Dr Alexander Langlands is a British archaeologist and historian. He is a lecturer in medieval history at Swansea University and a regular presenter for BBC and Channel 4. His current and ongoing TV projects include Full Steam Ahead (BBC Two) and Britain at Low Tide (Channel 4, TX November 2016). He lives in Wales with his wife, two children, chickens and bees. In his new book, Craeft, he examines the richness behind the Old English word craeft, which encapsulated an almost indefinable sense of knowledge, wisdom and power that goes much further than our growing appetite for hand-made objects, artisan food and craft. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Alexander explains why traditional crafts, as we know them, are about so much more than just making things. Plus, watch a video of Alexander introducing his book.
I guess I needed to make a distinction between how we think about the modern definition of craft and what it meant when it first appeared in the English language over a thousand years ago. In a keynote lecture given to the Heritage Crafts Association in 2013, Sir Christopher Frayling echoed the sentiments of David Pye, in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, when he called craft, ‘a word to start an argument with’. I don’t want to start any arguments but it’s true: craft has become so ubiquitous that it’s increasingly difficult to state with any exactitude a definition precise enough to satisfy everyone. Certainly, it has something to do with making – and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in an object, though. A recent craze for craft beers means that we can consume craft and essentially come away with nothing to show for our purchase – except perhaps a slightly fuzzy head the next day. In the world of art it can be a methodological process as much as a conceptual tool. In the world of luxury, a reassurance that you are acquiring the very best product money can buy. In the world of the everyday, the success of the retail giant Hobbycraft is the best illustration that we still revel in the pastime of using our hands to make something that can be given, enjoyed and cherished.
But even in today’s versatile use of the word craft there is only the faintest overlap with the definition cræft had when it first appeared in written English over a thousand years ago. The Oxford English Dictionary can find no one word to exchange, like for like, for Old English cræft, and instead offers an amalgam of ‘knowledge, power, skill’, and an extended definition where a sense of ‘wisdom’ and ‘resourcefulness’ surpass in importance the notion of ‘physical skill’. It would seem that we can’t quite put our finger on exactly what cræft was.
It is this inability to assign a precise contemporary meaning that justifies the ideas put forward in this book of a lost knowledge and of how traditional crafts, as we know them, are about so much more than just making. We don’t have cræft in our lives any more. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors certainly had it, but at some point we mislaid it and with it its true meaning. Over the course of the last fifteen years I’ve found many occasions to think through the idea of a lost knowledge. As an archaeologist I’m constantly confronted with the material culture of past societies: objects that were once fashioned, used, altered and discarded. Through the analysis of these objects, archaeologists attempt to draw conclusions about the nature of the human condition and, in particular, how our thinking, our actions and our relationship with our environment have changed over time.
I rarely study anything archaeological that is more recent than the fifteenth century. But for a period of ten years, from 2003 to 2013, I participated in a number of television series for the BBC that charged our various team members with recreating life as it would have been on British farms from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Unlike the work of an archaeologist, whose task it is to survey essentially static remains, in the making of Tales from the Green Valley (2005), Victorian Farm (2008), Edwardian Farm (2010) and Wartime Farm (2012), I often observed material processes in action, and was involved in how an archaeological record was actually created. In filming these overtly nostalgic historical programmes, I was consistently confronted with a narrative of the old ways, a sense of unrelenting change and a feeling that something was for ever being lost.
At first, I railed against this cliché of retrospective regret. For the angry young man that I was back then, Billy Bragg’s invocation to damn nostalgia as the ‘opium of the age’ rang loudly in my ears. But gradually I began to realise there was more than a kernel of truth in the nostalgic motifs we were revisiting.
Society, I concluded, was losing something. As I became more and more engrossed in the traditional ways – and not just historical methods of farming but ways of making and living in the past – it occurred to me that the modern world was depriving us of many of these skills. What I saw as a wider knowledge – one that enabled us to exist in a world where our sustenance and survival depended on our interactions with the materials we had at our disposal – was slowly slipping from our grasp.
Having finally got myself up to speed with the digital world, I have begun to wonder whether the vast complexity and infinite interactions digital technology promises are in fact doing quite the opposite: are they actually narrowing our sensory experiences? 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 natural 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.
Richard Sennett, in his ‘template for living’ The Craftsman, talks about craftsmanship as the state of being engaged: how we interact materially, with each other and our immediate surroundings. Perhaps we should consider this as a key component of the long-lost cræft. Against a narrative of progressive technological innovation, what has happened to cræft, the indefinable intelligence of our Anglo-Saxon forebears? What reasons lie behind its drift into obscurity? Chiefly, I accuse industrialisation and the introduction of cheap and vastly superior forms of power – resulting in what I call our illiteracy of power. We simply don’t need to factor power into how we make from and process raw materials. Nowadays, with a flick of a switch, we can generate what would take far more time, human energy and cost to produce by hand. The point when industrial processes emerged as the dominant means of production was the point at which the concept of craft as a form of art emerged as a self-conscious counterpoint to factory-made goods. Craft became defined in opposition to industrial manufacture.
Mechanisation too, and especially the small electrical motor, has largely robbed us of the need to be physically skilful and dextrous. Everyday skills, such as mixing ingredients with our hands, have been given over to electrically driven implements. The growth of formal knowledge – an intellectualised understanding of the world – has meant that learning through practice, by rote and experience, has been relegated. It’s more customary today to refer to the text – the formal knowledge – of the manual than it is to take something apart and see how it actually works.
I’m not saying that either of these developments is necessarily bad. There are many occasions when I probably should have consulted the manual before taking a malfunctioning machine apart. But mechanisation has changed the way we think, the way we build knowledge; so familiar has post-industrial power become that we genuinely find it hard to relate to the world before it. This may be why a true definition of cræft is so remote to us: we have forgotten how to think like the generations before the Industrial Revolution.
Author photo © Russel Sach