Medieval James Himself

Medieval James Himself
Guide at Ozark Medieval Fortress

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Forging Medieval Swords

Guests on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have asked at the blacksmith’s shop whether swords can be made on the forge there.  TheJuly20 (1) answer is that even though the blacksmith shop and forge look very primitive, just about anything made of iron can be made there. 

People think of swords as being very special because they have a big reputation, but a lot of blacksmiths would argue that it takes as much care and skill to make a good knife or even a good mason’s chisel as a sword.  Most blacksmiths now and, I believe, most blacksmiths in the Middle Ages would call a weapon that is three span (18 inches) or longer a sword and under that measurement, a knife or dagger.  Also, it is important to remember that weapon and armor making was a specialty and not done by an ordinary blacksmith.  To describe the process of making a sword would be almost as involved as describing how to make a car.  You can get into a lot of detail and there are many good books on sword and knife making.

During the Medieval period, the sword, certainly, was an important weapon and a symbol of the knights.  The sword reached maturity in its development during this time.  In the 900’s the metal was hardened and tempered.  Hardening makes the blade stronger and tempering makes it more flexible.  In the 11th Century, the Normans of Northern France developed the sword type most associated with the Crusades - with a cross guard straight and long like a Christian cross. 

June25 (15)The cross guard is the “T” of the sword, which protects the hand.  The blade is the long, sharp, dangerous part.  The grip is what is held and the pommel is the counter-weight and decoration at the end of the grip.  The cross guard, grip and pommel together are called the hilt.  When you say “bury it to the hilt”, it means the entire blade up to the cross guard. 

After saying that the forge at the Ozark Medieval Fortress is the right setup to make a sword, I figured it was best to make sure so I made one.  I used a piece of hard steel from an old buckboard wagon and fashioned a likeness of a short sword I saw in a book I have on German Medieval weapons.  In the drawing I thought the pommel was too big, but it turned out a good thing I followed that old illustration carefully because the balance ended up just right.  Lessons like that are a big part of the “archeology in reverse” of the Ozark Medieval Fortress.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Medieval Sheep Shearing Scissors

In the Wool Cottage at the Ozark Medieval Fortress guests see several Medieval spring-type scissors.  They often ask whether they are authentic June3 (26)to the Middle Ages and whether they are used to shear the nearby sheep.  The answer to both questions is “Yes”.   In addition, the good wife uses these scissors to cut the yarn.

Spring scissors like these go back to the ancient Egyptians, who made them out of bronze.  The Romans had not only iron spring scissors, but also developed a pivot scissor that is the ancestor of the modern scissors.  The Roman pivot-type used crossing blades like modern hand held grass shears.  By modern, I mean like the kind Grandpa used to trim the edges of his lawn on hands and knees. 

July17 (1)Medieval spring scissors were made of iron by the blacksmith.  The middle of the metal, which is the bottom of the scissors, is made of high carbon iron that is heated, cooled and heated again to make it like spring steel.  That gives these scissors their name.  In the middle on both sides are handles that let a person squeeze the scissor to make it cut.  At the ends, or top, are the blades, which are separate.  The tension between the blades is created by a slight twist in the spring end. 

These scissors were not especially difficult to make and the design stayed the same until the late Middle Ages.  They were, therefore, well known by common people and put to daily use in the home, on the farm and in the castles.  On the other hand, it is unbelievable how much work it takes to squeeze these scissors over and over on a job such as shearing a sheep.  Once again it is easy to underestimate the effort that went into something as common to us as cutting with scissors.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Medieval Sickles and Scythes

At the Ozark Medieval Fortress guests have asked about the tools used to harvest crops during the Middle Ages.  Unfortunately July13 (7)for the peasants, there had been improvements in crop planting tools (such as the plow) but none in crop harvesting.  Basically, they had to deal with the harvesting of grain crops such as wheat and barley by using a hand-held sickle in one hand and grasping the stems in the other.  That meant bending over and cutting almost at ground level.  Ouch!  For hay crops, which is cutting grass and similar crops for winter animal feed, peasants commonly are pictured in Medieval drawings using a scythe.  That is a blade which is straighter and heavier than that of a sickle and is mounted on a long, heavy handle.  A scythe handle required the use of two hands but was swung while standing erect.  That sounds better, but still a lot of “back work”.  Some of the blades for scythes were made curved and light like a sickle blade and with lighter handles.  Then and now these were used for weed control.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress this weed cutting tool is what is used most because to date we have not had any grain

crops or hay to cut. 

The history of sickles and scythes goes way back into the ancient world.  In the Middle Ages they were also used as weapons.  Peasants were sometimes called upon to fight and these tools were what they had available.  Symbolically, the sickle came to represent the peasant farmer and the scythe to represent the “Grim Reaper” or death.  There was no set standard angle, length or curve to the blades.  Each blacksmith had his own style.  The most popular blade in use at the Ozark Medieval Fortress was made by Rasmus, a volunteer from Denmark.  What is amazing is that in the modern day of gas-powered weed cutters, this ancient tool is still in use all over the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Medieval Castle Construction and Life

Guests at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have askedJune22 (1) me to put together a video of my favorite photos and video clips taken over the more than 850 tours I have led there.  It has been a lot of work, but it is finished and I am pleased to say is now available.  It is in the gift shop at the Ozark Medieval Fortress and the best way to get it is to come visit the castle.  I understand some people may not be able to do that, so if you would like a copy you can call the Fortress’ Gift Shop and order one by phone if you have a credit card.  The cost is $20 plus Arkansas sales tax and $5 for shipping and handling.  The DVD is about 25 minutes long and a very pleasant look at Medieval castle construction and life.  It is also a great memento of a visit to the Middle Ages. 

