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The keys to the kingdom of Heaven became an Inn sign

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013

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This edited article about locks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Locksmith, picture, image, illustration

The Locksmith, an illustration for 'Barnaby Rudge' by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)

One problem about wealth is that the possessor has always had to worry about people who want to take it away from him.

Locks and keys were invented to protect valuables from thieves, and the whole history of lock-making has been no more than the story of blacksmiths pitting their ingenuity against the wiles of the lock-picker.

The number of locks in the world today must be astronomical, but among the many millions in existence one of the most popular and probably the most successful is the Yale. Curiously enough, this works on the same basic principles as the pintumbler lock invented by the Ancient Egyptians some 4,000 years ago!

By modern standards the Egyptian lock was a clumsy affair. Made of wood, it had a key between two and three feet long and rather like a bath brush with a slightly curved handle. In place of the bristles there were a number of pegs set in an irregular pattern corresponding to the pintumblers in the lock.

Greek locks were not remarkable, but the keys had an interesting shape. They were like large sickles. The key’s handle was highly ornamented and was carried lying across the chest with the curved portion slung over the shoulder.

The Romans were the first real locksmiths. Their locks were generally made of iron, and could be extremely complex.

Keys varied in size. At one extreme, there were hefty ones up to two feet in length, cast in bronze and weighing ten pounds or more. At the other there were keys designed to be worn on finger-rings.

The giant keys made for large locks securing villas or storehouses were the responsibility of a Roman slave, whose job it was to guard the door. Janus, the two-faced Roman god who watched over doors and gates, lent his name to the door-slave, who thus became known as the janitor. The janitor’s key was so long and heavy that it proved a formidable weapon if he was ever attacked by thieves.

In later centuries, keys of about the same size but made of wood and plaster, were hung outside locksmiths’ shops. Gilding the sign made the key look far heavier and more solid than it actually was.

Ironmongers favoured padlocks as signs because many ironmongers were also locksmiths. There are still a few of these ironmongers’ padlock-signs to be seen in Britain, especially in country market towns.

The Crossed Keys, most likely borrowed from the arms of the Papal See, are a popular inn sign device. St. Peter, who became the first Bishop of Rome, has often been associated with keys. This is largely due to a Biblical reference in St. Matthew 16, verse 19, to Christ’s promising to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Today, valuables are best deposited in a safe, the medieval equivalent of which was the treasure chest.

The effort involved in making these chests invulnerable to lock-pickers was enormous. It has been estimated that some old chest-locks would have taken a locksmith the best part of a year to produce.

Carefully concealed keyholes were often worked into the elaborately designed metal of lock-covers, and there were sometimes booby-traps. Strong springs, attached to metal barbs would shoot out near the keyhole, piercing the hands of anyone meddling with the lock.

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