Taking up a craft—such as knitting, woodworking, or gardening—restores focal practices, re-connects us with the physical world, and provides the satisfaction of self-reliance. These benefits are good news to a distracted, dissatisfied age, and have fueled a great deal of interest in learning to make things by hand. Archaeologist and historian Alexander Langlands acknowledges these therapeutic values of traditional crafts, but he insists that their true value is much deeper. By studying and practicing traditional crafts, Langlands claims, we can rediscover a lost way of being human in the world.
Cræft, he concludes, refers to a quality of integrated work, wisdom, and even spiritual excellence.
Langlands makes his argument in Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts (Norton, 2018). His unusual title anticipates the value of the whole book: Langlands takes a thesis that seems familiar (making things is good for us), and enriches it by drawing on several centuries of historical practice. Although the direct ancestor of our modern English craft, the Old English word cræft has a wonderful range of meanings. While craft stops with the idea of “skilled work,” cræft invokes an entire worldview. Drawing on numerous Anglo-Saxon sources, Langlands finds that cræft can refer to physical or mental prowess, as well as to virtue. Cræft, he concludes, refers to a quality of integrated work, wisdom, and even spiritual excellence. It is this integrated wisdom, he argues, which our modern world has lost.
In each of the following thirteen chapters, Langlands explores scything, thatching, hay-making, beekeeping, weaving, ploughing, and other traditional crafts. The origin of each craft, he writes, lies in the essential needs of human life, while its value comes from cultivating a relationship between man and place. The basic techniques and variations of each craft respond to human need, to beauty, and to the resources of a local landscape. Much of Langlands’ experience with these crafts comes from his work as an archaeologist. He also draws on his work with several of BBC’s historic recreation projects, including Tales from the Green Valley (2005) and Victorian Farm (2009). Langlands is an attentive writer who documents his work alongside skilled craftsmen with energy, detail, and humor.
At its heart, Cræft extols the wisdom of living within a landscape well. For the ancient craftsmen, farmers, and housewives Langlands describes, the soil, rock, weather, and creatures of a place were partners in their efforts to create good homes. Langlands’ attraction to such a life, resourceful within the boundaries of its geography, is evident. Each chapter includes at least one example of his efforts to bring scything or skep-making into his own cottage and garden. Although Cræft is “unashamedly an idealist’s book,” Langlands’ idealism should provoke his readers to consider their own landscapes and to test what it might mean to live more creatively within those places.