There are many lists of tools from the medieval period, none of which include a tool specifically for hand weeding. There is no mention of weeding trowels or small hand forks, although there are pictures mattocks of various shapes and sizes being used to weed or plant. Many years ago, I noticed that an illuminated page from Crescenzi’s Ruralium Commadorum, showed a gardener standing over a raised bed with a small implement in his hand. It could be something to weed the flower beds, I realised.
I have shown this picture in my talks on medieval gardens for over twenty years now and have not seen a similar tool in a museum, nor in another picture that dates from the medieval period. The shape reminded me of two other gardening tools; the daisy-digger or a miniature bicornis or bidens, as used by the Romans. I have seen the full-size heads of the bicornis in museums displaying Roman finds, and there are also medieval pictures showing people using them. They were still being used in many parts of Europe until recently. I thought would be a relatively simple matter to make one.
I spoke to my blacksmith friend, John Wills, several times about the tool and eventually, I decided to make one myself at his forge where he makes historical metal items but also gives lessons to budding blacksmiths who would like to have a go themselves. I had wanted to make a sword at school during my metalwork class, but I wasn’t allowed to, although I was eventually allowed to make a grappling iron. The method to make the grappling iron had used similar techniques to those needed to make my garden tool, but it was decades since I had left school. I didn’t want the usual toasting fork or S hook, but this tool looked simple enough to me, so after a chat, I booked a day with John.
As we waited for the fire to get hot enough, we drank coffee and looked at the picture. John had already made a copy of how he thought the tool was made, which appeared to resemble the picture. We enlarged the picture more than I had before, and I realised that the angle of the object in the picture indicated that it was definitely not a daisy-digger type tool and definitely a claw. Something easily obtainable from most garden centres in the country, but the modern tool usually has three tines, instead of the two shown in the picture.
Once the fire was hot enough, John took a metal rod and demonstrated how the tool would be made. It didn’t take him very long to produce the finished product. I realised that I could make one, but it may take a little longer and not be made with such perfection. I was given my piece of metal and placed it in the coals which I had to pull over the end to make sure it got hot enough. Next, I had to hammer flat the end where the tines were to be made.
This was not so easy as it sounds, mostly because I didn’t hit the metal fast enough, so it cooled before I had achieved much. Having made the end flat I had to heat it again and split the end with a chisel to form the tongues that would become the tines.
The metal was heated again, and I bent one tongue over the anvil to get it out of the way so that I could make the remaining tongue longer and taper it to a point. The finished tine was then bent over and the other one straightened and made to match the other one.
One tine was a bit too long, so the end was cut off using the chisel. Both tines were then hammered back into line with the handle. I then had to heat the rod so that it could be cut to the correct length. Once hot enough it was placed over an edge set in the anvil, and I hammered until it was nearly cut through before it was carefully snapped off. Next, I had to hammer the handle into a square section, which took a lot of hammering and quite some time for me to complete. Experience is a fine thing. John makes it look so easy. The tines were now ready to be properly formed. Once hot, the tines were carefully opened enough to get them over a fatter chisel-end held in the anvil. I tapped the end of the rod to open them more and then bent them out so they were at 90° to the handle. More heat, then I bent them over the anvil to make a toasting fork shape, and finally bending them another 90° to make the claws.
To finish the piece, I heated the blunt end, hammered it to a taper and then curled it over, making a loop to hang it up. The picture shows a blunt end, but it would be more useful to me to be able to hang it up at my historical garden displays. The curl at the end was not that good, but I was pleased with my finished tool. John suggested treating it to give a good finish by heating it and then quenching it in a container of oil, but I thought that it wouldn’t have been done for such a lowly item. Over lunch, we realised that if one of these objects had been found, its use may not be obvious. It could be used as a butcher’s hook to hang meat, although probably not as a back scratcher.
The next tool that I wanted to make was a pruning hook. I had seen these in many museums from the Roman period onwards. They are small bill hook-like tools that can be used for pruning shrubs or vines and as a general gardening knife. I have used one in the medieval garden that I made and tended at the Prebendal Manor, Nassington, Northants. In the days before secateurs, this was the garden tool all gardeners would need. Mine usually hangs ready for use from a leather lanyard fixed to my belt. It is an item that can easily be lost.
John agreed that in the time we had left that this was the best option. I thinned the flattened end to make the edge and then bent the blade inwards towards the socket. It looked quite similar to some weeding hooks that I had seen, although others were curved, much the same as pruning hook.
It had been a good day. I had my new ‘lost’ medieval gardening tool and a weeding hook; all I need now is some drier weather to try it out.
To contact John Wills for historical metal work or for a day course:
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org