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Worst Jobs During the Medieval Times

By Madeline | April 2, 2008

I recently read the article listed for Channel 4’s Worst Jobs in History and have my own input to add to this.  We’ll start with the Medieval one first.  Listed out, they are as follows: Fuller, arming squire, leech collector, barber-surgeon, stone worker, lime burner, treadmill worker, lance maker, chain-mail maker, royal falconer, purple maker, and shepherd.

I disagree with several of these.  The barber-surgeon actually led a very good life.  Though the job required a strong stomach as it required pulling teeth without anesthetics and bleeding people along with other small surgeries, the recipient of the torture was usually grateful and the barber-surgeon was usually paid well.  The worst part about their job would be the excessive blood and the occasional bad patient.  The lance maker and chain-mail makers don’t really seem all that bad, with the exception of the fumes the chain-mail maker had to deal with.  Many artisans today deal with the same issues and enjoy their jobs.  For instance, I’d compare a lance maker to a baker of wedding cakes and a chain-mail maker to a shark suit maker.  Both professions are enjoyable for the person who does them and pay well for the tasks performed.  I believe the royal falconer had a nice job as well as they were usually richly rewarded for their efforts with the falcons by grateful kings.  A good falconer would never lose a bird, therefore, it one wasn’t a good falconer, he had no reason to be under royal employ and deserved the punishment he received.  Lastly, I don’t see the shepherd’s job as being all that bad.  Typically shepherd’s became such because their father was one, whose father was one, whose father was one - get what I mean?  They usually didn’t really know any other way to live typically and enjoyed the freedom of open fields and were able to endure the solitude easily. 

There were several that I do agree with based on what the article elaborates on and what my own imagination adds to it.  However I couldn’t find a lot of research for some of these jobs so I will list the unresearchable ones and my opinion.  The lime burner sounds like an absolutely awful and dangerous job that no one would really want.  The treadmill worker just sounds like an exhausting job as I’m sure the fear of heights would eventually be conquered.  An arming squire’s job makes my agreement list only because the poor kids faced the danger that the knight did without getting to revel in the glory once it’s done.  The stone worker just sounds dangerous and exhausting and the purple maker sounds like they had to really deal with a very disgusting environment.

I was able to find some information on fullers and have to agree, it sounds like it definitely qualifies for the worst jobs list.  Urine was used to help cleanse the wool of the oils that made it rough, however I didn’t find anything that indicated that the urine was actually stale.  However, if large amounts of urine were used, I can’t imagine it’d always be fresh.  One thing the article forgot to mention is that the urine was actually combined with a clay-like dirt referred to as Fuller’s Earth (for obvious reasons).  Now you aren’t just dealing with urine, but muddy urine - and in the freezing region of Scotland.  I cannot even imagine how cold and miserable it must have been to stamp down cloth in urine soaked mud when it’s 30 degrees outside.  Additionally, often times the best way to stamp down on the cloth was to sit down and pound at it with your feet.  I bet all those women had awesome lower abs!!!  Probably the only benefit to that job - oh, and putting food on the table, which was pretty important.  ;) 

The leech collector was the job I also found a lot more information on.  This was a job that was mostly referred to as being done in Scotland.  The job itself was an easy one since all you had to do was wade around in water and let leeches attach themselves to your legs, however the removal of the leeches and what they could leave behind is what ultimately makes this job, well…suck.  Leeches suck until they are sated - usually about 20-40 minutes and then fall off.  As the leech collectors job was to collect leeches, they had to constantly stop to remove them from their legs lest they fall off.  A leech has three rows of teeth that attach to the skin causing a Y shaped incision on the area.  As they latch on and suck, their bodies produce a sort of chemical anesthetic that keeps the host from realizing they’ve even been bitten, so at least these hapless people didn’t have to deal with the sting of the leech attaching itself.  Removing a leech by pulling hard at it will only succeed in causing the teeth to detach from the body, leaving the teeth imbedded in the skin that would ultimately fester and cause serious infection.  The easiest ways to detach a leech are to use alcohol or heat to get them to loosen their grip and then carefully pry them off your skin.  I can’t imagine having to watch my poor legs endure that multiple times a day on a daily basis.  The water leeches usually hide out in is typically muddy and therefore usually dirty.  This could very easily lead to an infection of the bite that could very easily lead to death as there were no antibiotics back then.  Additionally, sometimes the saliva in the leech would cause ulcers to form where the bite had been.  Ew.  As if all of that weren’t enough, when a leech latches on, another chemical it produces keeps the blood from clotting.  Workers who collected leeches for a living could very easily have suffered from a lowered red blood cell count and, I can only assume, anemia.

There are also a couple of jobs that are not on the list that I would like to add based on the findings of my own research.  The soap maker and tallow chandler gets added to the worst jobs in history list - they get the same paragraph as both tasks were usually done by one person.  First of all tallow is the fat of animals that is scraped off and delivered to the chandler, the tallow as then used either for candle making (chandler means candle maker) or added to lye, oils and ash to make soap with.  The tallow had such a strong odor about it that tallow chandlers usually had to produce their wares on the outskirts of town.  When tallow candles burned, they were smoky and released noxious odors, however, beeswax candles were very expensive and, as a result, were used only for churches and the very rich.  As the chandler also manufactured soap with the tallow, they not only were around the disgusting smell of animal fat all day, but also had to deal with the risk of handling dangerous products, like lye, without the precautionary clothing that is available today to keep harm at bay.  Honestly, I hate to even cut chicken because of that slippery, fatty feel, I can’t imagine having to keep my fingers covered in it on a daily basis.  Blech…

Another occupation that stands worthy on this list is, I think, the 100% absolute worst on the entire list and I have expanded on.  The tanner.  As with many stench inducing jobs, the tanner had to set up the production of his goods on the outskirts of town by law.  The tanner would purchase animal hides from hunters, though stripped of most of the gore, these stiff, dried hides still typically contained chunks of meat, fat and all the hair.  The first process was to soak the hide in water to soften them to the point they could remove all meat and fat from it.  Next came the pleasant task of removing the hair either by soaking it in urine, which was often times collected in cities, or letting the skin rot for a couple of months and then scraping the loosened hair off with a knife.  After the hair was removed, the leather was soaked in a dung mixture that exactly what it sounds like: poo and water.  Then it was kneaded to make it more supple - this kneading either occurred with the tanners hands or feet.  Finally, the hide was stretched and dried creating the fabulous leather garments for the rich.  I can’t imagine the stench of a tanner on a warm day with the tubs of urine, dung water and rotting skins.  No wonder these men were sent to the outskirts of town to concoct their wares among the poor rather than in the cities where the delicate nosed rich resided. 

I wish I could have found some more research on a lot more professions during the medieval times.  I’m sure there are probably many more that I would have added to the list and probably some that are even more disgusting than what I have specified here.  Check back later for my upcoming blog post on the worst jobs during the Tudor Era. 

Topics: Medieval Era |

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