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The setting of my story is a medieval refugee community that has found a protected place to settle. They end up remaining in isolation for a few hundred years. The protection is a boost for life, in the sense that their crops that can grow there, and they are able to heal diseases with greater skill. It possibly goes as far as to provide them with an abundance of fish or wildlife for hunting and strong animals will populate their own livestock.

At first, I thought it would make the most sense to make their technology level more like an ancient or nomadic civilization. But my research and imagination have come up short on that one and I'm wondering how much of a stretch it would be to keep their technology at a more typical medieval level. Could an isolated society of a few hundred people possibly have metals? Would I need to make it much larger? They live in a mountain ravine with a river running through it and don't venture far from that location until after the start of the story.

Edited to add since it is coming up: My starting assumption is that they are almost all involved in farming, animal husbandry, food preservation, hunting, or fishing.

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    $\begingroup$ Mongolians were nomads and had blacksmiths that travelled with them. I don't think you need to drop your original idea. reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/1lgd65/… $\endgroup$
    – user93359
    Jan 8, 2022 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ I've edited the first paragraph of this question.. language things only.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 8, 2022 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ The type of mountain is very important to metal production. A mountain of limestone or marble won't have any metals to smelt. A huge granite batholith would be so hard that the metals wouldn't be available (but the sand at the base of the mountains could contain metals like the gold belt in CA). $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 9, 2022 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @BeyondDisbelief You don't need a lot of miners if you just loot a bunch of metal! $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Jan 9, 2022 at 22:14

6 Answers 6

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If bog iron is available, then a single knowledgeable person would be capable of collecting it and working it into ironwares.

Additionally, smelting other varieties of iron ore can be achieved by a single knowledgeable individual, perhaps with the assistance of unskilled labor to operate the bellows.

Working smelted iron into iron and steel goods can also be achieved by a single person.

So, the minimum population required for metalwork to be practical is 1 knowledgeable person. Having people to whom this smith can sell wares would give the smith the time required to devote entire days to this craft, rather than also having to take the time to grow and cook food and make clothing.

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    $\begingroup$ It appears that early copper smelting was done by one or two people. It was only when larger amounts were needed that larger groups did the work. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 8, 2022 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ You'd need a few more as apprentices if you wanted to have continuity, you probably want to split gathering and smelting if you have any kind of volume going on, and you may need to add a separate operation if you want a second metal (for e.g. tin). But this the right basic answer. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Jan 8, 2022 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ You also need people making food, etc. with enough surplus to allow people to learn and practice these skills. One person may be able to do the work; but they can only do it if they have all the things they require to work on it available to them. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I edited to add that they are nearly all involved in food-related labor. $\endgroup$
    – Pamela
    Jan 9, 2022 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Pamela That's good - until very, very recently (like, the past couple hundred years) virtually every single person in a society was involved in food related labor. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Jan 9, 2022 at 22:15
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As MontyWild's Answer noted, +1, early metal working using bog iron was easily accomplished by just a few people.

I'd add some details. Thousands of Vikings created Settlements in Eastern North America (Greenland) circa 980 A.D. that survived to 1430 A.D. or so. They were active in farming, and many other things, including collecting bog iron and processing it into steel for weaponry; there have been identified the necessary bogs and soil analysis has identified plenty of evidence nearby of smelting and the kilns necessary to refine the iron and turn it into steel. (several kilograms of discarded slag iron.)

That can be done by a few dozens of people, of course they would need to be supported by trade, but the raw materials (bog iron, clay, lots and lots of wood to burn, lots and lots of muscle to hammer hot iron) were free and steel products (including weaponry) were extremely valuable. We found remains of iron nails and straps, for example.

It would be a good living.

What likely ended the Viking settlements was the Little Ice Age (1303 - 1860 AD), they were so far North that increasing snow, ice and storms may have made sea travel difficult. It is also possible that in a few centuries they just depleted the bog iron. In any case, the last recorded activity in the area, after much decline, seems to have been after about 500 years of Viking occupation of Greenland, circa 1430; just a generation or two before Columbus.

