Middle-Tech: Books on Crafts and Skills for Ancient, Medieval, Frontier, and Other Self-Sufficient Characters

copyright 1997 by Historical Novelists Center


Through thousands of years, people used the same basic middle-tech skills. There were no factories, stores and markets were confined to the cities, and most people were moderately self-sufficient. Notably, it was in temples and palaces that people fell into specialized jobs of manufacture. The average woman throughout most of history was expected to be able to grind grain, bake bread, brew beer, prepare other foods for storage as well as for eating, milk animals and make cheese or butter, prepare fibres, spin thread, weave cloth, care for the sick, and raise her babies to boot. The average man knew how to herd animals, geld and deliver them, shear, skin, or butcher as needs be, plant crops, care for them and harvest them, build a house and other shelter, and work in stone, leather, and wood. From an ancient Sumerian through a Renaissance Scots crofter, the skills change very little.

This is a bibliography of handy crafts books on those necessary, widely known skills, so that you don't have sheep-shearing in June, a hide tanned for harness in three days, and the like. It will help you avoid other anachronisms, like a spinning wheel in the Middle Ages.

If we seem to emphasise spinning and weaving, it is because women of all stations took part in this activity. In ancient Rome, a citizen's wife was required to do no work whatsoever, except to supervise the household and to spin wool. Through the 1800's, glamourous French court ladies kept a small spinning wheel, inlaid and fancily turned, sitting on a side table, and spun linen as an elegant accomplishment.

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Andrews, Jack

New Edge of the Anvil: A Resource Book for the Blacksmith
Skipjack Press, 1997
This is the new version of Edge of the Anvil which you can still find at the library if someone hasn't got it checked out. This is the favorite guide for many modern blacksmiths. T2

Angier, Bradford

Skills for Taming the Wilds, a Handbook of Woodcraft Wisdom ****
Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PN, 1967
Hunter-trapper, old-fashioned, high-impact woodsmanship. Includes canoeing and pack animals, telling weather, etc. Very good. Too much today is Sierra Club, "pull out your ecologically safe heating unit," which doesn't tell how anyone before 1970 built cooking units out of saplings. T1

Bealer, Alex W.

The Art of Blacksmithing ****
Castle; 438 pg, 500 drawings
Covers everything with traditional tools (but see Buehr for when they were adopted) and gives techniques for forging armor (see ffoulkes, too), tools, and various other items. T3

Old Ways of Working Wood ****
Castle, 255 pgs
If you're tired of books on woodworking that start out by discussing which sort of power saw you need, this is a delight, as it details not only the different kinds of tools, but the jobs they are designed to do. Also goes into the behavior of the different common woods and their suitability for different jobs. T3

Bubel, Mike, and Nancy Bubel and Pam Art

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables ****
Storey Books, 1991
Canning was a Napoleonic invention, so before then and even since then on most farms you are going to know how to properly put up the apples, potatoes and cabbages. T2

Buehr, Walter

Warrior's Weapons ****
Crowell, NY, 1963; illustrated by author
Covers primitive smelting in bonfires and clay kilns, early steel and the pragmatic purpose of damascene or sprinkling powdered gems over red-hot blades. T1

Ciba Review

The Spinning Wheel ****
Basle, December 1939
Reprint and translation of 8 articles on the age and development of the spinning wheel: "Spindle and Distaff as Forerunners of the Spinning Wheel," like all the rest, by W. Born, takes Europe from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance; "The Indian Hand Spinning Wheel and its Migration to East and West"; "The Twisting Mill -- the First Step towards Mechanized Spinning"; "The Spinning Wheel with Flyer Spindle and Treadle Drive"; "Types of the Spinning Wheel" (there are many, often geographically divided); "Spinning in Art"; "Leonardo da Vinci's Ideas on the Mechanization of Spinning." Also, "Historical Gleanings" on silk throwing in England, spinning parties, spinning schools in Scotland, early English money and coins, and a 17th century pictorial laundry board (the original write-on, wipe-off laundry list). The mid-1500's is an important watershed. T1

Davenport, Elsie G.

