Tracing human existence from prehistory on, a historian celebrates resourcefulness and skill.
British archaeologist and medievalist Langlands (Medieval History/Swansea Univ.), presenter of the BBC series Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm, makes his literary debut with a delightful, informative melding of memoir and history. Like Ruth Goodman did in her books How to be a Victorian (2014) and How to be a Tudor (2016), Langlands conveys the reality of daily life in earlier times, focusing especially on “physical adeptness, strength and fitness” along with hard-won wisdom about materials and techniques, all components of cræft. He believes that society today is “going backwards,” relying on machines that have rendered us “lazy, stupid, desensitised and disengaged.” On his journey of discovery, Langlands finds evidence of craftiness in museums, such as the Museum of Welsh Life, where he investigated beekeeping; and an Icelandic farmstead museum containing implements and artifacts of daily life: a cornucopia of tools and gear, along with “skilfully made baskets, chests and trunks” to hold them. Much of what he learned came from his own determined efforts. “As is often the case with my experimental historical crafts addiction,” he admits as he faced the challenge of making a thatched roof, “one extremely long and arduous task leads to another extremely long and arduous task.” The author discloses the complex processes involved in creating items we take for granted: woolen fabric, for example, requires an understanding of “how fleeces translate into fibres, how fibres translate into yarns, how both respond to dyes,” and how yarn becomes fabric for particular uses. The tanning of hides into leather is similarly complicated, with multiple steps of cleaning, preserving, and drying. Farming, haying, weaving, basketry, and boat-making are some of the crafts Langlands describes in fascinating detail as he travels through time and place. He regrets that workmanship is no longer revered: “we have become detached from making,” he writes, “and it isn’t a good state for us to be in.”
Humans are makers, the author argues persuasively in this illuminating book, in need of renewed connection to the intelligence and ingenuity of craft.