Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.

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6 responses to “Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

  1. I would say that the Lapphyttan blast furnace, dated to 1150-1350 but likely active from the late 12th century, and at Noraskog, possibly around 1100, were revolutionay iron-carbon production techniques, These findings have barely been digested by continental historians of metallurgy. Whether they were translated from china through the silk road and early medieval scandinavian expeditions to the caspian sea (which seems unlikely as the evidence for blast furnaces in the islamic world is quite weak for this period) or invented separately (which happened in Africa – their blast furnaces might predate the chinese) they represent a great leap forward for especially steel production, primitive as they (and all pre-18th century blast furnaces) are.

    • You kindly informed us about that before, indeed, and it is interesting: it makes one wonder, for example, about its effect on early modern Sweden’s hitting power in Europe. It would seem, however, still to come too late for the changes of the tenth and eleventh century that Bonnassie and White before him wanted to put down to proto-industralisation in this field. With this post, of course, it suddenly seems more likely to simply be change in production volumes, rather than technique. But then, that’s what you told us last time you commented…

      • I am not sure I understand…Blast Furnaces are a very different technique from bloomeries? Or am I missing something?

        • I’m not sure you are missing anything, but if so it may be the chronology. Blast furnaces obviously mark a big change, but unless they are much working much earlier than the finds so far suggest, they can’t be part of a tenth- and eleventh-century change, so if iron production is part of that change, it can apparently only be making a difference by virtue of increased bloomery production, not by a change in technique. Or have I misunderstood the dating implications of the finds you mention?

  2. “iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries”: which is pretty much what is happening today – so much steel is recycled that you don’t need many blast furnaces for iron-making – see, for example, the redundant steel works in France.

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