction furnace. And then the magic began. No, seriously. The Medieval blacksmiths knew what to do with the ore, they just didn’t know why. Chemistry hadn’t been invented yet. But they did know that you had to heat the iron ore to a certain temperature, but not higher, for a certain amount of time, but not longer. They knew that charcoal was an important part of the process, but they didn’t know about the reactions of carbon and oxygen and the like. Their knowledge was a trade secret, passed down from generation to generation for hundreds or even thousands of years.
I could fill an entire book talking about the things blacksmiths could make using this technology, and in fact the book that I’ve used as the largest chunk of my research for this post, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Giles, spends a lot of time talking about these things. The two neat innovations that stick out to me though are chain mail and swords.
The creation of chain mail was one of the coolest, trickiest, and most revolutionary technologies of the Middle Ages. Especially since even today we’re still not 100% sure how they did it. How’s that for guild secrets! The chain links were created by drawing super-heated, soft ore through a series of small holes to create iron spaghetti. That’s not a technical term, by the way. Once yards and yards of iron wire was created it would be turned into loops. The loops would then be fastened together to form a malleable fabric of metal. That’s the part that we’re not really sure how they managed it. In some cases chain links were sewn onto leather tunics to create mail. This kind of mail was given to archers and foot soldiers who would afford it.
Knights and lords wore full plate armor, of course. That stuff that fascinated me at the PMA in third grade. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting debate on the comfort and ease of movement afforded by plate mail. On the one hand, there is the famous story of the Battle of Agincourt where the French knights were unhorsed by English archers. Supposedly the knights drowned in mud because they couldn’t get up on their own due to the weight and awkwardness of their armor. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if this is true. I had a blog commenter insist vehemently several months ago that armor was actually comfortable and flexible and easy to move in. My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The fact though is that armor became what it was, a full-body defensive covering, because of the increased use of the horse as a beast of war. Knights didn’t need to be as personally mobile if they were mounted. But they were more obvious targets sitting above everyone else, so they needed strong defenses. Voila! Armor! But the point I would like to make goes back to the almighty blacksmith. It was the technological advances in agriculture that raised the horse to prominence as the master of all animals. A lot of this was due to the improvements in horseshoes. Once again, peaceful, rural technology gave rise inadvertently to improved methods of warfare.
This is also true of the sword. The same blacksmiths that were working to produce better and stronger plows also forged swords. Swords were created by folding super-heated iron over and over and hammering it into a strong, powerful blade. The effect of so much folding and hammering gave the swords the appearance of streaky bacon, but it also made them valuable, deadly weapons. Swords were so prized, in fact, that their owners often gave them names, like Excalibur. Charlemagne’s sword was named “Joyeuse”.
These innovations defined the Middle Ages as the age of knights and armor, swords and battle, but also expanded agriculture and monumental architecture. And this was all well and good, but in the High Middle Ages, the fourteenth century to be exact, metallurgy merged with another powerful technology, water power, to set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. The processes for converting ore into metal into arms and tools was already in place. When water power was added to it, creating more powerful hammers that didn’t rely on human strength, blast furnaces that were able to run hotter and longer and refine metal to a purer degree without direct human attention, and mines that were able to dig deeper as new pump technology allowed for water to be removed, mankind was ready to make a monumental advancement.
But that’s a story for a different day.
Just keep in mind as you mistakenly use the word “medieval” to equate with crude and ignorant that the arms and armor created by these smiths a thousand years ago and the metal hinges, gates, and fastenings that they created for the great castles and cathedrals of Europe are still there. And they still work.