Medieval London


Spade 1 MOL.jpg

Figure 1, Spade, 12th-15th century, found in Southwark in 1998. Museum of London.

The medieval spade was commonly used throughout the middle ages. It was an integral part of gardening in the medieval period as it was necessary to prep the land before putting crops into the ground. However, spades were also widely used by laborers digging trenches and holes for drainage pipes and other types of construction. Spades were commonly used by medieval people tending to their crofts[1] to shift, move, and dig up soil. Throughout time the most basic function and uses of the spade did not change, but what did change was the material used to make the spade. Improvements affected strength, durability, and effectiveness. Old, broken wooden spades were often discarded because the wood and metal corroded and because spades were not an expensive item.

A traditional medieval wooden spade (Fig. 1) may be made of oak or ash, with usually a hardwood handle, and a fitted metal shoe on the end, although towards the end of the fifteenth century, some spades began to have more metal then just the shoe at the bottom. This medieval one-sided spade[2] lacked the metal fitting in the front and was made of ash with a walnut handle. The offset handle made a ledge where the user could put his or her foot, to aid in thrusting the spade through rough layers of earth. This spade is 980mm in length, and 160mm in width at its widest point, although the length and width for spades can vary. Factors that could impact the size of spades include the size of the iron shoe the goes along the wooden blade, the intended use of the spade, and the availability of materials.

When spades were first introduced, it was common to see entirely wooden spades, from handle to blade. Over time, general improvements included the addition of metal, usually iron, designed to increase the strength, durability, and lifespan of the spade. The metal shoe eventually became an entirely metal blade at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries. The spade is often confused with the shovel, although the two may appear similar in shape and form, there are key design differences. The blade of a shovel was often curved left to right, and made to come to a point, whereas the blade of a spade tended to be flat with straight edges. The curved blade made shovels ideal for scooping and moving materials from one place to another, while the flat blade of the spade made it ideal for getting through sod, digging trenches, and digging in a more downward direction. The metal blade fitted to the end of the spade was essential for this purpose. In a surviving example of a medieval spade iron (fig. 2), the iron fitting has a height of 242mm and a width of 150mm. This particular iron edge wraps up and around the sides of the wooden blade. The increased use of iron to wrap the iron up towards the top of the wooden blade is one of the improvements to the spade.

Spade Iron MOL.jpg

Figure 2. Iron blade from a spade (also known as a spade iron/ Medieval spades had wooden blades, sometimes fitted with a separate iron edge. In 1356 the stock of an ironmonger, John Leche, in Cornhill, included a 'spadierne' (spade iron) and two 'augers' (drills) together valued at 12 shillings. Museum of London.

The spade was a common tool for use all over medieval London to prep land and for digging. This spade (fig. 1) was recovered from Southwark in 1998 and during it working life was likely used in digging drainage tranches since it was found in a watery area. Spades were commonly made by being carved from a single piece of oak or ash. Ash was commonly used because of its strength, hardness, weight, shock resistance, and economical cost. Oak wood would also have been common because of its strength and durability. Spades, as tools of the people and common agricultural workers were fairly cheap and common. But the widespread availability of spades meant that they were among the agricultural tools that could be seized as "weapons of choice" during riots, or times of resistance and revolt.[3]

Alan Gailey discusses multiple spades that are in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, and the Ulster Folk Museum. He distinguishes the advancements from the one-sided spade to the two-sided spade[4]. John C. O’Sulllivan also drew similar conclusions about the cultural advancement and use of spades. The similarities and differences within their construction paint a clear picture to the timeline of spade improvements and uses. The two-sided iron-shod wooden spade was one of the most common to be produced, with the iron blade being a standard feature after the fourteenth century.

Spades where usually constructed by being cut, by a carpenter, from a single piece of oak or ash. Then, a joiner[5] would join the top of the spade shaft to the handle. The handle of the blade was usually made of a different type of wood, such as walnut to add decoration or strength. The spade iron, was usually made by an iron monger, would then be fitted to the wooden blade of the spade. This addition increased the strength and durability while improving the function of the spade. Spades were relitively cheap due to the inexpensive materials needed to create them.

