One-Minute Essays
Swords into Plough Shares Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening Science/Technology
The solution to the problem of poor quality metal came from the Vikings themselves. In the ninth century an improved smelter was developed in, what is now, Norway. This heated the metal so fiercely that the impurities were purged, and the resulting metal was strong and pliant. This new method of production was also less expensive to operate than the older technique. As a result, iron products began to improve in design as well as quality; more people could afford them and could afford to experiment with new forms. Swords, for example, could be created with more attention to detail through a process known as "patch welding" in which two pieces of iron are heated and then hammered into one blade. Less warlike, but equally important was an item that benefited from these changed circumstances: the plough. Many people had continued to use "scratch ploughs," a piece of wood with a metal cap at the bottom, which dated from Roman times. With the new higher quality, and cheaper, iron, there were made more "heavy ploughs" with metal cutters called plough shoes and metal-trimmed boards for turning the soil, called coulters.
Many Europeans came to North America because they wanted to turn their swords into plough shares. In the Middle Ages improved metal processing helped that wish. First, better swords made warfare much more brutal. This led the medieval Church to seek ways to limit the slaughter. The result was the doctrine of the "Just War," in which limits were set to battle. No fighting on Sundays, during religious festivals (such as Easter or Lent), at night (when the powers of evil were believed to walk the earth), and no attacks on non-combatants (the elderly, children, the wounded) were some of the prohibitions.
The second benefit was that heavy ploughs using iron plough shoes could prepare the soil for cultivation better than the older "scratch ploughs." Subsequently crops grew better and yielded more food. This, in turn, led to a food surplus by the eleventh century. As in North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fewer people were needed to grow more food. This freed more people for non-farming jobs. As a result, towns grew larger, craft guilds could develop, and more people could acquire an education, leading to the development of universities.
For medieval people, finding a way to build a better sword led to improvements in their standard of living throughout a wide range of enterprises.