What did smiths/metallurgists know about why some steel was stronger than other steel in the early 15th century in Western Europe? I want to know so I can determine whether my mages could come up with a spell to increase the strength of steel by removing impurities via magic or not. If they could come up with wording for the spell in the "magic language" they could cast it, but do they know enough to do that?

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    $\begingroup$ I just want to point out that there is a History Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, this is the one I was using for my former question, so I didn't think to switch over. I might decide to migrate it. $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ It's magic, do they need to understand the chemistry of steel? Do they need to understand electricity to create lightning? Do they need to understand combustion to make fire? $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ It essentially works via concentration, so they have to have a rough understanding of the concept to concentrate on the expected process. So they would need to know about the carbon to think something along the lines of "Put more carbon into this metal." Lightning is uncommon, for something like a fireball, they would just say "Create heat over there", which would make a fireball, and ignite any flammable material without any requirement for understanding combustion. $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ This is off topic and should be asked on History instead. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 5:23

3 Answers 3


For a very long time (say, before the 16th century) they did not even know that steel and iron were different materials, and they had only very imperfect hit-and-miss processes to harden iron (by building a thin layer of low-carbon steel on the surface, but they did not know that). (Note: That's in Europe. The Chinese did have cast iron, which is very obviously a different material, and the Indians had a practical technology to make small but consistent amounts of low-carbon steel. Look up Wootz steel; as user Mormacil mentions, Indian steel was an expensive and very desirable commodity, exported to the west to Persia, the Near East, and Europe, and to the east to China.)

Before the development of modern chemistry and metallurgy, nobody had any good idea of knowing why a material had different properties from another material. At best they knew that if they followed a certain process they would get a material with certain properties; around this knowledge, there were weird and wonderful philosophical and even mystical constructions with no practical application whatsoever. (Phlogiston or alchemical transmutation, for example.)

Further musings: steel is not made by "removing impurities". Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon with a well-controlled amount of carbon. To make steel one can start with pure iron and add some carbon (crucible steel), or one can start with cast iron and remove some carbon (converter steel). Before the development of chemistry nobody even knew that iron and carbon were pure elements -- the prevalent theory in the late Middle Ages was that on the contrary the oxides (which they called "earths", hence our term "rare earths" for the metals in the lanthanide series) were the pure elements, and the metals were combinations of an "earth" and phlogiston, the pure element of combustion, a sort of negative oxygen.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot. I was asking because of this question: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/74642/why-no-firearms $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ I like to add that Indian Wootz steel has been imported into Europe since the Greeks and Romans. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to the discussions of alloying, they also had no idea of the effects of other elements in the alloy, and the refining process was not generally sophisticated enough to separate them. So iron ores with significant quantities of other metals present would have different resulting metals. Wootz is distinctive in how it's made, but also has vanadium present because that was in the locally-available iron ore. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ There's also the heating, quenching, and folding process to produce an even crystalline structure. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Vashu: "Don't really care what word they used": but that is the entire point of the discussion. Neither the question nor any of the answers is arguing that they didn't have steel. They had steel, but they thought that is was high-quality iron. They didn't know it was a different material and had no idea what made this better "iron" better. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 1:05

I beg to differ slightly from AlexP's answer. Before a modern understanding of "steel" vs. "iron" was fully understood, a fair number of sword makers figured out that, not only were proper amounts of carbon required, but that much more hammering and tempering were also required for the best results (also, sometimes meteoric iron was found and used, which was far superior as a base material than scrape-mined terrestrial iron.) This understanding was first garnered in the Middle East (hence the fame of "Damascene Steel from Damascus.) Furthermore, early accidentally made excellent swords in early medieval Western Europe led to the myths of the great swords (Excalibur etc.) as inferior swords tended to be strong but brittle - meaning they just might crack and literally fall apart in battle.

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I know they did not know that what they were doing was adding carbon; they did not even know what carbon was, and they did not know that they were making an alloy. All they knew that if they took raw iron, heated it and hammered it may times (this, we now know, eliminated the slag) then heated it again for a long time (this, we now know, allowed some carbon from the embers to diffuse into the superficial layer), they obtained (usually) a blade which was more elastic and could take a sharper edge. They did not know what they were doing and could not scale up the process. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ There's a difference between understanding how to make strong steel and understanding why it is strong. One is "Use ore from this mine. Heat the iron until it's this shade of red. Add this amount of coal after this time. Quench this many times..." That isn't useful for a wizard to presumably tinker with the molecular structure. The other is "This amount of chromium. This amount of carbon. Heat and quench to create this crystalline structure..." That might be of use to a wizard to mess with the chemistry and fix the crystalline structure. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ Meteoric iron? Do you have a citation for that? Modern day experiments show that meteoric iron is basically unworkable. $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure that Damascus steel became popular because the arabs invented the blast furnace, which made getting rid of slag much easier, so they ended up with higher quality iron. I also think the popularity was vastly inflated i.m the 20th century. $\endgroup$
    – Pliny
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 14:48

Alternative solution: It's not usually possible for a human being to do anything well without coordinating their efforts with one or more of their senses. Imagine operating a construction crane with a blindfold on, doesn't work. This means they must receive some sort of feedback from the thing they are manipulating magically. Every action has an opposite reaction after all.

Your Wizards may not know exactly what they need to do from a scientific perspective but they can use their senses to feel out an object and compare it against their experience with "good" or "pure" versions of the same object. They might describe this the same way cooks smell food and can tell if something has been seasoned correctly.

Have them first "feel out" well-made swords and then ask them to make poorly made swords more like them. Have them experiment with making swords more this or more that to discover how to make swords surpassing that which can be made by even the greatest blacksmiths in the world.

However, just like cooking, ingredients matter. You can't make a masterpiece with rotten goods. If this magic is based on science/reality, your wizards are going to have to carry around a good deal of material to work with. It may be common to see them traveling around with a cart of vials and powders that they reach into and rub over objects before working their magic on them.


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