The History of Leather Part 6 – Medieval Era

Posted on 15/07/14

When leather became big business (5th to 15th Century)

One positive consequence of the widespread Roman invasion of Europe was an inheritance of leathercrafting technologies, which of course the Romans inherited themselves from the Greeks.

These technologies allowed leatherworking and leather trade to become big business in the Medieval Era. As well as being used for shoes and accessories, leather started to be used to craft armour. Leather could be easily shaped and hardened by boiling in water or oil, giving greater creative flexibility than would be possible with metal. That said, leather armour was vulnerable to sword thrusts and arrows, and given that the majority of sword fights are at least as stabby as they are slashy, it’s not surprising that metal armour took over in the end.

There was such a thriving trade in leather, in fact, that “Tanner” was an incredibly common surname, and the Medieval leather trade could be divided into the heavy and light trades. The main difference between the two was the leather that they had access to. Light traders manufactured leather accessories from sheep and goatskins, while heavy traders manufactured accessories and saddles from cattle hide.

Business was booming in the leather industry, that’s for sure. You’d think, therefore, that the mechanical aids that were introduced and used during the medieval period might have been embraced by the leatherworking community too. Stubborn old souls that they were, the only mechanical aid they used was horse or water power to grind oak bark into powder for the tanning process.

Though there isn’t an obvious iconic leather product from Medieval literature that I can refer to at this point, we cannot underestimate leather’s contribution to the publishing and preservation of the written word. The Middle Ages saw the rise of leather-bound books, filled with smooth, durable calf-skin-based vellum.

In one sinister case, a book was bound in human leather instead. When asked to explain the exactly why traditional leather didn’t fit the bill, the man responsible, Dr Ludovic Bouland, claimed: “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering”– which sounds like a rejected line from a Tim Burton screenplay.

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