Your Handspinning ****
Select Books, 1953; 132 pg, index
Great how-to reference, especially if you know nothing on the subject. Covers flax spinning as well as wool. This takes up a lot of most women's lives. T1

Deming, Barbara & Dick

Back at the Farm: Raising Livestock on a Small Scale ****
Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY, 1982
How-to with a vengeance, including butchering, gelding, etc.; graphic, but feed info is great. T2

Diringer, David

The Book Before Printing, Ancient, Medieval and Oriental *****!
Dover Publications; 604 pgs
When your characters are reading something, WHAT are they reading? A scroll? A book? A clay tablet? This book not only covers European development from Mesopotamian tables through scrolls, codexes and tomes to familiar if handwritten books, but also the development in Africa, Asia, and pre-Columbian America (the Spaniards burnt a lot of native books). Almost necessary any time the characters are literate. T2

Farnham, Albert Burton

Home Tanning and Leather Making Guide: A Book of Information for Those Who Wish to Tan and Make Leather, etc. ****
A. R. Harding, Columbus, OH, 1950; available elsewhere still in reprint
Dead practical and no-nonsense. Includes proper skinning, green-drying, working rawhide, bark-tanning, etc. T3

ffoulkes, Charles J.

The Armourer & His Craft from the XIth to the XVth Century *****!
Methuen & Company, Ltd., London, 1912; now from Dover Publications, Inc., NY
Excellent! The author appreciates the design of working armor rather than drooling over pretty doodadery, explains design detail, and the work and tools of the armorer. Deals in cuirboilli and jack as well as metallic armor.

Greenhood, David

Mapping ****
University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1964, var. rev. after; 289 pg, index
Unusual chapter on how to draw maps with straight-edge and table outdoors; no surveying necessary. Also, in case you have a cartographer character in the Renaissance or later, how data are gathered and map-drawing properly done. T2

Heath, Ernest Gerald

The Grey Goose Wing ***
New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, CN, 1971
Excellent history of the bow from earliest times, including discussion of Assyrian compound bows. Goes into the bowyery and fletching. T1

Hochberg, Bette

Spin, Span, Spun: Fact and Folklore for Spinners ****
self-published, 1979; 66 pg, bibliography, index
Treasure trove of trivia. What colours are flax? Where and when do men spin? and so on. Many non-technical items to dress the set. Global, not just European. T1

Laubin, Reginald & Gladys

American Indian Archery *****!
University of Oklahoma Press, 1980
Excellent discussion of bow and arrow styles and materials by practicing bowyer willing to try any material in experiment. Sheds light on European use of horn and sinew. T2

Mason, Bernard S.

Woodcraft ***
A. S. Barnes & Co., NY, 1939; now from Dover Publications, NY
Indian Camp woodcraft, including how to organize evening activities and ceremonies, but the information on wood for structures and fires, how to construct a teepee, etc. are very good. T2

Pawlicki, T. B.

"Megalithic Engineering: How to Build Stonehenge and the Pyramids with Bronze Age Technology" *****!How to Build a Flying Saucer, and Other Proposals in Speculative Engineering
Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1981
Absolutely brilliant! Instead of baffled awe by an archeologist, a "no big deal" explanation by a man who used to work in heavy earth construction with shovel crews. "The standard way to erect pylons would have made no scene for Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments." The pylon is drawn to the site on a stoneboat; pallets have been traditional in the moving trades since prehistoric times. A thousand slaves driven by whips are not necessary, because a thirty-foot pylon with an average cross section of five square feet weighs less than fifteen tons. Three hundred slaves, or a dozen oxen, could handle it easily. Even if the ancients had unlimited slaves, they used beasts of burden because animals are more efficient..." and there are tomb paintings of stoneboats drawn by cattle. Notice how 15 tons is everyday to him. Must be read to be appreciated in total! T1

Richards, Matt

Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials *****!
Backcountry Publications, 1997
Good reference on how to get by with no outside materials. T2

Simmons, Paula

Spinning and Weaving with Wool ****
Pacific Search Press, Seattle, Washington, 1977; 221 pg, index
Good detail and explanations, descriptions of equipment. Includes building plans for spinning wheels and loom. T2

