Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, October 14, 2011

Worst Jobs in History

A couple of years ago, I saw a series on The History Channel called, the Worst Jobs in History. It was a fascinating series. Some of the show is posted on YouTube. Click to visit. Anyways, after seeing that show, I become completely enthralled with medieval jobs and all the ways in which society worked. Naturally I had to find more horrible jobs.

For today’s post, I’m just going to go over what I like to call Lowly Jobs of the Middle Ages. And when I’m done, I have a fun little test for you!

* When you go to the store today and buy that cozy wool sweater or blanket, you may go home thinking it was hand made or that it was made by machines. You don’t really know or care maybe how it was made. I don’t know how it was made today, and I’m hoping wool fabrics were are made differently now than they were in the middle ages… The job of a fuller was to make the wool cloth nice and soft and pliable—easy to work with and smooth against the skin. Well break out the nose-pins, gas masks and vomit buckets, because today your work begins! A fuller’s job was to walk up and down huge vats of nasty stale urine in which the wool sat. And they had to do it ALL DAY! I shudder just thinking about it…no thanks!

* I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but back in the middle ages, it just wasn’t fashionable for noblewomen to breastfeed their babies. But even back then they believed breast is best. No goat or cows milk for their babies. What a dilemma! *Snaps fingers* Got it! Get a sturdy and robust peasant woman to be your wetnurse. Yup, your job as a wetnurse is to allow the babes of noble blood to suckle from your breasts, and nourish the child for at least the first 1-2 years of its life. But what about your own babies? Well, the “cream” of the crop, so to speak, went first to the nobles babies. If there was anything left it went to the peasant wetnurses babes. But more likely than not the wetnurse’s own children either starved or fed on cow’s and goat’s milk.

* Today’s the day you might die, or get seriously injured. But it’s all worth it, because in too many years to count, and you’ll probably be dead by then, you will be a knight! Who are you? You’re an arming-squire. Sounds heroic doesn’t it? Well it is, if you make it. You’re mission, should you choose to accept it is to run out into battle--unarmed, mind you—to arm your master when his current coverings become damaged or displaced. When he's done fighting, and you’re still alive, you get to clean the blood, sweat, mud and excrement—yes, excrement—from his armor. Sounds glamorous doesn’t it?

* The job of a gravedigger may not have been pleasant but it sure was profitable. Why? Because everyone was dying of disease and plagues. You didn’t live too long back then. The only set back to being a gravedigger was, you might catch a disease from the dead—no matter how much money you make, I’d rather not handle diseases carcasses all day. But if that’s your cup o’ tea, grab a shovel!

* Come on you lowly sapper! I know you don’t have any skills, and that’s why you’ll spend your day digging. Get back to digging that tunnel! You've got a mine to dig next.

* Grab that oar! Row! Row! Row! Today you’re a thole-sitter, also known as a Saxon oarsman, and no you aren’t traveling with other Saxon’s unless they are rowing with you. You make your job on a Viking ship, a terrifying place, so you better keep your wits about you, and hopefully you don’t frighten too easily. You’ll be the motor getting them where they want to be, and should the ship take on water, its your job to scoop it out—and you’ll have to do it with your hands most likely.

* Feel like bleeding to death? Or is it blood letting to death? Or blood sucked to death? Not sure what you want to call it, but if you’re the leech-collector, you’ll be tramping around in the marshes and reed beds, and let those little worm-like creatures attach to your calves and other body parts. But you better rip them off quickly before they suck the life from you! Shove them in a jar, then when you get home—if you make it--ship them off to the nearest medical practitioner.

* Looking for a job that doesn’t require much skill other than carrying water and heating it up for noblemen and women? I’ve got the perfect position for you! Today you’ll be an ewerer. Don’t burn yourself!

* Like to clean? How about cleaning a kitchen—without the benefit of Lysol. Welcome to the life of a scullion. Doesn’t that job title sound hard? I mean when I hear “scullion” I picture someone scrubbing floors, counters, table tops, walls and pots until the skin literally peels away from their fingers.

* Being a cottar must have been very confusing. From day to day, week to week, you weren’t sure what you’d be doing. And as a lowly peasant, it wasn’t like you had money to live off of if the lord decided he didn’t need you to work that day. But what would he have your doing? You may be a swine-herder today and a prison guard tomorrow. Or maybe you’d be helping fix the roof, or dig a moat. You just never know. A cottar was like a temp worker. Whatever need was needed, that’s where you went.

