One-Minute Essays
Bad Metal in a Fight Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening Science/Technology Original Document included
Throughout history the smelting of raw ore into metal has been only one consideration; a more important concern was the production of good quality metal. Impurities, improper smelting procedures, and low-grade ore all resulted in metal that was brittle or soft. For farmers this meant that plough shares or metal implements broke frequently. For warriors, this meant that their weapons would fail them in battle.
A crisis in the production of good quality metal occurred after the collapse of Roman administration in the early Middle Ages, the period from the fifth to ninth centuries. Rome had taken iron ore, for example, from high-grade deposits in Britain and Spain; Roman smiths, among the best in history, had produced weapons that were strong, kept a sharp edge, and did not break or bend in battle. A tribute to these products is found in the Old English poem Beowulf, where the warriors search graves in order to find "good, old swords." This was tacit recognition that the blades the Germanic smiths were producing out of bog iron were inferior to weapons made two or three centuries earlier.
The need for reliable weapons is illustrated vividly in the Viking tale Laxdale Saga "The Story of the Men of Laxdale." This is a romantic reconstruction of history, for the saga was written in the thirteenth century, roughly three hundred years after the events it claims to describe. This is a story of the eternal romantic triangle. A lady named Gudrun loves a man named Kjartan. He does not love her, so Gudrun marries his best friend Bolli, and urges him to kill the man she loves. In his final battle episode, Kjartan has been lured into an ambush by Bolli. As he fights for his life:
Kjartan smote hard, but his sword was of little use. It often bent, and he had to pause and straighten it under his foot. His enemies pressed their advantage and came ever closer. Finally, his enemies lunged at him. When Kjartan saw Bolli, he threw away his weapons, and Bolli gave him his death blow.
By the end of the Middle Ages poor quality metal became even more a concern with the use of gunpowder. Early cannons were as dangerous to those who used them as to their victims. The Scottish king James II was killed when he stood beside a cannon that exploded. In early America, poor quality iron meant that muskets could explode. Reliable firearms were prized and often given names by their owners.