Over the last few years there has been a renewed cultural appreciation of the figure of the blacksmith. Television shows featuring bearded fellows hammering on hot steel have helped to popularize the idea of the smith as a kind of modern folk hero. At the same time the title of blacksmith is pretty misunderstood. Historically a blacksmith was someone who smote iron to make black goods. These included tools, hooks, decorative iron work, wagon parts, barrel rings, and all manner of gadgets and trinkets that were usually left with a black finish. People like armorers and weapon makers were more likely to be known as bright smiths. These folks tended to work with steel instead of iron (though plenty of bright work was actually done in polished iron).
Medieval smiths smiting iron
So perhaps it's really bright smiths who have captured the popular imagination, but with a misnomer. On the other hand, there's a whole category of medieval craftsman that is often forgotten in the contemporary romanization of the smith. This figure is the cutler. While the smith forged the blade, there were grinders and polishers to take it the next step and it was the cutler who assembled all of the various parts into a sword, give it a final hone and produced a weapon. Today we tend to think of this as mere assembly, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was the cutler who needed a deep understanding of swords and daggers to turn raw blades into weapons that functioned like they were supposed to.
Cutlers sharpening a sword on a manual stone
Anyone who has ever made a sword can tell you that it is very easy to take a perfectly nice blade and turn it into an awful sword. This is a particular problem today when many highly skilled smiths are making swords, but they have little idea what a historical sword was actually supposed to feel like, what it was supposed to accomplish, and how to achieve those goals. This is further compounded by the 'tests' that some television shows put swords to, which are sometimes entirely inappropriate to a good historical weapon.
Cutlers scraping and polishing a blade
Producing a sword that works like it should requires an understanding of how fighters wanted their weapons to work, and what kinds of tasks a fighting weapon would be asked to achieve. This meant that a good cutler was probably helped in their task by a knowledge of soldiering and the prevalent fighting systems of the day. If you don't know how to fight with a weapon it stands to reason that you will have a harder time producing a weapon that is optimized for its use.
Joachim Meyer, master cutler, fight master, bearded fellow
While we do not know how often cutlers were actually skilled fighters, we do know that it was not out of the question. In fact, we have a great historical example of a master cutler who was also a fencing master, Joachim Meyer. Meyer probably served his apprenticeship as a cutler in Basel. According to the Wiktenauer entry on Meyer "...he traveled widely in his youth, most likely a reference to the traditional Walz that journeyman craftsmen were required to take before being eligible for mastery and membership in a guild. Journeymen were often sent to stand watch and participate in town and city militias (a responsibility that would have been amplified for the warlike cutlers' guild), and Meyer learned a great deal about foreign fencing systems during his travels." In 1560 Meyer became a master cutler in Strasbourg, where he was also a fighting master. Though we have no direct evidence to prove it, it is very likely that people like Meyer who both fenced and made swords were in a better position to make weapons that were adequate to the fighting arts they practiced.
Title page from Meyer's 1560 text, featuring the crest of the Strasbourg Cutler's Guild top and center.
Here at Arms and Armor we find Joachim Meyer to be an inspirational figure - both a cutler and a fencer, and we take to heart the admonition that to make a great sword it sure helps to know how to use it.
Oh my, is that the cutler's crest? All dirty from sword making...
In conclusion, historical cutlers probably deserve more love than they receive today, especially given their historical association with the fighting arts. Also, to toot our own horn just a bit, here at Arms and Armor several of us are experienced practitioners of Historical European Martial Arts, both armored and unarmored, and we use this experience along with our experience with original swords to make certain that our products look, feel, and function just like they ought.
A cutler's Shop showing finished sword on display and others being worked on.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.