* Hello, Mr. Gong-Farmer. You may be called a farmer, but what your farming is nothing but a bunch of bodily waste...Eww! So gong must be…yeah, yuck. Have you ever been to a castle or read about how the nobles went potty? Well high up on the 2nd and 3rd floors were little rooms called garderobes. Sounds fancy doesn’t it? They were just rock slabs with holes in them that you sat on and did your business. That hole led down to a gong pit, and you got it, the gong farmer’s job was to clean that out…

* Your lord has decided he’d like some men to sing soprano, but he wants a two for oner. He needs guards for the ladies chambers too. Hello, over there! You’re going to be a eunuch. Sorry, but we’ll have to remove a special part of your anatomy. Can’t risk you seducing the ladies.

* You might die today, you might not, depends on how well you fight and entertain the people. Yup, you’re the new gladiator. Fight the lions, fight other gladiators, fight seasoned warriors. But whatever you do, fight hard, because today might be your last. And its all for the sake of entertaining the gawkers in the stands.

* Got a special talent for catching those nasty little vermin called rats? Hear the call from the castle? “The castle is filled with rats! Help us!” Time to get to work—and you’ve surely got your work cut out for you, today you’re a ratcatcher.

Now for your test! I made a crossword puzzle at my website if you’d like to have some fun! Check it out: Lowly Jobs of the Middle Ages. Remember that some of these job titles are two words and may have a dash in the middle, although some of them don’t—courtesy of the computer being selective. Feel free to check out some of the other crosswords I’ve made too, they are posted there.



Victoria Janssen said...


Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

I loved that show -- watched every episode -- some of them made me laugh because the host was so funny when whatever he was doing made him sick! I enjoy your blog!

Lise said...

As I sit manning the phones at MY day job, taking shi_t from folks, I can certainly thank the Goddess that it isn't literal!

What a great litany of info, Eliza - really great stuff for books, used judiciously of course!

And after the guy walked around on the urine-soaked wool, how, exactly, did they get rid of the smell on the wool? Or DID they?

Pat McDermott said...

My goodness, no wonder those folks lived short lives! What incentive did they have to live any longer than necessary? I wonder what they'd think of the way we romanticize those times when we write about them. Walk a mile in my wool :-)

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Victoria!

Thanks Lynn! Wasn't that hilarious???? I was gagging right along with him!

So true Lise! So I hadn't even thought of that! I looked it up and found out they just rinsed it repeatedly with water. But I also saw that because urine was so popular in the fulling process, they began taxing it! Can you believe it??? Gross!

LOL, Pat! I'd be praying for death, hehehehe... I think they'd be so irritated honestly! I know I would.

Thank you for your comments everyone!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Fantastic post. I won't complain again about just having to dust and vacuum. I remember we had a speaker talk to us about laundering all those years ago. He said the urine was the best thing going to use as bleach. That's why they wore white a lot because they could bleach them and keep the bright and clean. Sheets as well. Those castle don't have the same draw now, but they sure are pretty to look at.

Victoria Gray said...

Wow, makes the jobs on the show "Dirty Jobs" sound down-right pleasant...glad I'm in this century. Fascinating post :)

Ashley Ludwig said...

I just love your blog. I always learn something new!

My character in All or Nothing is a cavalry fort laundress - and I thought THAT was bad! lol

Take care, and hope you're well, kiddo!

Julie Robinson said...

Eliza, I won't ever complain about having to clean the toilet again!! Great post. I also like your crossword puzzle because it reinforces your post. Plus, I am a crossword puzzle fanatic. I have to do one every night before sleeping, even if I've been reading or writing before. And I have play a game of Scrabble on my computer after my shower. Weird, I know.

Teresa Reasor said...

Funny that you blogged about the Medieval period this week. I've been teaching the children at my school how to draw medieval castles in two point perspective and we talked about the guardrobe. They all agreed they did not want to be the servant to clean out the cesspit.
All the boys wanted to be the guy in charge of the catapult.
All the girls wanted to be the princess and be waited on hand and foot. Until they learned they might be married off to a stranger to seal a deal. They thought they'd take their chances as lady's maid instead.
I'll have to introduce them to some of these other odious jobs.

It wasn't in the medieval period but in the 1700's the chimney sweeps would often be small children forced to take on the job to feed themselves. When they would get lodged inside the narrow structures they were cleaning, they'd be left to die rather than tear out the walls to get them. William Blake wrote poems about their plight to try and fuel some outrage.
Loved the blog!!!
Teresa Reasor