Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'Proof' (??) of Female Blacksmiths

Not to 'beat a dead horse'... (much)
Liutgard of Luxeuil said...

It isn't Viking age, but there _is_ a 14th c illumination of a woman at the forge- and we know it is a woman because men did not wear the goofy frilled fillet with barbette and net on their hair. I don't think that it equates to anything akin to modern attitudes about what women can or cannot do- there is a man in the picture also, and it is entirely possible that it is simply a woman helping her husband out on a busy day. Fun to ponder though.

Now, this came in as a (well intended!) comment to my earlier piece (October 23, 2010)
'Female Smiths in the Viking Age?'
This is the actual illustration she refers to:

from the Holkham Bible, England c. 1327 (portion)

Thanks to the wonders of Google Docs, a fast search gives you this commentary on the Holkham Bible by Dr. W.O. Hassall:
" The purpose of this manuscript is revealed on its first page, which
discloses a preaching friar commissioning a secular artist and
explaining that the book is to be shown to rich people.
The costumes, tools, weapons and buildings in the pictures are those
of fourteenth century England. They were intended as "visual aids"
for a popular preacher to show to wealthy merchants or craftsmen.
They present a medieval panorama by almost cinematographic
methods. Many early occupations such as dyer, smith, carpenter,
midwife are shown in what are virtually "stills" of a medieval
miracle play of 1330 showing the England into which Chaucer was
born. "
In the on line version of Hassall's notes, for the description of this illustration :
Frame 60
fol.31. Three Marys follow Christ. Note the green cross.
Simon of Gyrene with gloves, tall hat, country boots and cudgel. A
carpenter bores a hole. A smith says his hand is too bad to make
nails. His wife at the forge.
The image is thus part of the story line around the Crucifixion of Christ. Note the context of the image - The smith is attempting to AVOID the work of making the required nails, claiming his hand is damaged. This certainly suggests 'his wife' is not able to undertake the task.
Not exactly what I would call definite proof of a female as working blacksmith.
Obviously there is a LOT more going on here than a simple illustration of 14th century reality.

'Luitgard' I think has made a good critical assessment of this historical source.
Its certainly interesting, but put into its context it becomes, more, not less, certain as a depiction of actual mid 1300's life. Most definitely it should not be used as justification to transpose modern ideals back into Medieval realities.

Once again I need to state, CLEARLY, that I have been and remain a huge supporter of modern women involved in metalsmithing (or any other 'non traditional' activity).


Anonymous said...

Historic evidence can be difficult to interpret from our modern POV. But why do you think that this picture indicates that his wife CANT make the nails? We know that nailmaking is one of the few blacksmithing tasks regularly performed by women in prior centuries.

the Wareham Forge said...

You are absolutely correct about nail making - which also was a home handi-craft kind of thing at some times and places (ie, done around a household cooking fire for cash).
The problem I'm addressing is that one illustration, obviously intended to be alegorical, does not 'prove' full participation of women as professionals in a trade. (And yes, some will take such illustrations in exactly that light!)
The connection to nail making can only be assumed by the context of the image to its associated text. The illustration itself is not detailed enough to show this!


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