Digging Man Manuscript.jpg

Figure 3. Detail from an illuminated psalter that shows a man using a spade. St John's College, Cambridge, MS K.30 f.2r, showing the labor for the Month of March.

Since spades were so common, they are shown in medieval manuscript illuminations such as in calendars in psalters to illustrate the types of labor done in a month, like this example of a wooden spade being used in the month of March (Fig. 3) by a man to dig into the ground. The image shows the man digging using a two-sided spade, with ledges present on either side of the spade blade, along with a handle that joins the blade at the center point. The blade of the spade is also easily distinguishable as having an iron shoe fitted to it. Typically, the wooden blade would have been carved to create the sloped sides on either end. Then the iron shoe would be fitted onto either side of the blade edge or secured by nails to the top ledges of the blade, although there were a variety of different methods to attach the spade iron to the wooden blade.

cain killing able.jpg

Figure 4. The picture shows Cain striking his brother Abel in the head with a spade, and killing him. The Morgan Library, Psalter-Hours of Guiluys de Boisleux, MS M.730 fol. 11r (after 1246).

Another manuscript image (Fig. 4) taken from a Book of Hours shows the killing of Abel by Cain, whose weapon of choice is a medieval wooden spade with a metal shoe. Notice how the metal shoe of the spade within the image above does not reach as far up the edges of the spade blade as the depicted in Fig. 3[6]. This shows some of the design differences between spades, ranging from wooden blade, to the addition of the metal shoe, to the expansion of the metal shoe up the blade edges, and finally the introduction of metal blades for spades,which made the spade more effective in digging through hard ground. Spades were used to dig deep into the ground for building foundations, along as creating drainage ditches tending crofts, and other tasks that required digging. Their sturdy construction and metal blade edge also encouraged their use in periods of civil unrest, protests, or peasant revolt. 

--Andrew Roccamo


[1] Crofts are usually small fields adjoining a house then is worked by a farmer or tenant.

[2] The one-sided spade will have a ledge set to the right or left of the spade blade. This makes one distinct side for the operator to place his only the right or left foot to propel it into the ground.

[3]  McDonagh, "Disobedient Object."

[4] Gailey, "Irish Iron-Shod Wooden Spades."The two-sided spade is designed where the handles meets the wooden spade blade in the center, creating a ledge on both sides of the blade. This allows the operator to use whatever foot desired as there are two ledges for either foot.

[5] O'Sullivan, "Iron-Shod Wooden Spade from Ballynakillew Mountain, Co. Donegal." A joiner works with timber to create items by joining pieces of wood.

[6] Difference in the metal shoes show changes in the way the metal shoes were designed and applied to spades. The spades with larger portions of metal were often associated with more rigorous labor work then simple gardening spades.


Arnott, Margaret L. "Review of The Spade in Northern and Atlantic Europe by Alan Gailey, Alexander Fenton." Anthropos 66, no. 3/4 (1971): 595. 

Gailey, Alan. "Irish Iron-Shod Wooden Spades." Ulster Journal of Archaeology 31 (1968): 77-86. 

O'Sullivan, John C. "Iron-Shod Wooden Spade from Ballynakillew Mountain, Co. Donegal." The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 102, no. 2 (1972): 244-46. 

O'N., T. "Review of The Spade in Northern and Atlantic Europe by Alan Gailey, Alexander Fenton." The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 101, no. 2 (1971): 172-73. 

McDonagh, Briony. “Disobedient Objects: Material Readings of Enclosure Protest in Sixteenth-century England.” Journal of Medieval History 45, no. 2 (2019): 254-275. 

Smith, A.D., Green, D.I., Charnock, J.M., Pantos, E., Timberlake, S., and Prang, A.J.N.W.  “Natural Preservation Mechanisms at Play in a Bronze Age Wooden Spade found in the copper mines of Alderley Edge.” Journal of Archaeological Science (2011). Accessed September 29, 2020.

DeValles, Ellice. “Making a 14th Century Spade.” A 14th Century Life, 20 Nov. 2017,

# Google Analytics Portion 06-02-2016