Sloane, Eric

A Museum of Early American Tools ****
Wilfred Funk, Inc., NY, 1964
Excellent line drawings of a variety of large and small tools, often in use, often with dimensions. Deals with several crafts including logging, blacksmithing, and cider-making. T1

Streeter, Donald

Professional Smithing: Traditional Techniques for Decorative Ironworlk, Whitesmithing, Hardware, Toolmaking, and Locksmithing *****!
Astragal Press, 1995
If you need more than this thorough tome, you are getting way too technical. Many a smith could tell you much less. T3

Sunset Books, editors

This series for the modern urban-suburban gardener is most useful to you as a guide to when plants flower or fruit, which must be annually replanted, and which will be thriving on a sunny, dry knoll, and which in a shady, moist ditch.
Basic Gardening Illustrated **
Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, CA; 1975; 80 pg, index
Soil improvement, watering considerations, grafting, transplanting, all explained simply without technical elaboration for the beginner, or the dirt farmer whose culture has no theories only rules of thumb. T1

How to Grow Herbs **
Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, CA; 1972; 80 pg, index
Includes an encyclopedic chapter with descriptions of common or favorite herbs, not all edible. Clear and simple. T1

Vegetable Gardening **
Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, CA; 1975; 80 pg, index
Good for varieties and limitations of various vegetables -- time from planting to harvest, etc. Clear, good illos. T1

Tunis, Edward

Frontier Living ****
The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, OH and NY; 1961, 167 pg, index
Pen drawings manage to be technically accurate and artistic at once. Text in easy, personal style, accurate on what it covers, which is quite a lot of basic primitive technology. Hits early log cabin settlements, rivermen, Alta California, mountain trappers, weapons, food, milling, shelter, clothes, vehicles, et cetera! T1

Untracht, Oppi

Metal Techniques for Craftsmen; A Basic Manual on the Methods of Forming & Decorating, etc. *****!
Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1968; index
If you can only get one book on light metal crafting, get this one! Very thorough in the basics, an excellent reference for many metals; communicative illos. Includes many hand methods, including working on a charcoal brazier. Many photos of Indian craftsmen who work on the floor so they can use their feet in the processes, a habit common to all ancient workers, often forgotten in our shoe-wearing, chair-sitting, work standing up at a bench, culture. This is how the craftsmen of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. worked. T2

Whitaker, Francis

The Blacksmith's Cookbook: Recipes in Iron ****
With one or two of the other general blacksmithing books, this discussion of formulas for getting just the right metal blend is all you need. T3

Wigginton, Eliot, editor

Foxfire series *****!
Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NY
The Foxfire series derives from the magazine of Appalachian folkways. Along with interviews and oral autobiographies, there is an invaluable lode of methods of personal technology from a people who until after WW2 lived mostly on a self-sufficient, non-cash basis, indistinguishable from 19th century and earlier ways of life. T1

The Foxfire Book (1971)
Moonshining, Preserving Food, Planting by the Signs, quilting, oak splints. T1

Foxfire 2 (1973)
Beekeeping, Spring Wild Plant Foods, Ox Yokes, Wagons and Wheels, Tub (power water) Wheel, Foot-Powered Lathe, "From Raising Sheep to Weaving Cloth," How to Wash Clothes in an Iron Pot, Midwives, et al. T1

Foxfire 3 (1975)Hide Tanning, Cattle Raising, Animal Care, Banjos and Dulcimers, Gourds, Ginseng, Summer and Fall Wild Plant Foods, building a smokehouse, lumber kiln, or butter churn; Apple Butter, Sorghum, Brooms and Brushes. T1

Foxfire 4 (1977)
Knife Making, Wood carving, Fiddle Making, Wooden Sleds, Gardening, Trapping, Horse Trading, making pine pitch, Logging, Water Systems, Berry Buckets, Cheese Making, Apple Cider, Bleaching (dried) Apples, Hewing, Cornshuck Chair Seat, Loom (216 years old), Casket Making, Moonshine Still, Ash Hopper, Bending an Ox Bow, Lufa Gourds. T1

Foxfire 5 (1979)
Blacksmithing and Iron Working; Gunsmithing (muzzle-loading), Bear-hunting; each article very large. T2

....and the series continues.

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