Was Medieval metal working/smithing better than the ancient one (Greek, Roman)

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
26,234
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#3
Was Medieval metal working/smithing better than the ancient one (Greek, Roman)
It remained substantially the same during the phase of decline [while the social structures collapsed the exploitation of gold, silver and copper mines diminished ... leaving room to iron minerals ... still necessary for weapons. So it wasn't a degeneration, but an “imposition” of the market, of the demand]. I would say that it was in IX century CE that a medieval metal working begun to appear.

With new mines and foundries a new literature about metal working had created in Europe. Even if during fusion they still used wood carbon, they begun to extract fossil carbon [and this would have changed a lot the quality of the final product]. It was the progressive decrease of the available wood carbon to cause an increase in the usage of the fossil one [with all the positive consequences].

Hydraulic energy had applied to metal working and overall the iron industry improved a lot thanks to this introduction. [With the first early proper blast furnaces able to produce cast iron].

We’ve got also some documents [a few] demonstrating that the ancient techs were preserved:

For example the “Compositiones ad tingenda musiva” [VIII century CE – Lucca, Code 490].
 
Jan 2015
2,903
MD, USA
#4
Well, that's a pretty complicated question, really! For starters, *when* are we talking about? "Ancient" and "medieval" can both be considered to run for a thousand years, and both encompass significant advances and changes in technology and infrastructure.

And more to the point, "better" in what way?

Also note that a lot of the answer will depend on some pretty specialized knowledge of ancient metallurgy. I've picked up bits and pieces over the years from historians and various metalworkers, but I don't have all the details, by any means. And we have to be a little careful not compare the BEST piece from one era to something average from the other, just for the sake of fairness!

For instance, here's a reproduction (reasonably accurate, for our purposes) of a typical 11th century helmet worn by kings and nobles:



And here's a first century Roman helmet worn by any grunt legionary:



That appears to be a clear win for the Romans, eh?

Of course, as I said, it's really a much more complicated answer than that.

For basic steel metallurgy, it's a little hard for me to say. I *believe* that smiths were more often able to achieve higher carbon contents as the middle ages progressed, as evidenced by the way monosteel sword blades completely replaced pattern welding around the 10th century. *Some* of that was due to importing wootz steel from India, etc., but I'm not sure all of it was. The Romans frequently made blades with steel edges welded onto "piled" cores, which as far as I can tell is rather like pattern welding without the deliberate complex patterns. Piling is forging a mix of iron and steel, in other words, and so is pattern welding. But some Roman blades were more homogenous, though I'm not sure the quality of the steel (purity, carbon content, etc.) was up to the level of the later middle ages.

I'm also not certain how often the Romans were quenching and tempering steel, which requires a certain minimum of carbon. They certainly did know of hammer-hardening, and the use of sulfur and phosphorus for hardening. They also had their famous Norican steel, though the experts are still arguing about the exact make-up of that!

A lot of Roman armor has been found to be of a sophisticated laminate construction, harder on the outside than on the inside. Apparently this was done by welding 2 different layers together. They were also able to achieve a surprising consistency of thickness which makes some modern writers wonder if they were actually *rolling* steel sheet. And of course the Romans were able to crank out good plate armor for tens of thousands of grunt legionaries, a capability unmatched until the 15th century.

Overall Roman production levels of iron and steel were WAY greater than medieval society for a long time. That kind of infrastructure was hard to match.

Were high-end, top-of-the-line late medieval swords better than a standard-issue gladius? Sure! Were cheap mass-produced 15th century infantry swords better than a tribune's parazonium? Not necessarily.

I can't really bring the Greeks into this because I have seen almost no good analyses of Greek ironwork. Obviously what they had was perfectly functional and well-made! It can never be called "crude" or "primitive". But I don't know what might be known about carbon content or heat-treatment practices, etc.

Does that get you started? We'll probably be at this for a few days, but there's a lot of neat stuff to talk about.

Matthew
 
Jan 2015
2,903
MD, USA
#6
Just to clarify a little, there was obviously a lot of technological and methodological progress over the centuries!

The Greeks don't seem to have made any iron *armor* or helmets until the 4th century BC. They'd been making iron *weapons* for a few hundred years before that, but it seems like they had trouble working wrought iron out into the thinner sheets needed for armor. From what I've heard, wrought iron really prefers to be worked hot, and thin metal loses the heat too quickly. Until you can work out methods like stacking or folding sheets to retain heat, or the use of power hammers, you don't get much sheet iron.

So the first Greek iron armor was for royalty, such as the cuirass from Phillip II's tomb. Obviously a couple hundred years later the Romans had licked all those problems, and improved on the basics as well, to crank out lorica segmentata by the acre.

By the later middle ages, there is a LOT of cheap plate armor being churned out by shops all over Europe. Henry VIII bought something like 30,000 sets for 16 shillings apiece. But a GOOD suit of armor for a nobleman would cost a hundred times more than that, or a thousand. It's all down to what could be done on a mass-production scale with power hammers, and what was done by master craftsmen and artists.

