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10 Medieval Professions That Demonstrate the Challenges of the Middle Ages

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The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. These are three well-known medieval professions that still exist today.

But then there are the professions that demonstrate how different life was for Medieval folk; professions you may not even have heard of.

Here are 10 medieval professions, some of which still exist today (albeit in different forms), some unique to the requirements of the time, and some horrific pursuits that we'll hopefully never see the likes of again.

The 10 medieval professions discussed here:

1. Rat-Catcher

2. Minstrel

3. Barber-Surgeon

4. Alewife

5. Baker

6. Butcher

7. Blacksmith

8. Bear-Leader

9. Scribe

10. Alchemist

1. Rat-Catcher

Rats literally plagued the Middle Ages, and although people of the time didn't know about germs, they knew enough to realise that rat infestations were not good for their health.

Rat-catchers were the forerunner to modern exterminators, but their methods were more hands-on. Some deployed animals to hunt down the rats, and others were savvy enough to set traps, but a portion of them actually had to catch the rats by hand.

The exterminators of today wear uniforms. A medieval rat-catcher wore a cage with dead rats hanging from it.

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Black rats were the most common vermin, but by the 19th century, rat-catchers were required to hunt a new kind of rat, the "Norway rat" (believed to have entered the country via a timber ship from Norway); which was so large and aggressive it could bite children's toes.

2. Minstrel

A classic medieval profession that provided one of the few opportunities peasantry had to experience music and the arts. The earliest reference to minstrels is the 4th-century Anglican word "gléoman".

Minstrels in the Middle Ages would travel from village to village; juggling, singing, telling stories, performing acrobatic feats, and playing instruments such as lute and harp. Sometimes they earned board and lodging at a tavern by performing for the guests.

At least, that was the case for the common minstrel. Minstrels who were talented and fortunate enough to be employed in noble courts were well paid. They enjoyed a luxurious life.

Barber-surgeons operating on a boil on a man's forehead.

Barber-surgeons operating on a boil on a man's forehead.

3. Barber-Surgeon

Surgery was viewed as a "low art" in the Middle Ages, such that physicians trained in 13 century France were required to swear an oath that they would never perform surgery.

So surgery was left to the barbers who, in addition to providing haircuts, had to set limbs, pull teeth, and perform amputations. The patient was given alcohol to dull the pain, and burning brands were used to cauterise wounds.

Barbers were also employed to perform bloodletting, the most common medieval treatment for ailments, whereby the patient would be drained of blood in order to restore the balance of liquids in their body (medieval folk didn't know about germs and believed illness was caused by an imbalance of fluids known as "humors").

The profession was only recognised in 1000 AD, and its primary purpose was to shave the heads of monks. But since physicians refused to perform surgery and priests refused to perform bloodletting, the barber provided a much-needed service.

Mother Louse, Oxfordshire alewife, by  David Loggan  (1634–1692).

Mother Louse, Oxfordshire alewife, by David Loggan (1634–1692).

4. Alewife

Brewing ale was women's work in the Middle Ages.

Monks brewed high-quality ale but that was hard to get hold of. Peasants had to settle for the weak ale brewed in villages, which they drank much of, not only to escape the drudgery of their daily lives but also because clean water was hard to come by.

The word "alewife" is first recorded in England in 1393 to mean "a woman that keeps an ale-house". The house of whoever was brewing the ale would function as a tavern for peasants. The taverns and inns of the towns catered primarily to merchants.

5. Baker

An iconic medieval profession that still exists today, albeit with some significant differences.

For example, in the Middle Ages, ovens were a major investment and had to be built in a separate building.

Another difference was the kind of bread consumed by various classes of society. Peasants ate bread made of rye and barley, while the rich ate white bread, known as Pandemain which was thought to be less contaminated. So ironically, the poor were eating the healthier form of bread.

Bread was a staple of the medieval diet, and baking was heavily regulated. Henry III passed the Assize of Bread and Ale law in 1267, which required inspections and price controls.

Bakers in the Middle Ages also baked biscuits, but as a form of rations for soldiers rather than a treat.

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (The Butcher’s Stall), by  Pieter Aertsen  (1508 –1575)

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (The Butcher’s Stall), by Pieter Aertsen (1508 –1575)

6. Butcher

Another medieval professional that still exists today, but thankfully, with more sophisticated tools available.

Butchery is actually one of the oldest official trades to form a guild. Butchers, like bakers, were heavily regulated in the Middle Ages. Guilds required certain standards of cleanliness to be upheld.

What might surprise people of today is the assortment of meat made available by butchers of the time, especially at medieval banquets where it was not only beef, pork and chicken that was consumed, but pigeons, peacocks and porpoises as well.

7. Blacksmith

Aside from being the primary purveyor of weapons and armour in computer RPGs, the blacksmith was a highly respected and valued medieval profession. The records of Emperor Charlemagne extol the virtues of his black and metalsmiths.

Medieval blacksmiths not only made weapons, but nails, furniture, locks, and horseshoes.

Of course, they were tasked with making the illustrious coats of armour worn by knights, which were tailor-made for each individual so as to fit like a glove. The castle blacksmith was a highly prestigious position, and usually hereditary.

8. Bear-Leader

Bears were a common source of entertainment in the Middle Ages. They featured in awful sports such as bear-baiting, where the bear would be chained in a pit and forced to fight a pack of dogs.

Someone was needed to lead the poor bear from village to village; this was the job of the bear-leader.

This is a profession that thankfully existed for a relatively short period of time. The job of bear-leader later evolved to mean a tutor or guardian who escorted a young man of rank or wealth.

9. Scribe

The printing press was invented in the 15th century, changing the course of history. Before that, books had to be copied by hand, making them rare, and prized possessions of the nobility and clergy.

Scribes were employed to copy manuscripts. It was a highly skilled and prestigious profession. They had to copy texts written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, with a meticulous hand that ensured each letter was perfectly scripted. Copying a bible took an average of 15 months.

They usually worked in a scriptorium, some of which could hold up to 40 scribes. They did most of their work by day, as nightly work required candles, which were expensive in those times.

An alchemist with his assistants in his laboratory

An alchemist with his assistants in his laboratory

10. Alchemist

A forbidden art, condemned by the church but practised nonetheless by inquiring minds. It was a merging of science, philosophy and mysticism.

Alchemists, like physicians, built on ideas conceived by the ancient Greeks, such as the belief that everything was made up of five elements; air, water, earth, fire and ether.

The highest ideal of alchemy was to discover "the philosopher's stone", a substance that could supposedly grant immortality and transmute basic substances into gold.

Famous practitioners of alchemy include Francis Bacon (1561 — 1626), the first European to document a process for making gunpowder.

References

General information. Medievalists.net.

General information. Medievalbritain.com.

Lee Hue, Daniel. 2017, November 6. The History Of the Barber Surgeon. Barber Surgeons Guild.

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