For a long time the most northern part of Europe was considered to be the birthplace of the wood-topped iron skate. In the 20th century this assumption no longer held. In the low countries (Holland, Flanders) texts, miniatures and excavations show the use of wood-topped skates in the late Middle Ages. The ‘skates’ in the old sagas at closer research all turned out to be skis, or, in some occasions, bone skates.1
The oldest showpiece skate?
Bone skates, which I will not deal with extensively here, remained much longer in use in the Scandinavian countries than in Holland. Some remarkable samples have been found, such as a fragment of a bone glider in Viborg, in the north of Jutland, Denmark, in which a human face was carved.2 (fig.1)
Whether it was the result of an artistic expression or a product of boredom, must be left undecided, but exceptional it was. Because decorating bone objects was usually applied to more durable tools than gliding bones.
Olaf Mansson from Linköping (Sweden) travelled Scandinavia as a priest selling indulgences around 1520. Many years later, when as a faithful Catholic he had already been banned from Lutheran Sweden for a quarter of a century3, he wrote his bulky Historia under the name of Olaus Magnus. In this book he mentions that for skating not only bones were used, but smooth and polished pieces of iron as well. Like bone gliders those blades were as long as the foot itself and needed slippery ice to move swiftly. However well they were polished or smeared, the blades usually did not beat the broad shanks of deer, which, smoothy planed and rubbed with pig lard, were hindered less by bumps in the ice.4
In skating literature it is usually taken for granted that ‘real’ skates, with a wooden footstock and accompanying ties, were meant by them.
We at least need to make some marginal comments on that. To begin with it seems odd that iron skates could not hold their own against the deer shanks. With a good sideward push, virtually impossible on bone runners, and a strong forward stroke one would expect that the skaters would easily keep ahead of the pricking gliders. Besides, Latin, the international language that Olaus Magnus used, does not have a specific word for ‘skate’. For clear comprehension therefore the object needs to be described in more detail. However, in his account of the ‘ferro’ (blades) Olaus Magnus does not use the words wood or footstock at all.
That seems a rather poor description for somebody who discussed bone skates, skis and crampons with far more detail. Did the banished bishop run out of words to describe skates or had real skates not yet been invented? Did ‘skaters’ simply use wide bars of iron (‘as long as the foot itself’) and push themselves forward with prickers, like they did with bone skates?
We more or less find the answer with Magnus himself. The woodcut that accompanies the chapter about ice tools shows, apart from ice axes and other accessories (fig.2), no fewer than three kinds of footwear with spikes, but no skates whatsoever. Unless objects in the upper left corner, in between which very appropriately a pricker is shown, are meant to be skates. Footstock and ties however are lacking completely, while details like these are depicted with a lot of emphasis in other footwear. Presumably the objects in the upper left corner are therefore meant to be bone gliders.
Since it seems not very plausible that ‘real’ skates would have escaped widely traveled Magnus’ attention, I take his ‘ferro’ that could not keep up with the smeared deer shanks for simple iron gliders.
Perhaps the bone skate itself stood in the way of the development of a wood-topped iron skate. After all, bone was easy to work, amply available and therefore cheap. Until about 1800 AD iron would remain an expensive raw material that could cost many hundreds of crowns per kilo.5 During the Middle Ages a horse’s bit for instance was more expensive than the animal itself and because of its high prices poor people continued using wooden plugs instead of nails for a long time.6
Skritsko and the like
When exactly the real wood-iron skate made its entry in Scandinavia is not known, but we do find some indications in the language. In a dictionary from 1640 the Latin ‘calopodium ferratum’ is translated literally with ‘jernsko at löpa på Ijsen med, som skijder och ijsleggior’ (iron shoe to walk with on the ice, like skis and bone skates).7 That seems a clear description, but does not sound very original, which could indicate that the compiler had no idea what a skate was.
Johan Ekeblad however, who held a post at queen Kristina’s court in Stockholm, did certainly know what he was talking about. Mid April 1652 he wrote in a letter to his brother Claes ‘... iagh ... försökte till att löpa på skritsko’ (I tried to skate).8 The word he used is very similar to Middle Low German ‘schritscho’.9
Akin to it is the Middle Dutch ‘schricschoe’ or ‘scricscoen’, that appears in texts from around 149010.
Etymologically ‘skritsko’ could have been adopted both from German as well as directly from Dutch. From Ekeblad’s pen – he had studied rather shortly before at the university of Frankfurt at the Oder – we could take ‘skritsko’ as a Germanism, but the word soon became current and was corrupted to ‘skricksko’, ‘skrillsko’ and ‘skrinnsko’ in Sweden at an early stage11.
Around 1650 also in Denmark both men and women took to the ice with a ‘skredsko’ or ‘schredschou’.12 Apart from ‘skredsko’ also the word ‘skejte’ (later ‘skeiter’) was current there, as opposed to ‘skøjte’, that was not yet noted before 1700.13
It is not clear when ‘skjese’ or ‘skeisa’ (plural: ‘skeiser’) originated. Professor Hjalmar Falck assumed an influence from English. He explained the development from ‘skejte’ to ‘skøite’ from the singular ‘skate’ and that from ‘skjese’ to ‘skeise’ from the plural ‘skates’. In their turn both English words were assumed to originate from Dutch ‘schaats’14.
