© 1995-2011 Lise Hull
One would expect the Middle Ages to have been a simple time, with few truly distinctive occupations, save the lord of the manor, his knights, his household, and the peasants. But, the complexity of the medieval working world is startling. Yes, the above are typical occupations of the age, but within these broad classifications we can define an incredible array of other occupations.
True, medieval jobs were not all fulfilling or stepping stones to success and status, as we envision the knight's position in the lord's court. However, each occupation filled a
crucial place in the social system of the Middle Ages, ensuring virtually every imaginable need could be handled by an individual with the proper training or know-how.
Basically, society was divided between two classes, positions of status and positions that were not. Nevertheless, while the lord and members of his entourage had status, they could not survive without the support, albeit drawn through oppression, of the peasants. Medieval society was like a jigsaw puzzle. Each segment was an integral piece of the complete system. Without any one part, the system could not work.
As villages developed alongside the castle, occupations began to differentiate during the Middle Ages. Indeed, the growth of many towns directly resulted from the introduction of commercial endeavors, which were necessary to sustain the castle or the manor, as well as the local populace.
A merchant class quickly developed once feudalism was established in Europe. These merchants became wealthy in their own right, owning grand homes of their own
comparable to the best in the land. They transported the products of craftsmen, laborers, and skilled workers across the nation, and internationally as well, furthering trade and acting as envoys between the regions they served.
In existence as early as the reign of Charlemagne and used by the Anglo-Saxons, the guild was of primary importance during the Middle Ages. Initially a rudimentary plan designed to support a certain group of workers (each village originally had one or two
guilds), the guild system rapidly expanded throughout Europe.
In essence, these organizations were prototypes of modern trade unions and functioned in an almost identical manner. Their main intention was "to promote economic welfare of its members and guarantee full employment at high wages by restricting membership (Bishop)." Virtually every medieval occupation had its own guild, including bell ringers, minstrels, candle makers, grocers and weavers.
The following lists many occupations that prevailed during the Middle Ages. Even though the individuals who held the positions have long since disappeared, often leaving no record of their existence, their legacy is still very visible in modern surnames.
See if you recognize them...
- Almoners: ensured the poor received alms.
- Atilliator: skilled castle worker who made crossbows.
- Baliff: in charge of allotting jobs to the peasants, building repair, and repair of tools used by the peasants.
- Barber: someone who cut hair. Also served as dentists, surgeons and blood-letters.
- Blacksmith: forged and sharpened tools and weapons, beat out dents in armor, made hinges for doors, and window grills. Also referred to as Smiths.
- Bottler: in charge of the buttery or bottlery.
- Butler: cared for the cellar and was in charge of large butts and little butts (bottles) of wine and beer. Under him a staff of people might consist of brewers, tapsters, cellarers, dispensers, cupbearers and dapifer.
- Carder: someone who brushed cloth during its manufacture.
- Carpenter: built flooring, roofing, siege engines, furniture, panelling for rooms, and scaffoling for building.
- Carters: workmen who brought wood and stone to the site of a castle under construction.
- Castellan: resident owner or person in charge of a castle (custodian).
- Chamberlain: responsible for the great chamber and for the personal finances of the castellan.
- Chaplain: provided spirtual welfare for laborers and the castle garrison. The duties might also include supervising building operations, clerk, and keeping accounts. He also tended to the chapel.
- Clerk: a person who checked material costs, wages, and kept accounts.
- Constable: a person who took care (the governor or warden) of a castle in the absence of the owner. This was sometimes bestowed upon a great baron as an honor and some royal castles had hereditary constables.
- Cook: roasted, broiled, and baked food in the fireplaces and ovens.
- Cottars: the lowest of the peasantry. Worked as swine-herds, prison guards, and did odd jobs.
- Ditcher: worker who dug moats, vaults, foundations and mines.
- Dyer: someone who dyed cloth in huge heated vats during its manufacture.
- Ewerer: worker who brought and heated water for the nobles.
- Falconer: highly skilled expert responsible for the care and training of hawks for the sport of falconry.
- Fuller: worker who shrinks & thickens cloth fibers through wetting & beating the material.
- Glaziers: a person who cut and shaped glass.
- Gong Farmer: a latrine pit emptier.
- Hayward: someone who tended the hedges.
- Herald: knights assistant and an expert advisor on heraldry.
- Keeper of the Wardrobe: in charge of the tailors and laundress.
- Knight: a professional soldier. This was achieved only after long and arduous training which began in infancy.
- Laird: minor baron or small landlord.
- Marshal: officer in charge of a household's horses, carts, wagons, and containers. His staff included farriers, grooms, carters, smiths and clerks. He also oversaw the transporting of goods.
- Master Mason: responsible for the designing and overseeing the building of a structure.
- Messengers: servants of the lord who carried receipts, letters, and commodities.
- Miner: skilled professional who dug tunnels for the purpose of undermining a castle.
- Minstrels: part of of the castle staff who provided entertainment in the form of singing and playing musical instruments.
- Porter: took care of the doors (janitor), particularly the main entrance. Responsible for the guardrooms. The person also insured that no one entered or left the castle withour permission. Also known as the door-ward.
- Reeve: supervised the work on lord's property. He checked that everyone began and stopped work on time, and insured nothing was stolen. Senior officer of a borough.
- Sapper: an unskilled person who dug a mine or approach tunnel.
- Scullions: responsible for washing and cleaning in the kitchen.
- Shearmen: a person who trimmed the cloth during its manufacture.
- Shoemaker: a craftsman who made shoes. Known also as Cordwainers.
- Spinster: a name given to a woman who earned her living spinning yarn. Later this was expanded and any unmarried woman was called a spinster.
- Steward: took care of the estate and domestic administration. Supervised the household and events in the great hall. Also referred to as a Seneschal.
- Squire: attained at the age of 14 while training as a knight. He would be assigned to a knight to carry and care for the weapons and horse.
- Watchmen: an official at the castle responsible for security. Assited by lookouts (the garrison).
- Weaver: someone who cleaned and compacted cloth, in association with the Walker and Fuller.
- Woodworkers: tradesmen called Board-hewers who worked in the forest, producing joists and beams.
Other medieval jobs included:
tanners, soap makers, cask makers, cloth makers, candle makers (chandlers), gold and silver smiths, laundresses, bakers, grooms, pages, huntsmen, doctors, painters, plasterers, and painters, potters, brick and tile makers, glass makers, shipwrights, sailors, butchers, fishmongers, farmers, herdsmen, millers, the clergy, parish priests, members of the monastic orders, innkeepers, roadmenders, woodwards (for the
Other Domestic jobs inside the castle or manor:
Personal atendants- ladies-in-waiting, chamber maids, doctor.
The myriad of people involved in the preparation and serving
of meals- brewers, poulterer, fruiterers, slaughterers, dispensers, cooks and the cupbearers (who had the dubious privilege of tasting drinks for impurities!).