Clifford Abrams wrote:
In many texts, spears or other weapons are often "shod with metal
'free'". Why "free". I understand (from the late Tony Cuffe) that a
"wee pen knife" was really very likely a "weapon knife"-- which
people were much more likely to carry around in earlier days. (As an
aside, many paintings by Brughel and Bosch feature men of all classes
carrying these kserviceablervicable-lookidaggers daggars. They seem
like long bayonettes mostly.)

Is a similar transposition happening with the "free" thing? Thanks.

I think Tony was wrong, because we would see this tautological structure in early sources if it existed - and 'weapon knife' doesn't appear anywhere. Also, there are English versions of songs which use 'little'. A penknife was a necessary thing at the time the ballads were noted down, if not at the time they are often dated (illiteracy doesn't go with pen knives!). And I think they were quite different from a modern penknife - a long handle with a short blade of considerable sharpness needed for cutting a quill in one clean action. Probably as effective as a stiletto. Maybe even adapted for personal defense use by women - after all, the moment guns became available, most British women of any standing carried a gun personally (I believe what I hear on the Antiques Roadshow!), and I'm sure that they would always have carried a serviceable small knife before that.

'Metal free' or 'metal clear' refers to the difference between naturally occurring free iron and iron refined from ore ('metal brown') - or to the iron derived from different ores. Pyrites, haematite and another ironstone ore (can't remember, I knew all this once from my father) require different extraction processes and there were very rare occurrences of free iron - maybe meteorites. The results of working these ores 500 years ago were not unlike the differences between cast iron, wrought iron and common steel now. Good swords did not rust (ditto armour) but went dark and stayed sharp.

Whatever the processes involved - the ores and the smithing skills - the best weapons grade metal was superb stuff and has survived up to today. The ballads are just making the point that these were expensive, serious blades. Same way they labour descriptions of horse trappings, clothing etc. 'Young Waters' is a nice one - just to make the point that he's well turned out, his horse has to have golden graithes and silver shoes, and he had a golden cloak, etc.

Someone who knows something about metallurgy may be better able to explain why iron/steel could be free, clear, brown (but please note the Hugh the Graeme error in MacColl or the Corries songbook, or both - his sword was not of the 'the metal bent', or 'the metal burnt', but of 'the metal broon' in contrast to his other sword which is of the 'metal clear').

Deep thought - maybe the ballads really go back even further to the Bronze Age, and ALL iron is 'metal clear' while those old bronze swords are 'metal broon'...


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