Sunday, October 19, 2008

Medieval Cast Iron?

As a short answer to a question posted to the SCA Ontario discussion:

'Is cast iron cookware historically correct for the Medieval Period?'

First challenge - Define 'medieval'?
(The SCA officially runs from 'the fall of Rome to the English Civil War' = 450 - 1650 AD )

Second challenge - do you conform to materials and objects inside your personna time frame alone?

Third challenge - some fast metallurgy:
- The element iron will absorb carbon during its processing from iron oxides (ore) as it is reduced to actual metal.
- If you have no carbon, you get soft 'wrought' iron. This is easy to hot hammer, relatively soft but flexible. Ideal for hinges and handles.
- If you have small amounts of carbon, the metal becomes increasingly hard and brittle. By small I mean from .2 to up to about 1 % (not very much). Our modern mild steel has roughly .2 %. A machette or axe has roughly .5 %. A carving chisel or scaple has roughly 1 %.
- Over about 1.5 % the characteristics of the metal change, alowing you to liquify the metal without damaging it (actually 'burning' it back to iron oxide). This allows you to pour into sand molds for pots and pans. This is cast iron. The cost is that the metal is extremely brittle (drop and it shatters).

Now the time points (real fast!)

- For the period up to the Crusades (- 1200), NO cast iron
The direct bloomery furnaces used to turn iron ore into metal had little predictable control over carbon content. If high carbon liquid cast iron was produced, it was considered a waste product and returned into the furnace. No objects were made of this material in the West. (China is another story)

- In the central part of the Middle Ages proper (1200 to 1500) - RARE cast iron.
The creation of metallic iron from ore was a larger scale two part process. A higher carbon metal was created from ore, then the carbon selectively removed to the desired point in a second furnace / forge process. So cast iron was produced, but for objects was a curiosity rather than a normally employed material. You will find some small objects, mainly things like jewelery or small sculptural pieces (think fist sized). These are quite uncommon and tend into the Rennaissance .

- Post Medieval (1600 +) - LIMITED cast iron
True use of deliberate cast iron does not develop untill the introduction of coal as a smelting fuel in the very late 1500's on the continent and into the early 1600's in England. By the time of Jamestown Virginia (1610 +) there are starting to be small pots available. These were extremely expensive and limited to the upper class. Think of the 'witches caldron' shape with three legs, maybe holding one or two gallons.

- Settlement Era (1700 +) GENERAL use of cast iron
Cast iron becomes easier to produce and control. It still is expensive, but prices and availability have dropped to the point that many families can affort a SINGLE pot or pan.

- Industrial Age (1820 +) EXTENSIVE use of cast iron
Cast iron cookware will not become both cheap and widespread until the introduction of steam powered technologies. The Victorian period has the largest use of cast iron for all kinds of objects, from personal goods to architectureal.

Simple answer:

No cast iron cookware in a medieval setting. All pots and pans made of riveted iron or copper alloy (early period bronze, later period brass) sheet. Few pieces per household.

For a simple overview of pre-Conquest cookware
Norse Trade Goods - Cookwares


STAG said...

Wonder if I should be pounding out medieval dutch ovens........

Brian Hubbard said...

Great info! I've been trying hard to find references to medieval cast iron pots and pans and just can't do it. I've been told by some folks "in the know" that of course they had cast iron pots 'n' pans. Still, I can't find any reference to it. I've poured through old inventories, old cook books, old kitchen manuals, and can find no reference to cast iron cookware. I did find one reference to an early attempt at a cast iron cauldron in mid 1400s. Because of the brittle nature of the cast iron of the day, the cauldron walls had to be so thick that the project was considered unsuccessful.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of the facts on this article but to make a blanket statement that is accepted as fact cannot be done there are to many things that cause me to question. There were different levels of skill and different ways of pouring the metal at different times from the 1500s to the 1700s even into the 1800s. I have a cast iron griddle that weighs 33 lbs and is 16" in diameter with 5 inch legs that could have been poured in the late 1500s to the early 1600s we will never really know because they did not put a date on it. Where it was found indicates that it is very old, and the quality indicates a crude way of pouring cast iron. It is smooth and usable but primitive


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