Sunday, 8 September 2013
'Strike while the iron is hot' by Karen Maitland
After the temple in Jerusalem was completed, King Solomon threw a party for all the craftsmen who’d assisted in the building, but the blacksmiths were not invited because he said they had done nothing to help. But the blacksmiths pointed out that the tools of all the other craftsmen had been made by them, so without them there would be no temple. Solomon saw the wisdom in that and gave the blacksmiths the place of honour at the feast.
The second legend concerns King Alfred. He held a competition to determine the best craftsman. Through bribery, the tailor won and the blacksmith was so furious that he called all the blacksmiths to go on strike. Soon the tools of the other craftsmen wore out or were broken and they were unable to work. They desperately tried to mend the tools themselves, but only succeeded in shattering the anvil.
This story was always re-enacted on 23rd November when blacksmith dressed as ‘Old Clem’ was led through the town to collect drinking money from the households. Probably one of the reasons it came to an end was because the parade culminated in the blacksmiths filling the hole in an anvil with gunpowder. They then set off the explosion with a spark from the blacksmith’s hammer. Not something Health and Safety would approve of today.
One of the tricks of the trade was to use 'drawing oil' and 'jading oil'. The blacksmith would dip a small bone in drawing oil. In Victorian times this was often a mixture of aniseed, cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary, thyme, opium and orris-root powder. Horses love the smell and with this concealed in the blacksmith’s fist, the horse would obediently come towards him as if drawn by magic. In the blacksmith’s other pocket was bone covered with repellent herbs – jading oil – which when wafted in front of the horse would make it stop dead, or if waved behind it would make it rush away to escape the smell. These bones could also be used to spook a horse if the blacksmith wanted to get back at the owner.
Many cures were attributed to blacksmiths. If a child was ailing, he was brought to a forge at midnight and laid naked on the anvil. Seven blacksmiths from the same family would stand over the child and pretend to strike him with their hammers. If the child showed fear, he would recover, If he did not react he would die. I imagine that it was also a sure-fire ‘cure’ for any child foolish enough to pretend to be ill to escape work or school.
Laying a child naked on an anvil, and striking the anvil was a cure for whooping cough. And the water in which the iron was dipped to cool it was greatly prized as cure for thrush and ringworm. Blacksmiths were also blood charmers. If a wound wouldn’t stop bleeding the bloody bandage was taken to a blacksmith who would touch it and the bandage would then be retied over the wound and the bleeding would stop.
With those powers I’m beginning to think I should put my anvil to good use. Perhaps I’d better go and start shredding my apron.