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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

From Anvil to Guild: Medieval and Renaissance Armorers

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031.
"Anvil" (Italian, 1400s-1500s). 
Wrought Iron.  The John Woodman
Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031
One afternoon, while looking through the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, I discovered a 14th-century wrought iron anvil.  I felt a strong kinship towards it because I frequently used similar anvils in my metalsmithing classes in college. The anvil, arguably more a utilitarian artifact than a work of art in its own right, seemed to me a relic imbued with the presence of the often anonymous craftsmen who used it as one of their most basic and essential tools for shaping arms and armor.

Anvils have a flat end, a curved tip, and a large flat base that could be secured to a table or other surface.  By varying the hammer size, force of the blow, and location and angle at which a piece of metal is struck in relation to the anvil’s top face, an armorer would form the metal into his desired shape. The large hole in the surface near the flat end is used to hold other tools for more specialized adjustments (see image 3).  The versatility of an anvil to both shape metal and support other tools made it one of an armorer’s most prized possessions.

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031. Top View.
"Anvil" (Top view)
My chance encounter with the anvil made me want to learn more about the hands and tools that created the objects in the Higgins Armory Collection, especially in the medieval and renaissance periods, the years in which this anvil was likely in use.  Through my exploration, I soon discovered a great deal about the structure of the armor-making industry.  One particularly interesting finding was that some armorers’ guilds, such as the one in Nuremburg, Germany, required apprentices to make one or more pieces of armor – such as a helmet or breastplate – as a test in order to become certified as a full member of the guild.  Afterwards, though the craftsman could practice independently, he was only allowed to make the specific piece of armor he fabricated for his test.  This practice no doubt fostered interdependence by forcing guild members to collaborate with each other.  Similarly, there were laws limiting the number of apprentices that a craftsman could have at one time.  This restriction of the workforce indicates an awareness of the limited market and a desire to regulate an individual’s production so that everyone could have access to commissions.

“Anvil” (Italian, 1400s-1500s).  Wrought iron. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1031. Detail.
"Anvil" (Detail)
This experience exemplifies what I love about art museums: those moments when interest in an object leads to a greater understanding of an entire society.

-Sydney Kasok, Curatorial Intern, Medieval Art and Arms & Armor
July 31, 2019


Ffoulkes, Charles John. The Armourer and His Craft from the XIth to the XVIth Century. London: Methuen & Co, 1912.
Pfaffenbichler, Matthias. Armourers. Medieval Craftsmen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Wattenmaker, Richard J., Jan Firch, and Alain Joyaux. European Tools from the 17th to the 19th Century: Woodworking, Metalworking, and Related Trades: Flint Institute of Arts, April 26-June 7, 1981. Flint, MI: The Institute, 1981.

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