Matthew
 
Jan 2016
583
United States, MO
#7
Medieval metallurgy was defintely more advanced than the ancients. Yes romans had piled blades, but sometimes they sometimes not put together in a proper way ie using soft material for the edge or something like that, there was also an inconsistency in the roman's heat treating process. They never had quality differential hardening or tempering. Things got better in the later days of the empire as the spatha was developed and transitioned into the migration era pattern welded sword. And later on, medeival metallurgy got much better with the production of properly tempered blades, which I beleive stated to pop up around the year 1000AD. One clear way to see this progress in metallurgy is to look at the length of their swords. Rome didn't have the capacity to make swords that were two handed and could average 35 or so inches in length.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#8
Was Medieval metal working/smithing better than the ancient one (Greek, Roman)
Yes, for the better steel swords. Example like the Ulrich swords are superior to any thing from ancient Greek or Roman sword.

Late medieval plate armour was far superioe to anything the Romans or Greeks made, and far more sophisticated. Not only in the mmetal itself, but techniques like acid etching patterns on the metal.

Of course, the medieval period covers a 1000 years, what is true for the later period won't always be true for the earlier period. However, the one area the Germanic barbarian tribes that overran the Roman empire could match the skill of ancient Greeks, Romans was in metal working. Not sure if was superior, but Merovian swords could be as fine as any made by the Greeks, Romans. By the end of the medieval period, it was superior.
 
Jan 2015
2,903
MD, USA
#9
Medieval metallurgy was defintely more advanced than the ancients. Yes romans had piled blades, but sometimes they sometimes not put together in a proper way ie using soft material for the edge or something like that, there was also an inconsistency in the roman's heat treating process. They never had quality differential hardening or tempering. Things got better in the later days of the empire as the spatha was developed and transitioned into the migration era pattern welded sword. And later on, medeival metallurgy got much better with the production of properly tempered blades, which I beleive stated to pop up around the year 1000AD. One clear way to see this progress in metallurgy is to look at the length of their swords. Rome didn't have the capacity to make swords that were two handed and could average 35 or so inches in length.
There was definitely a lot of variety in the construction and quality of Roman blades! Kinda what you'd expect for government contract work... And from what I have read, I tend to agree that heat treatment got better and more consistent in the post-Roman era.

BUT----it also turns out that a standard 19th century archeological practice for conservation of iron artifacts was ANNEALING. Basically, they'd dig up an ancient sword, and to stabilize it so the metal didn't all flake away they'd heat it red-hot and allow to cool. Worked great for conserving it, except that annealing completely destroys all traces of any heat-treating or work-hardening that was done to create the blade in the first place! And if a later study of a particular piece was unaware of what had been done to conserve it when first excavated, it might look like a sword was unhardened or made of softer on the exterior, when that was not necessarily the case. Just a caveat!

Pattern-welding is not necessarily a functional improvement over piled or other ancient blades. It was a way of combining metals with different properties to get a good blade, because it was not possible at the time to use a single piece of high-quality steel which had all the necessary attributes. (It can be compared, if imperfectly, to Japanese sword-making, which is a brilliant technique designed to get a good sword from crappy iron ore.) Once monosteel blades became practical to produce, pattern welding went away pretty quickly.

I would NOT say that the Romans were incapable of producing longer blades! Nor that the lengths of their swords were an indication of their technological level.

Though again, I will agree that medieval smiths were able to produce long blades of consistently higher quality overall, achieving more strength and flexibility. Note, however, that for a long time these were the qualities of an *expensive* medieval sword, while a poorer man's scramasax may have been no better than a legionary's sword. It's only later in the middle ages that even cheaper swords are functionally superlative.

Matthew
 
Jan 2015
2,903
MD, USA
#10
Yes, for the better steel swords. Example like the Ulrich swords are superior to any thing from ancient Greek or Roman sword.
I think you mean the Ulfberts? But yes, they were probably better steel than the Romans generally saw.

Late medieval plate armour was far superioe to anything the Romans or Greeks made, and far more sophisticated. Not only in the mmetal itself, but techniques like acid etching patterns on the metal.
*High-end* plate armor from the late middle ages was better steel than any Roman armor. But a lot of munition armor was plain iron, right into the 17th century. And munition armor was far less sophisticated in design than the Roman lorica segmentata, and not always as comfortable to wear. Again, high-end armor for nobles was a masterpiece of design, not only well beyond anything the Romans attempted, but often beyond what we can reproduce today!

Etching is a decorative technique, really just cosmetics, but if you insist. The Romans preferred to use inlay (brass, silver, gold, and enamel), which seems to be less common in the late middle ages.

Of course, the medieval period covers a 1000 years, what is true for the later period won't always be true for the earlier period. However, the one area the Germanic barbarian tribes that overran the Roman empire could match the skill of ancient Greeks, Romans was in metal working. Not sure if was superior, but Merovian swords could be as fine as any made by the Greeks, Romans. By the end of the medieval period, it was superior.
Weeeeelllllll, that sounds a little slanted! Many of the "barbarians" that overran the Empire were using far fewer swords than any Roman army, and a lot of those were Roman imports! The technology level just wasn't all that different. The Merovingians had good stuff, no mistake, but they did not think of themselves as destroyers of the Roman empire, they thought they WERE the Roman empire! And of course a lot of those very excellent arms and armor in the late middle ages were being produced in Italy, and in other places that used to be Roman. So it's more like simple development over time, no surprise at all, rather than "Romans versus non-Romans".

Matthew
 

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