So if “craft” is guaranteed to start a fight, what is “craeft,” exactly? To understand this, it helps to know a bit about Langlands’s backstory. He’s trained as an archaeologist and specializes in Anglo-Saxon Britain; but he’s better known to viewers of British TV from his role as a presenter on the BBC’s historic farms series, including titles like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm. Langlands’s television experience appears to have inspired him to view archaeology more experientially than he had before. Not content to unearth artifacts and speculate about how an ancient object might have been made, or who might have owned it, he’s intrigued by how things were used, and what it might have been like to work with them in historical context.
For Langlands, the Anglo-Saxon word “craeft” is distinct from our modern word “craft” in spirit and in practice. “Craeft” means having the wisdom of one’s surroundings, understanding nature and the seasons, and knowing one’s materials, as well as how objects and systems fall apart. To illustrate the point, Langlands’s book offers a bewitching virtual tour of life in Medieval England. Describing his happy first experience with filming Tales From the Green Valley (part of the historic-farms series), Langlands writes:
I was spending nearly every single hour of every day immersed in historical farming. I was tending, ploughing, scything, chopping, sweeping, hedging, sowing, walling, slicing, chiselling ... the list is almost endless. Most significantly, I was watching with an archaeological eye how my actions were altering and reconfiguring the material environment around me.
This, in a nutshell, is what’s at the heart of Craeft: It’s vignette after charming vignette of ancient processes, described in exuberant detail as Langlands travels through Spain, France, England, Scotland, and Iceland. Readers get a richly atmospheric peek into “craefts” like the thatching of roofs, the spinning of wool, and the tanning of hides.
Langlands’s discussion of how the modern word “craft” acquired its cultural baggage begins with language. When the term “craeft” first emerged in England during the middle ages, it connoted power, physical strength, and skill. But as early as 1200, it began to mean “cunning” or “sly.” (Even today a weaselly person might be called “crafty.”) Later, perhaps due to its association with “power,” it also began to hint at the supernatural, as in “witchcraft.” But none of this quite explains why, today, outlets reviewing Langlands’s book feel the need to reference “corn dollies,” as if preempting reader judgment about a word that once just described a sphere of activity, like “technology” or “food.” And Langlands doesn’t quite fill in this gap.
He does provide a lively history of the Arts and Crafts movement that originated in mid-1800s Great Britain and flowered in North America, which industrialized later during the Gilded Age. Langlands highlights, among other things, the movement’s connections to progressive politics (William Morris, of floral-wallpaper fame, was an ardent socialist). Nineteenth-century English design reformers like Morris and John Ruskin believed workers should have the satisfaction of creating goods from start to finish, rather than just toiling endlessly on single parts of things. The movement’s central irony is that the economics of the craftsman ideal don’t work: Then, as now, most people cannot afford to solely buy goods that have been handmade by a well-paid individual. Accordingly, Arts and Crafts masterpieces, like Tiffany silver, are more apt to be found in museums—hardly the realm of the humble glue stick.