A blacksmith is a metalworker who works specifically with the so-called “black’ metals like iron – unlike gold and silversmiths who work with their respective ‘white’ metals. Working in a room known as a forge, the blacksmith could turn hot iron into useful items for hunting, fighting and farming, as well as beautiful objects for decoration.
Whereas modern metalworking techniques include melting iron right down until it can be poured into moulds, medieval blacksmiths ‘forged’ metal by heating it until partially melted and malleable, and then shaping it with a variety of specialised tools. Using a hammer, the iron could be drawn (lengthened) by beating the metal against the anvil. This would flatten and/or widen the metal, thereby ‘drawing’ it out. A technique called upsetting was used to increase the thickness of the metal in one dimension through hammering the cold end of the object with the hammer to make the malleable hot end shorter and thicker. To bend the metal it was placed over the horn of the anvil and struck with the hammer to achieve a smooth curve.
The blacksmith was a valued member of medieval society who had dealings with many sections of the community because their skills were used for a diverse range of applications. Among other professionals, they were employed by dentists, doctors, undertakers and armourers alike who had need of metal implements and specialist objects. The blacksmith therefore also needed to be fairly entrepreneurial to run a thriving business that catered to all walks of life.
The emergence of the blacksmith enabled empires to develop and flourish as they could now wield the equipment and weapons to dominate during battles and advance civilization – until the Industrial Revolution, that is, when technology advanced further still. Nevertheless, the blacksmith craft remains a respected and skilled profession to this day, and their significance to history should not be underestimated.
Interesting facts about blacksmiths
He who hits black metal – The word ‘smith’ comes from ‘smite’, which means to hit. The prefix ‘black’ was used because the iron to be forged would develop a layer of black oxides as the metal was worked.
Iron: the metal of choice – Wrought iron is a strong metal that’s resistant to rust and easy to work. Although bronze was also used by blacksmiths, it was harder to come by and also more expensive.
Location, location – Depending on where they lived blacksmiths had different roles. Village blacksmiths would serve small rural communities, while a castle smith would make weapons and repair armour, etc.
Forging in the dark – The forge was a very dark place, but this was intentional so the blacksmith could better judge the temperature of the metal with which he was working based on its colour.
Hard as steel – Blacksmiths added carbon to the iron to create steel, which made it harder. This carbon came in the form of bone dust or powdered hooves, which could be added to the hot metal and cooked.
What did blacksmiths make - Swords, Daggers, Lances, Arrowheads, Armour Shields, Tools, Rivets, Nails, Hinges, Locks, Keys, Torture devices, Chains, Knives, Pokers, Ornaments, Jewellery, Horseshoes, Gates…