The History of Blacksmiths in Medieval Times

Updated April 17, 2017

A smith in Medieval times was a person who skilfully worked to mould and shape certain types of metal. Goldsmiths and silversmiths worked with gold and silver, while blacksmiths were so named as they worked with the "black" metal, iron. The origins of blacksmithing date back to the Iron Age, which began around the eighth century B.C. in Europe. Over thousands of years, blacksmiths worked to refine their technique, and by the Middle Ages, blacksmiths had become an indispensable part of Medieval society.

The Forge

When properly heated, iron becomes malleable and ductile, easy to form into most any shape. Heating the iron to a high temperature, then submerging the metal in water, a process known as quenching, carburised the metal into hardened steel. Using his hammer and anvil, a blacksmith could mould a piece of iron into the shape he desired, then quickly cool the metal for it to harden. The temperature of a forge was controlled by the bellows, which blew air onto the coals of the forge, causing the temperature within the forge to increase. A blacksmith could directly control the bellows, raising and lower the temperature of the forge as necessary. Prior to the invention of the bellows, heating a blacksmith's forge to the correct temperature required an apprentice to blow into a tube connected to the interior of the forge.


A quality blacksmith was indispensable to any town, village or castle he worked in. A blacksmith created horseshoes, nails, hoes and other tools used in daily life, but what made a blacksmith truly valuable was his ability to forge armour and weapons. A knight riding a warhorse, wearing plate male and chain armour, was the equivalent of a modern-day tank. Often battles would be decided by which side had the most knights, as footmen and archers were all but powerless against a knight in single combat. A king's blacksmith was so important that he would make his home in the castle to prevent him from falling into enemy hands if the castle ever fell under siege.


Unlike the subsistence farmers that made up the majority of the peasant population during the Middle Ages, blacksmiths could expect to live a decent life. Small villages generally only had one blacksmith, ensuring he always had plenty of work. Blacksmiths that made their homes in larger towns would be members of a local guild, which set prices and organised labour within the trade. Blacksmiths would take on one or more apprentices who lent a hand around the shop, slowly learning the trade themselves, until they were ready to open their own shops, or take over for a retiring master.


As the Middle Ages progressed, blacksmiths began to specialise in the specific crafts they demonstrated the most skilled in. A Blacksmith who made only armour became an armorer, a man skilled at making swords and knives became a bladesmith. Locksmiths, farriers and eventually gunsmiths, also developed out of this period. Smaller towns would still employ a "village smithy," but larger cities began to embrace this type of specialisation, leading to higher quality products and lower prices.

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About the Author

Timothy Lemke has worked as a freelance writer since 2009 and has been published with such websites as Ask The College Guy. Lemke graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and possesses a Bachelor of Arts in European history.