The Misery Of The Last Swordsmen Of Castile




Javier Solé’s hands are his best resume: vigorous, wide, with short nails, stained black and with some incipient calluses.

They handle, agile, the pincers; they place the anvil to strike on it and optimize the force of the impacts.

The thud of the autumn storm discharging on the high ceilings of his workshop in Portillo (Valladolid) accompanies the acoustics of constant, dry and uniform blows of the hammer on an incandescent steel, orange by the almost 1,000 degrees of the forge, whose solidity ends up giving in to this handmade swordsmith.

Solé, 37 years old and eight involved in the traditional forge of weapons, subtracts epic from this artisan work: “People expect five dwarves from the Lord of the Ringsbare torso ”. He had better not take off his leather apron: sparks fly, leaving marks on the skin of the clueless blacksmith. His ankle testifies.

There are fewer and fewer master swordsmen left and almost all know each other and applaud the commitment to the work at hand.

Solé fulfills the imaginary profile of his guild: robust, with trained and strong arms. He sports a beard and a tattoo that clears doubts.

“I’m steel here”, a play on words in English related to “I’m still here” and the metal with which he makes a living. A sword underlines the motto that accompanies his signature, Ancient forge, with which he receives national and international orders from very demanding buyers: they want quality products, with quality materials and practically à la carte.

There are those who request a legendary item; others, a model that they have seen in series or movies; a certain public pursues a particular sword used in a particular era or army .

Nothing impossible for these specialists, as long as fees are covered. “A sword forged by hand that is worth less than a thousand euros is a lie,” criticizes Solé, annoyed with those who haggle over the price of a product that requires many hours, seasoned with immense effort and a great knowledge of materials, temperatures and techniques.

They compete with chain productions, replicas of a much lower level but more affordable. It saves them that their true audience rejects trifles and waits patiently for the six months that a complex request may require.

The pandemic has split its greatsword in a group that has run out of medieval fairs, in which they wear their products or recreate historical battles characterized as the warriors of that time. Instability also punishes workshops that conduct training in which anyone can learn to forge a knife and take it as a souvenir.

The arms orders, with payments in advance, relieve the accounts of those who in an exceptional month can bill 8,000 euros but see themselves with zero income the next, says Solé. And rents, bills, social security or materials still require out-of-pocket costs.

“The patrons save us,” he says, and talks about “Lorenzos de Medici”, modern philanthropists who advance money for them to later receive benefits and special items: “It’s like a loan but in reverse.”

Times change and television also plays its role. The Forged by Fire program, which shows the work in the workshops, fueled interest in figures such as Miguel Ángel Gil (40 years old), known in the field as Miguel Barbudo.

This blacksmith from the mountains of Madrid used the small screen to publicize a world that connects ancient traditions with current tastes. Barbudo has a “small but faithful” audience, with very detailed requests that cost up to 6,000 euros.

There is no room for error with such a demanding parish: “They do not tolerate the slightest failure, they spend a lot of money.

If you give them what they are looking for, they are very loyal and will turn to you ”. Prestige weighs heavily on these freelancers, whom a smear accusing them of using mechanical methods can scare away a portfolio of buyers chiseled with care and commitment.

The specialty of the house is to teach how to work steel, courses with increasing demand until the pandemic. The Spanish market has suffered from this instability and the foreign buyer has become even more important, with the United States, Germany or France as the main applicants.

His students pay 240 euros per day and take the cutlery they make. In addition, Barbudo adds that others take the opportunity to buy materials to get started in the world. About 600 euros are enough to obtain a basic equipment.

The artisans regret the 21% VAT with which their products are taxed and that they do not receive aid. Bearded man, with a strong telephone conversation, he insists that the uncertainty sinks his plans; Solé points out that so much burden on a 400 euro sword raises its bill by almost 100, something they believe is excessive.

A classic in the union is called Mariano Zamorano, 69, who has been pushed into retirement by the health crisis. This man from Toledo hung up the pliers in September after applying an ERTE in his workshop and too many months of losses: up to 40,000 euros.

Zamorano followed his father’s legacy since he started with the hammer at age 14, but the absence of tourists, especially the always sought-after Americans, minimized sales.

“The geek has always existed,” he says, and his fondness for characters such as William Wallace, Gladiator and William Tell has fed this establishment, where up to five people worked before the viral cataclysm. The art of making a 16th century sword, with its corresponding lightness, has a complexity that raises its price.

Only those who truly appreciate it will pay for it. “People think that a jug is made from a mold. Even the mechanism of a jug is complicated ”, says Javier Solé.

Toledo also shelters Ramón Recuero, 57, one of the great icons of the sector.Solé respects him greatly: “You have to be a cretin not to value Recuero.”

This swordsman is repopulating the town of San Antonio with a famous blacksmith school attended by those who want to expand their knowledge or even modify their life. “There are people who have changed jobs and decide to value forging to create small workshops or sell their own pieces,” he says.

The “Future Master Knives” course, the most complete, costs around 1,800 euros and takes six weeks, including accommodation at the school. The rest of the knowledge will be acquired through a lot of sweat in the face of hot forges, countless hammer blows and the trust of customers who do not find a replica of a sword useful: they want it handmade, even if it is made by humble mortals who fight the battle to make ends meet.

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