The Background

Ruined by its own prosperity and universal dominion, the later Roman Empire fell into inevitable decline. Under the growing onslaughts of the northern barbarians, the weak and degenerate Western Empire tumbled into ruins and carried the wreckage of its civilization with it. For nearly a thousand years the world witnessed the slow transformation of the newcomers from forest tribes and raiding nomads into organized states, who eventually became the dominant powers of the Middle Ages - the French, Germans, Burgundians, Lombards, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Northmen. It was the Normans, the strong and able successors of the Northmen who had settled in Northern France, who eventually established their customs and feudalism over most of Europe from Britain to the southernmost tip of Sicily and even into the Near East. Only the Church continued to grow and to flourish throughout this long period, firmly held together by monasticism, and retaining within its bosom many relics of the old learning and the seeds of many trades. For the monks were not mere saints, but very practical people, with a keen eye for their own interests, a subtlety of mind that was quite beyond the mental range of their nominal rulers, a genius for picking out the best sites and acquiring the most valuable lands for their abbeys, and the highest talent in church building that the world has seen. It is amusing to note how the Venerable Bede, after upbraiding a drunken monk for his misbehaviour, excused him because he was a first-class smith!

Such were the Middle Ages, a time when bronze had given place very largely to iron, when agriculture was paramount, when internecine wars were common, and industries few and comparatively simple.

In Britain the Anglo-Saxons, who were skilled woodworkers, especially in oak, and also highly skilled blacksmiths, took little account of metals other than gold, silver and iron. During many centuries their basic currency was the silver penny, although a few copper coins were occasionally struck, notably in Mercia during the 8th Century. Inevitably in this period the art of coppersmithing declined, even on the Continent.

The impact of the Norman Conquest profoundly altered the English way of life. The feudal system, with its highly organized scale of duties; the institution of settled King's Laws and their savage enforcement; and the acquisition of power by individual barons, around whose castles clustered all the people who sought their protection, encouraged the growth of towns and a middle class of traders and guildsmen who steadily forced their way to independence. The tremendous impact of the Mediaeval Church, with all its panoply of ceremony, colour and wealth, encouraged certain trades and stimulated arts and crafts though not learning. Nevertheless for a long time England depended mainly upon wool, beef and mutton, and drew most of her metals from the Continent. Brass, in particular, was regarded with great favour in this country, and was known for a long time under its French name of 'Latten'.