Below is a clip of the first 2 minutes or so of the 25 minute DVD.  The phone number of the castle is 870-436-7625. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Medieval Doctors

On special occasions, guests at the Ozark Sept6 (45)Medieval Fortress have enjoyed  presentations about Medieval health care.  Sometimes guests have asked about Medieval doctors and health care at the Good Wife’s area where she talks about healing herbs. 

People of the Middle Ages were very much aware of the value of the healing herbs.  On tour, this is explained by the Good Wife with details about the different plants and how they were used. One of the three major purposes of the garden itself is the growing of medicinal herbs.  (The other two are food and dyes).  In addition to the general common knowledge of herbs, the village Good Wife was available for consultation, as were physicians.  There were also “specialists” like midwives to deliver babies, barbers to bleed patients, blacksmiths to pull teeth and monks to determine if the problem was natural or a punishment from God. 

Sept6 (50)In the 13th Century, a trained physician was rare and respected.  In Northern Europe there were only two medical schools: one at Paris and another at Montpelier.  Those schools called for eight years of coursework and an additional year with an experienced doctor.  A doctor’s license would only then be issued and it was done in church in the name of the Pope.  Although in the modern day, the Christian church and physicians reject them,  medicine in the Middle Ages consisted of aspects of astrology, numerology and the consideration of the body‘s “humors”, which were phlegm, blood, bile and black bile. 

On the other hand, what we would consider modern medicine was beginning.  In the Medieval, hospitals began to appear and were supported by wealthy sponsors.  Although bacteria was not understood, there was the beginning of the concept of isolation of the sick.  There were several thousand leper colonies in France alone.  Doctors advised that war wounds be washed in a boiled, salty herbal tea, which meant that without knowing it, they had sterilized the medicine.  They also advised using honey on the wound to assist in healing, which we now know has antibacterial properties.  Garlic was prescribed to help with the black bile humor, which we know now to be antibiotic.

However, doctors thought that bleeding a patient or the use of leaches was beneficial.  This was commonly done by barbers as well. Doctors were at great risk of contamination from their patients.  It was June24 (22)a common medical practice for a doctor to taste a patient’s urine to determine the sugar content. Yuck!

Health care is talked about a lot today, but no matter what the problems that we have, it is worthwhile to remember the benefits we enjoy compared to the people of the Middle Ages.  We have a good blacksmith at the Ozark Medieval Fortress, but I have to say there is no way I would want him to use those tongs on one of my teeth!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Medieval Wheelbarrows and Handcarts

It is common for guests on tour at the Ozark March30 (16)Medieval Fortress to see several kinds of wheelbarrows and hand carts.  They often ask if the modern type of single-wheeled barrow is authentic.  There seems to be no question for them that the two wheeled hand cart dates back to the Medieval.  Actually, they both do. 

Barrows with one wheel go back to ancient China, but the wheel was in the middle, front to back, as opposed to left to right.  Europeans, especially France, England and Flanders, improved on the design by putting the single June8 (26)wheel in the very front.  This is the design of wheelbarrows today.  It is certainly practical and well balanced and allows a single person to move a lot more bulk and weight than by hand.  There are references to these kinds of wheelbarrows in the early 13th century (the period of the Ozark Medieval Fortress).

Wheelbarrows with one wheel were called “civeria rotalis”.  The wheelbarrows sometimes had nails with large heads driven in the wooden wheel to avoid excessive wear.  Sometimes the wheel was given an iron band, or tire, like a wagon wheel.  May25 (5)

Barrowmen also used what we would call “stretchers”, which had no wheels and took two or four men to carry.  In the Middle Ages these were called “baring-barwes”.  Wheelbarrows freed up one or three men for other jobs on the site.  The experience of the masons at the Ozark Medieval Fortress has been that the wheelbarrow has not been suitable for the heavy loads of stone, and they have, therefore, preferred the stouter two wheeled cart or the baring-brawe.  The carpenters and garden workers, on the other hand, with lighter loads and often working alone have preferred the wheelbarrow.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Medieval Squires

At the Ozark Medieval Fortress many guests who haMay31Too (12)ve an interest in knights have also  asked what exactly was a squire.  The short answer is that a squire in the Middle Ages was a necessary middle step between a page (who was a boy) and a knight (who was a fully trained master in the skills of  war).  It was generally from the time that they were between the ages of 12 to 14 and age 21.

The word “squire” comes from the French “escuyer” or “esquire”, meaning “shield bearer”.   July3 (27)That idea goes back to the Old Testament and the ancient world.  By the 1700’s in England it came to mean a country gentleman and in the United States is was a title for the Justice of the Peace. 

A squire’s duties included care of the armor, helping the knight don his armor, attending the knight at table, taking care of the knight’s horses and related equipment, keeping the knight’s clothes in good repair, running errands of whatever nature ordered by the knight, accompanying his knight throughout all the dangers of combat and serving as night guard.  His training included all aspects of knighthood.  Besides the obvious military June9 (13)skills of the knight, he also was expected to learn character and chivalry, heraldry, court etiquette, and even dancing.  These skills were learned by watching the knight and practicing with other squires and his knight.  Imagine all the skills when we are talking about everything from siege engines and horsemanship to the game of chess and how to appropriately address a lady. 

In addition to all the learning and work in serving his knight, the squire had to find time to make his own chain mail and weapons.  June9 (10)Not to mention find time to sleep!

It is worthwhile to remember that the castle, besides being the residence of the knight/lord and haven for the vassals was also a school for knights.  The squire learned the use of the sword, ax, mace, lance and dagger.  It is also important to remember that the squire was not just the teenager in the background, but rather was in as much danger during the battle as the knight.  At a mid-sized castle such as the Ozark Medieval Fortress, squires would be considered a valuable asset.