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Tasting Misery Among Snakes: The Situation of Smiths in Anglo-Saxon Settlements
By Duncan Wright
PIA: Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol. 20 (2010)
Introduction: The prominence of smiths in early medieval culture should capture the imagination of archaeologists interpreting the remains of Anglo-Saxon metalworking. The legend of Weland, or Wayland, the smith, was circulated widely in Anglo-Saxon society. As well as being depicted visually on the eighth century Franks Casket from Northumbria, the legendary smith surfaces repeatedly in contemporary heroic literature. Weland features in the opening line of the tenth century poem Deor and is also referenced as the producer of armour and weaponry in Old English epic poems such as Beowulf and Waldere (Wilson 1976: 263-266). Further still, in the laws of Æthelberht (Clause 7) the smith’s wergild is reserved to the king rather than his kin group, suggesting that he is the ‘king’s man.’ Being mentioned at the top of the list of clauses, in the first codified English law ever, demonstrates the immense value of smiths in Anglo-Saxon society from as early as the sixth century. Yet whilst being valued for their craftsmanship, there is substantial evidence to suggest that smiths were marginalised agents within Anglo-Saxon society. Indeed, the legend of Weland sees the smith abducted on the orders of King Nerike, before being hamstrung and imprisoned on a lake-island, to prevent escape. Despite this violent act of exclusion, the smith was forced to produce items for the king whilst imprisoned, demonstrating the valued production of high-status metal goods. This ambivalent status of Weland, as privileged yet ostracised, is indicative of the perception of smiths in early medieval society more broadly. Importantly, it is evidenced not only in art and literature, but by the spatial relationship of smiths to cultural centres in several archaeological excavations.
Archaeologists have recognised numerous forms of evidence for Anglo-Saxon smiths and metalworking, with the most substantial data source being the vast quantities of metalwork from furnished graves, of which knives are the most commonly recovered artefact (Leahy 2003: 124-125). In spite of their role in the production of such quotidian objects, there is significant archaeological evidence to indicate that smiths possessed a special status in Early Anglo-Saxon society. Corroborating the heroic story of Weland detailed above, the material record implies a close association between elites and smiths in Anglo-Saxon England. This can be attributed to the function of gift-giving of precious objects as a key instrument of alliance, and in creating notions of kingship. It was not only such ornate metal products which were valued by elite society, but the tools of production themselves, which also came to constitute the trappings of royal power. Whetstones, for instance, appear to have had an importance beyond that of mere utility, as indicated by the sceptre/whetstone object recovered from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (Bruce-Mitford 1947). Further, the sharpening of weapons seems to have possessed special symbolic significance, as surrendering arms to be honed would have constituted an act of submission, a ritual possibly inherited from Celtic kingship (e.g. Enright 2006; Shapland 2008). Such a legacy may partly explain the veneration of smiths across northern Europe in Iron Age societies (Barndon 2006).
See also Products of the blacksmith in Mid-Late Anglo-Saxon England