Despite all Dutch involvement in Sweden - from 1619 onwards the new city of Gothenburg was largely put on the map by Dutchmen and investors from Holland realised a number of industrial projects elsewhere in Sweden - a direct, early-sixteenth-century introduction of the 'schaets' from the Netherlands etymologically does not seem to have strong papers.
That Norwegian and Swedish, languages that are very similar to each other, both have their own word for ‘skate’, makes it plausible that the object was introduced into Scandinavia via different routes. Supposedly the ‘German’ route was somewhat older than the ‘English’ one.
No skates in attack across the ice
The skate probably didn't spread fast enough to play a role in one of the strongest feats of martial history of all time: the incredible risky crossing of the Swedish army in 1658 over the ice of the Little Belt and other Danish straits on the way to Copenhagen.
Although in his book Fältskärns Berättelser the Finnish narrator Topelius introduces a scout of the Swedish army, who returns on skates over the stiffly frozen Little Belt15, the army of King Karl X Gustav would not have used this means of transport at all.16 The circumstances were not right for that either. Under the weight of so many foot people, cavalry, artillery and waggons there was a lot of water on the ice.
Nevertheless, the unforeseen siege of Copenhagen posed such a threat to the Danish King Fredrik that he was prepared to give up the southern Swedish provinces, which the Danes had held for some three centuries, in return for peace.
Finally, around 1674, some skates turn up with high running prows. (fig.4+5) It seems that the people close to the ice boat are not quite used to their skates yet. The party, well-to-do judging by their clothing, is probably skating at Lake Mälaren, which flows into the Baltic Sea near Stockholm.
Although there is no sideward push yet, pushing off with a pricker is no longer the case. There is no doubt that this picture is Swedish and was made in 1674 for the travel account of Lorenzo Magalotti; even though this Italian diplomate could not have seen any skaters or ice boats himself between June and September that year.17
The skates look very familiar to Dutch models from the 17th century and the prows turn over even a bit more than the high ones that were pictured by Dirck Pers around 1610. (fig.6) Despite the similarities we do not know whether the skates in the picture were imported from Holland or are an authentic Swedish model of its own.
No elitist pastime
Not only the 'kavaljerer' from 1674 and the aforementioned court official Johan Ekeblad prove that skating was a popular activity in better circles. Carl von Roland, who served in the army of King Charles XII of Sweden and was a prisoner of war in Russia in 1708, was treated so well there because of his rank that 'skrillskor' were made for him. Together with a few other officers, he was able to show how well he had learned to skate in his youth. Without paying attention he ended up on thin ice, fell through and was eventually rescued by an Italian colleague.18
Nevertheless, we must be careful not to paint a one-sided picture of the skating enthusiasts. Although diaries and reports were often written (and kept!) by and for people in higher positions, we can safely assume that around 1700 the average citizen also started using wood-iron skates. For I cannot imagine that the punishment of ten canings for violating the 'ice law', which King Fredrik I issued in 1737, was intended for the aristocracy:
'Those who venture on the ice, with or without skates, before it is so strong anywhere that it can carry man and horse with complete certainty and permission has been granted in public by the competent authority from the pulpit, will be punished for this with 10 whips or canes and all who drown in such circumstances will be considered suicides and their corpses, if found, will not be buried in the churchyard.'19
Even back then, heaven and earth had to be moved to keep the hardened lover of skating off the ice!
From import to imitation?
Nevertheless it seems probable that Dutch models, introduced in Sweden and eventually also in the other Scandinavian countries between 1600 and 1650, were copied rather soon. This will have posed few problems for blacksmiths who knew how to weld and harden, such as for example the scythe makers from the north of Dalarna County, who supplied the whole of Sweden and the area just across the Norwegian border with scythes20. But from the documentation that I was able to find about the activities of no fewer than some 350 blacksmiths that were active in Lima around 1650, it does not appear that they actually made skates.21
Around 1725 factories and iron works in Sweden started advertising by means of printed matter such as price lists. At first leaving some space for speculation, they soon contained very detailed lists of all kinds of blacksmithing products. Unfortunately skates, as opposed to for instance ice axes (isbillar) and crampons (broddar), are not mentioned in them.22(afb. 7+7b)
This even holds true for Eskilstuna, which later had such a reputation for skate making. In so-called specifications for iron ware that was produced by Carl Gustafs Stads manufakturverk, as the complex of small Rademachers smithies was named, skates are not mentioned.23 If any skates were produced there at all, they might have been custom-made for some single individuals, but it is more likely that skate making was an in-between job for local horse shoeing smiths in villages and towns, and for farmers in remote rural areas who knew how to forge.
Evolution in types of skates 1500-1750
We hardly have any information about skate models up to 1750.
The iron skates described by Olaus Magnus in the beginning of the 16th century were probably no more than a bar of iron at the length of the foot, without wooden footplates or ties. In all probability a pricker was needed to propel oneself forward.
The skates that were used in the 17th century presumably looked like the models that were common in Holland. The high prowed skates that can be seen in the pencil drawing from Megalotti’s travel account are a fitting example, but it could be that other types of skates were current as well.
Skate makers 1500-1750
Up to 1750 skates were presumably made by local horse shoe smiths in villages and towns, and by farmers in remote rural areas, who knew how to forge. Data about these occasional skate makers are not known.
No evidence has been found for the production of skates in small iron works in the first half of the 18th century.