Introduction – Iron to Protect the Human Form

Some time since, Mr. G. H. Birch read a paper before the British Architectural Association entitled:  “The Art of the Blacksmith.”  The essential portions of this admirable essay are reproduced here as a fitting introduction to this volume:

“It is not the intention of the present paper to endeavor to trace the actual working of iron from primeval times, from those remote ages when the ever-busy and inventive mind of man first conceived the idea of separating the metal from the ore, and impressing upon the shapeless mass those forms of offense or defense, or of domestic use, which occasion required or fancy dictated.

“Legends, both sacred and profane, point retrospectively, the former to a Tubal Cain, and the latter to four successive ages of gold and silver, brass and iron.  Inquiry stops on the very edge of that vague and dim horizon of countless ages, nor would it be profitable to unravel myths or legends, or to indulge in speculation upon a subject so unfathomable.  Abundant evidence is forthcoming not only of its use in weapons, utensils and tools of remote times, but also of its use in decorative art; unfortunately, unlike bronze, which can resist the destructive influence of climate and moisture, iron – whether in the more tempered form of steel or in its own original state – readily oxidizes, and leaves little trace of its actual substance behind, so that relics of very great antiquity are but few and far between.  It remains for our age to call in science, and protect by a lately discovered process the works of art in this metal, and to transmit them uninjured to future ages.  In the RETROSPECTIVE HISTORY OF THE BLACKSMITH’S ART no period was richer in inventive fancy than that period of the so-called Middle Ages.  England, France, Italy, and more especially Germany, vied with each other in producing wonders of art.  The anvil and the hammer were ever at work, and the glow of the forge with its stream of upward sparks seemed to impart, Prometheus-like, life and energy to the inert mass of metal submitted to its fierce heat.  Nowhere at any period were the technicalities of iron so thoroughly understood, and under the stalwart arm of the smith brought to such perfection, both of form and workmanship, as in Europe during this period of the Middle Ages.

The common articles of domestic use shared the influence of art alike with the more costly work destined for the service of religion; the homely gridiron and pot-hook could compare with the elaborate hinge of the church door or the grille which screened the tomb or chapel.  The very nail head was a thing of beauty.

Of articles for domestic use of a very early period handed down to our times we have but few specimens, and this can easily be accounted for.  The ordinary wear and ear and frequent change of proprietorship and fashion, in addition to the intrinsic value of the metal, contributed to their disappearance.  “New lamps for old ones,” is a ceaseless, unchanging cry from age to age.  In ecclesiastical metal-work, of course, the specimens are more numerous and more perfectly preserved; their connection with the sacred edifices which they adorned and strengthened proved their salvation.

Iron to Protect the Human Form

Without going very minutely into the subject of arms and armor, it is absolutely necessary to refer briefly to the use of iron in that most important element, in the protection of the human form, before the introduction of more deadly weapons in the art of slaying rendered such protection useless.  In the Homeric age such coverings seem to have been of the most elaborate and highly wrought character, for, although Achilles may be purely a hypothetical personage, Homer, in describing his armor probably only described such as was actually in use in his own day, and may have slightly enriched it with his own poetic fancy.  From the paintings on vases we know that sometimes rings of metal were used, sewn on to a tunic of leather.  They may have been bronze, but there is also every reason to believe that they were sometimes made of iron.  Polybius asserts that the Roman soldiers were chainmail, which is sometimes described as “molli lorica catena,” and we find innumerable instances on sculptured slabs of this use, and in London, among some Roman remains discovered in Eastcheap and Moor Lane, actual specimens of this ringed armor occurred, in which the rings did not interlace as in later specimens, but were welded together at the edge.  From this time there is authentic evidence of its constant use.  The Anglo-Saxons wore it, as it is frequently described in manuscripts of this period.  Later on, the Bayeux tapestry represents it beyond the shadow of a doubt, both in the manner as before described and also in scales overlapping one another; while the helmet of a conical shape, with a straight bar in front to protect the nose, is also very curately figured.  What we call chain-mail proper did not appear before Stephen’s reign, and its introduction followed closely after the first Crusade, and was doubtless derived from the East, where the art of working in metals had long been known and practiced.  The very term “mail” means hammered, and from Stephen’s time until that of Edward III it was universally used; but long before the last mentioned period many improvements, suggested by a practical experience, had modified the complete coat of chain-mail.  Little by little small plates of iron fastened by straps and buckles to the chain-mail, to give additional safety to exposed portions of the person, gradually changed the appearance, and developed at last into complete plate armor, such as is familiar to us by the many monumental brasses and effigies still extant; the chain-mail being only used as a sort of fringe to the helmet, covering the neck , and as an apron, until even this disappeared although it was near the end of the sixteenth century – so far as Europe is concerned – before the chain-mail finally vanished.  After this date armor became more elaborately decorated by other processes besides those of the armorer’s or smith’s inventive genius.  Damascening, gilding and painting were extensively employed, and more especially engraving or chasing; and the collections at the Tower – and more particularly the rich collection formed by her Imperial Majesty, the ex-Empress of the French, at Pierrefonds, now at the Hotel des Invalides – show us to what a wonderful extent this ornamentation of armor could be carried.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still gave employment to the smith, until the utter inability of such a protection against the deadly bullet, rendered its further use ridiculous, and in these days it only appears in England in the modified form of a cuirass in the showy but splendid uniform of the Horse of Life Guards or occasionally in the Lord Mayor’s show, when the knights of old are represented by circus supernumeraries, as unlike these ancient prototypes as the tin armor in which they are uncomfortable encased resembles the ancient.

With the armor the weapons used by its wearers have been handed down to our time, and magnificent specimens they are of an art which, although it may not be entirely dead among us in these days, is certainly dormant so far as this branch of it is concerned.  The massive sword of the early medieval period, which depended on its own intrinsic weight and admirably tempered edge rather than on its ornamentation; the maces, battle-axes, halberds and partisans, show a gradual increase of beauty and finish in their workmanship.  The sword and dagger hilts became more and more elaborate, especially in Germany, where the blade of the sword is often of most eccentric form and pattern, as if it was intended more to strike terror by its appearance than by its actual application.

Many of the ancient sword-hilts preserved in England, at the Musee d’Artillerie in Paris, and at Madrid, Vienna, Dresden and Turin, are of the most marvelous beauty and workmanship that it is possible to conceive, more particularly those of the sixteenth century.  Italy and France vied with each other in producing these art treasures of the craft of the smith; Milan, Turin and Toldeo were the principal seats of industry, and in Augsburg, in Germany, there lived and died generations of men who were perfect masters in this art of the smith.

The decadence with regard to the weapon was as marked as that of the armor; the handle of the sword became more and more enriched with the production of the goldsmith’s and lapidary’s art until the swords became rather fitted to dangle as gilded appendages against the embroidered cloaks or the silken stockings of the courtier, than to clang with martial sound against the steel-encased limbs of the warrior.

It would be beyond the limits of the present paper to enumerate the many examples of ancient work in weapons and armor contained in the public museums of Europe, and also in private collections.  Armor is only mentioned here to give an idea of the extent to which the art of working in iron was carried, of the perfection it attained, and how thoroughly the capabilities of metal were understood, noting well that the casting of the metal into molds was scarcely ever practiced, that it was entirely the work of the hammer and the anvil, that the different pieces were welded and riveted by manual labor of the smith, and then subsequently finished in the same manner by the various processes of engraving, chasing and punching.