What does it mean to be a craftsman? To us, the word is often caught up in artistry: the ability to carve marble or walnut, to “make beautiful objects by hand,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. When I think of craftsmanship, I always think of my grandfather’s model ships: the infinitesimal planks of wood that lined their hulls, every mast and line studiously and meticulously placed.
But in his new book Cræft, archaeologist and historian Alexander Langlands reminds us that there is more to craftsmanship than beauty and form. His book is about a more ancient sort of workmanship, one tied as much to survival and sustainability as it was to loveliness or artistry. We no longer understand—let alone practice—the skills that made our forbears resilient and thrifty. But Langland explains why the world of cræft contains a power and potency we desperately need today.
We often associate artisanship with specific products: craft beer, artisan bread, a piece of hand-carved furniture. But Langlands explores cræft beyond consumerism and kitsch, beyond the comfort of our buying-focused society. In this volume, he spends nearly as much time on the spirit and ingenuity of the craftsman as he does on the various crafts themselves. Thus, Langlands starts his book with a definition of cræft drawn from the writings of Alfred the Great. To Alfred and other Anglo-Saxons, Langlands writes, cræft connoted “power or skill in the context of knowledge”—not just physical prowess, but also mental agility and excellence. What’s more, “on a significant number of occasions,” writes Langlands, “[Alfred] uses cræft to translate the Latin virtus, meaning virtue, in the sense of spiritual skill and excellence. In a study of Alfred’s debt to vernacular poetry, the historian Peter Clemoes writes that Alfred’s uses of cræft are best explained as ‘the organizing principle of the individual’s capacity to follow a moral and mental life.’”
Dexterity of mind, muscle, and soul. This, to the ancients, was cræft. So why has our definition of the term become so narrow? Langlands argues that we lost much of this knowledge during and after the Industrial Revolution: cræft slowly succumbed to rot as mechanization replaced harder-learned, manually driven skillsets—and as we increasingly came to associate excellence with financial, rather than mental or spiritual, predominance. Today, we associate a “good life” with ease and comfort: the ability to lounge on the beach, own a yacht, or golf on the weekends. Most Americans don’t know how to maintain or repair their possessions—and don’t see such mental or physical nimbleness as necessary.
A common rebuttal that will come up as some read these chapters, however, will be, “So what?” Just because an ancient practice was once useful and lovely doesn’t mean it must persist—especially when there are other (some might say lovelier) things we can do with our time. Mechanization has set us free from the toil associated with cræft.
But perhaps, as we’ve lost the skills and excellence associated with old-fashioned cræft, we have actually become less free. Echoing the writings of Matthew Crawford, Langlands writes that “We’re increasingly constrained by computers and a pixelated abridgement of reality that serves only to make us blind to the truly infinite complexity of the nature world. Most critically, our physical movements have been almost entirely removed as a factor in our own existence. Now all we seem to do is press buttons.”
There is, undoubtedly, a degree of balance required in our consideration of ancient crafts. While there’s no doubt we’ve lost important skills throughout the industrial and postindustrial eras, the craftiness necessary to merely maintain survival in ancient times was astounding—and life spans were shorter, and harder, as a result. A recent battle with a broken furnace in our nineteenth-century home reminded me just how privileged I am to not have to rely on a fireplace for survival: for warmth, cooking, washing, and bathing. Chopping and carrying wood is good physical exercise. Keeping a hearty fire going throughout the day requires a lot of vigilance and savvy. These are excellent skills to have. But I confess, I’m thankful I do not have to rely on those skills for my daily bread and daughter’s warmth.
In abandoning cræft, we haven’t just become weaker (physically, mentally, and spiritually). We’ve fallen prey to a monochrome and cheapened version of reality.
It’s true, however, that we’ve discarded more than Thomas Hobbes’s “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence with our embrace of modern industrialization and technology. There are many things that are better when done by hand: better for the earth, better for our bodies and souls, even qualitatively better in and of themselves. A simple comparison of Wonder Bread and homemade sourdough bread helps illustrate this. Langlands argues for the skep in beekeeping because, he has found, it’s better for the bees. He argues for the plow because the modern farm has mechanized itself to the point of solitary exhaustion (and has debilitated both soil and animal in the process). He argues for locally crafted wool garments and rugs because he’s found them to last longer and bring more warmth to their owner than factory-created alternatives. In abandoning cræft, we haven’t just become weaker (physically, mentally, and spiritually). We’ve fallen prey to a monochrome and cheapened version of reality.
While some of the skills described in Cræft (such as thatching and haymaking) are more intriguing than they are inspiring to the average reader, others are decidedly applicable to everyday life. One of my favorite cræfts explored in Langlands’s book is hedging:
In any productive flower, vegetable, or fruit garden, a tightly clipped hedge is almost a necessity, and the more hedged borders one can afford to maintain the better. While their roots can stabilize and help to contain garden soil, a tight-knit hedge’s chief benefit lies in its role as a screen of dense foliage. This can provide a barrier against wind-borne weed seed ingress. It can also offer a wind shield to more delicate plants in the garden.… And, as any amateur ornithologist will tell you, a good hedge attracts garden birds, which in turn do an excellent job of keeping insects at bay.… [T]he art of topiary is really just an extension of a fundamental garden craft.
Langlands’s historic, craft-focused explorations of simple household items like wool rugs, leather shoes, and wicker baskets brilliantly separate them from their artificial counterparts. There’s a reason these things have lasted, he explains. There’s a reason many choose to visit estate sales, flea markets, and antique stores over IKEA. Langlands helps us understand, on an objective and historic level, how (and why) they truly don’t make them like they used to.
There is perhaps one point at which I’d disagree with Langlands. In rather self-deprecating fashion, he writes in one chapter, “While I can talk a good craft, I’m no craftsman. I’ve turned my hand to all sorts of things over the years, and at times of brimming self-confidence I like to consider myself a Renaissance man, but when I get down off my high horse the expression ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is definitely more fitting.”
By tying cræft to power and overarching excellence, Langlands seems to suggest that the most “crafty” humans will, in fact, be the most self-sustaining.
But “jack of all trades” seems to encompass Langlands’s opening definition of cræft better than solitary mastery of one skill. By tying cræft to power and overarching excellence, Langlands seems to suggest that the most “crafty” humans will, in fact, be the most self-sustaining. Individuals with cræft won’t have to call a plumber or electrician when things go wrong. They won’t immediately toss ripped garments or broken toys into the trash. Near the end of his book, Langlands proffers a highly useful (and inspiring) trajectory of craft production:
Tended landscape » sustainable production of raw materials » intelligently processed » beautifully made » fit for purpose » fondly used » ingeniously reused » considerately discarded » given back to the earth
While not all of us may describe ourselves as creators or craftsmen, the last three points on this trajectory are goals we can all aspire to. The fond and ingenious use (and reuse) of objects, along with their considerate and earth-friendly disposal, are needed in our time more than ever. Indeed, Langlands argues for a revival of cræft throughout this book, as a response to the toll that industrialization and consumptive living has taken on our world. Who knows whether slower, more laborious rituals will become a godsend to our broken world in future years?
Perhaps Langlands’s book will serve as inspiration to a new generation of craftsman. Regardless, it serves as a potent and inspiring reminder of the beauty of hand-crafted things. While I am, admittedly, glad that I don’t have to thatch my roof this year, Cræft inspired me to keep cultivating and expanding the (woefully small) number of manual skills and crafts in my day-to-day life. It is all too easy, in the age of Netflix and Grubhub, to allow ourselves to grow soft and mentally vacuous. But a beautiful, sustainable life may require us to be a little less sedentary, and a little more crafty.
Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.