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    $\begingroup$ The duration of those settlements isn't established unless you count Greenland as Canadian. That doesn't invalidate your main point, but what seems proven are brief camps. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jan 8, 2022 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ There were never "thousands" of Norsemen in what is today Canada. Unless Canada has annexed Greenland and somehow Her Majesty Margrethe II of Denmark didn't care and let it go. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 8, 2022 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. Corrected, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Corrected, Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:09
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It depends on accessible resources.

As others have noted, a single person could do it.

But, in medieval times they mass produced steel with a society. You didn't just find iron lying around. You had to make mines, deal with flooding, transport the ores, use water wheels to power bellows and pumps and such.

They also had superior creations, like plate mail. A suit of armor might be constructed by multiple workshops, with some using water power to hammer sheets of metal into place, with specialists doing complicated work.

If they have accessible iron they can probably do the basics- make spear or arrow heads, nails, a few minor iron tools. They can make a small amount of material, which is pretty crappy. They won't be at medieval level tech though.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is what I have been concerned about. I did some looking after reading your comment and realized that I didn't know how far back the iron age went. Does iron age technology seem like a more reasonable target? $\endgroup$
    – Pamela
    Jan 8, 2022 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, probably. Away from a society that can provide a variety of services they'll probably be limited to iron age tech, with perhaps a few artifacts of medieval tech. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jan 8, 2022 at 16:52
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They can collect metal.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_York_meteorite

cape your meteorite

https://www.sciencephoto.com/media/1157678/view/cape-york-meteorite

The precontact Inuit knew where there was a big meteorite and they would collect iron from it and work it cold into iron tools. Other groups of Inuit found telluric iron - metallic iron from the Earths core and similarly collected and used that.

Metallic iron is rare on the surface. Copper is much more common.

etowah plates

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etowah_plates

Depicted: one of the Etowah Plates from Georgia. Metallic copper was traded long distances by the preColumbian native people and worked cold. Similar trade and use of copper metal occurred throughout the world.

Also for a story it might be more straightforward to have people find metal and bang it with stones into things they want.

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Part of being involved in farming is needing to have metal, provided you have at least medieval tech levels. There are a lot of things you can use other materials for, but for them to last a reasonable amount of time (and thus not require regular excursions to collect more materials) you kind of need metal for a lot of things.

Because of this, it was rather normal for any settlement larger than a given size to have a resident smith, almost always a blacksmith or bronzesmith. This actually was not a full-time job, a typical medieval blacksmith in a farming village would:

  • Help with planting and harvesting at the appropriate times, just like the entire rest of the village.
  • Help with tending the fields during the growing season when they had no smithing work to do.
  • Perform yearly maintenance and repairs on the whole village’s tools during the winter months.
  • Work as a farrier (showing horses) on an as-needed basis, provided the village utilized horses.
  • Fix any unusable tools throughout the year as needed.
  • Make new tools on commission as needed (not actually a common thing).

It was only once you got to cities, or were dealing with towns that actually had a consistent influx of metal (for example, mining towns) that a smith would be focused on smithing as their sole job.

There’s no reason this would not work for your stated setting, you just need the one smith for the whole settlement (and an apprentice so they can keep having a smith each generation). They could also easily manage smelting of iron, provided they could get the raw materials (and possibly with some extra unskilled labor for efficiency purposes).

That, ultimately, just leaves raw materials as the limiting factor, and to that, I would like to point out that remaining in total isolation for a couple of centuries is not actually very likely. Villages in medieval times tended to be relatively insular by nature, but even the most far-flung ones would get visited at least once every few years (more often annually) by travelling merchants. It’s relatively likely that your village would have some supply line like this, and that would actually give you a great story hook too (suddenly, the family of traveling merchants that has been serving as their sole contact with the outside world stops showing up, and now they’re starting to run low on the few things they needed).

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A ravine in the mountain is not exactly the most productive place on Earth for farming: most of the people will be farmers, part or full timers. Wood will be easily gathered from the surrounding forests, and if you keep the production low, you might have iron/copper produced for the internal need, provided that the mountains have easily accessible ores.

Anything more than that would probably be far fetched for the tech level and the population you are putting on stage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I edited to add that they are nearly all involved in food-related labor. I've thought through that part a lot. But I realized I was just assuming they had certain tools and the like and no explanation for how they had them. So that's why I'm here. $\endgroup$
    – Pamela
    Jan 9, 2022 at 0:53

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