Mikken’s Mark: The Brand of the Middle Ages?

arya-needle

Arya draws Needle from its sheath. Linked from Wikia. © HBO.

When Ned Stark finds Arya’s sword “Needle,” he quickly realizes the sword wasn’t some castoff from one of his men. Ned knows the sword was superb quality and custom-made for his daughter. Luckily for Arya, Ned accepts her interest in learning to fight.

sword-makers-mark

This 1610 English sword has a “dancing” wolf maker’s mark (shown in upper-left corner). A blacksmith in Solingen, Germany made the blade and an English artisan made the silver and gold hilt (handle). If you are in Massachusetts before December 31st, you can see this sword at the Higgins Armory in the Orientation room.

But, how does Ned know the sword was superior? He found “Mikken’s mark” on the blade. That is, a symbol indicating Mikken, the best blacksmith in Winterfell, created the blade. But, what is a blacksmith’s mark? And, what is the significance of it?

A blacksmith’s mark was the equivalent of an artist’s signature on a painting. Different blacksmiths would use different symbols or marks to identify their work. These marks became associated with their work in ways not unlike a brand. Sometimes when a blacksmith died, he would bequeath the mark or his name to one of his employees or apprentices so they could continue to trade under that brand.

Blacksmith’s “signed” their work because it was, depending on the item, as labor intensive as any artist’s product and required significant engineering. Not only did it take a lot of skill to craft the reticulated elbow and shoulder joints of plate armor, the nobles and wealthy gentry would commission fancy flourishes and decorative items in the armor that greatly added to its cost.

During the Wars of the Roses, a suit of armor cost roughly £33* (£185,000 GBP or $288,000 USD in today’s money)—far more than the average villager pressed into service could pay. Armor (also known as “harness”) was only owned by people who could afford it, had inherited it, or maybe been awarded it during previous military service. Some soldiers might have had it if they’d picked it off a corpse. (Richard III was buried naked for a reason.)

jaime-lannister-plate-armor

Jaime Lannister wears a breast-plate made of plate armor. Detailing such as the inlaid crown emblem and colors would have made this armor costly. Linked from Wikia. Copyright HBO.

In general, it was the nobles on horseback who wore armor. The soldiers who fought on their feet (tenant farmers and others recruited to fight for their lord) rarely could afford much armor other than maybe some leather padding.

Armor was like the “executive jewelry” of the medieval world. Just like today’s executive might subtly convey their status through the latest expensive electronic phone or gadget, medieval nobles displayed their wealth through armor. Armor styles changed as the clothing fashions changed. (Men (and not women) were the “clothes horses” of the middle ages.)

When Jaime Lannister was in King’s Landing, he constantly walked around in his armor. Perhaps, he did this to make it clear he was in the king’s guard or perhaps as an emblem of his identity—its not clear. However, in the real world, whether or not nobles would have worn it off the battlefield, it certainly would have conveyed status.

*According to Andrew Boardman, author of The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses.

Learn More, Explore More

Higgins Armory in Worcester, MA. If you are in New England before the Higgins Armory closes at the end of December, consider a visit. The only armory in the Western Hemisphere is closing its doors, due to a funding shortage, and moving its collection into the Worcester Art museum in 2014. Built by an industrial baron, the armory showcases steel objects from around Europe, shows Swiss soldiers with pikes, medieval weapons, and has lots of interactive exhibits for kids. (I have a soft spot for struggling museums because of how hard it is for them financially, so please forgive the plug!)

 The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses by Andrew T. Boardman.

Medieval currency conversion

A YouTube Video on how to forge a sword: http://youtu.be/Q3IGLDYxqdI

History of the Blacksmith

In the middle ages, blacksmithing was one of the seven mechanic arts. See Wikipedia.

By

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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