Medieval Crafts

Could You Have Found a Job or
Succeed as Vagabond 500 Years Ago?

No disrespect, but we bet that many a long-term unemployed has entertained, at least for a moment, the idea of traveling back in time (and abroad) and checking the job listings of say, London, circa 1550. In fact, who hasn’t imagined, from the safety of one’s mind, of course, how Medieval townsfolk went about their business?
You could meet Cornelis Bos, for example, who killed time drawing what looks like taxis driven by satyrs. Have a chat with Willielmus de Lench, a grain thresher, or try a brew with Matild de Grafton, an alewife, all common names and occupations of the time. Or you could find easier pickings as a jarkman, another word for vagrant.
There are plenty of records about that particularly gruesome time to be alive anywhere, but as the saying goes, history is told by the powerful. So while you may know well the legend of King Arthur and his gallant knights, for instance, there’s no word about their ostler, the guy who’d take care of their horses. Which, as most occupations of poor people, would run in families.
Don’t be discouraged though. Even if we may not find a suitable position for a person of your qualifications, you still may learn a thing or two about how people would make a living then, some of the common surnames that have survived to these days, and the surprisingly variety of outlaw types populating the era.
Oh, and throughout this post, check the exquisitely elaborated 1550 art of Cornelis Bos. Most important of all, you may be able to pick a few interesting subjects to use in your next job interview, so to give the recruiter a bone to chew, while you think about how to answer that minefield of a question they all love to throw at you: so, what have you been doing all this time?

As anyone may have already noticed, a lot of traditional surnames have originated from common occupations, geographical locations and even physical characteristics. In English, that’s most likely the case if your last name is Baker, Taylor, Coleman, Blacksmith, Leycester, White, Brown and so on.
But you’d be surprised with the bulk of professions which are still relevant, five centuries and a whole universe of technological advances later. People still work for the government, or work for someone or for a family, have their own business, or simply have a crooked idea of what it means to make a honest buck.
One could argue, though, that few thieves dressed up as wealthy people at that time, while now, so called white collar (albeit rarely punished) crime is having its heyday of sorts. Really? What if they’d pillaged a whole unnamed country? That would’ve certainly granted them graces and riches from aristocracy and royal titles to boot. So, we’re still talking about humans here.
For the government, you could be a catchpole, a ‘chicken catcher,’ a hayward, an officer in charge of fences and hedges, and a liner, who’d set property boundaries. You wouldn’t want to mess with a bailiff, who could arrest and execute you, but you could be friends with reeves, which was how church wardens were called, and wouldn’t hurt you to know a master of the revels, who’s someone in charge of court entertainment.

At large, there were military and religious occupations, sailors and scholars, people who’d work with flora and fauna, your usual share of artists and entertainers (we heard that a bard, some Shakespeare dude, is quite good), and an infinitude of craftsmen and merchants, a category to which alehouse keeper Matild belonged to, as did olde pal de Lench.
But perhaps it’s in the listings under ‘regular folk’ that you may find, not just a pleasant enough set of skills to get you by, but also some of the common names we were talking about. Did some traveling? you could be a palmer, someone who’s been, or pretended to have been, to the Holy Land. Enjoy the outdoor life? have you though about being a tenter, an unskilled workman’s assistant?
If you were a weaver, a carpenter, chandler or cooper, a glover, a tanner, fletcher, mailer or a potter, people would never think for a second that you may be related to you-know-who, someone about to be famous in a few hundred years. They’d give you a job, instead.
So, there would be, indeed, a myriad of occupations and functions someone could exercise, if nobility or aristocracy were not in the works for such a decent, but penniless person such as yourself. But before you interrupt your reverie, as you mind’s eye has grown a bit tired of being a fly on a Medieval wall, stick around for a little longer. Perhaps there’s something else you could do for a living.

Talking about 20th century celebrities, for the longest time Hollywood reduced Medieval characters to two basic portrayals: the noble, the knight, the rescuer of the damsel in distress. And the robbers, lowlifes and murderers who’d try to prevent our hero from finding the holy grail. In other words, those who would die wholesale throughout the movie.
Those latter roles were generally reserved to the poor folk, inhabiting some filthy scum just outside the silver screen. But even people who longed and finally started getting a more nuanced depiction of such times in contemporary mass entertainment must admit that then, as now, there were too a huge plethora of shady, no-good characters around.
There were plenty of boothalers (plunderers), divers (pickpockets), fencers (traders of stolen goods), footpads (robbers of pedestrians) and even silk-snatchers (those who’d steal bonnets).
Such gallery of rogues and their specialties were extended and immortalized by Thomas Harman, who in 1566, published A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds, a 23-chapter guide describing in detail their technique and ways to avoid being taken for a ride by them.
Whereas Harman took the time and effort to compile “Thieves Cant,” a dictionary of their secret language, eleven years later, a William Harrison committed a small act of thievery of his own, when he turned Harman’s chapter names into a popular list and published it in his Description of England.

Rufflers (thieving beggars), uprightmen (leaders of robber bands), hookers or anglers (thieves who steal through windows with hooks), rogues (rank-and-file vagabonds), wild rogues (those born of rogues), priggers of prancers (horse thieves), palliards (male and female beggars, traveling in pairs) and fraters (who pretend to beg for hospitals).
Plus abrams (feined lunatics), fresh-water mariners or whipjacks (beggars pretending shipwreck), dummerers (sham deaf-mutes), drunken tinkers (thieves using the trade as a cover), swadders or peddlers (thieves pretending to be peddlers), jarkmen (forgers of licenses) or patricoes (hedge priests).
And then a whole category only for the ladies: demanders for glimmer or fire (female beggars pretending loss of fire), bawdy baskets (peddlars), morts (prostitutes and thieves), autem morts (married harlots), walking morts (unmarried harlots), doxies (prostitutes who begin with uprightmen), dells (young doxies) and kinchin morts and coes (female and male beggar children).
We’re sure such a list would’ve come handy, if you happened to know how to read, and for some unforeseen reason, given your wealthy and position, had to navigate the streets unescorted or were forced to frequent spurious assemblies, which were most likely of the shady kind.
Because such a difference of class and rank would determine the places you’d go and those you’d most surely avoid. Still, both books and others as such probably made for good conversation for court and castle regulars. The rest of the population would’ve learned about them the hard way.

So thank goodness, dear reader, that you’re just imagining such a trip back in time, and not really committed to finding a hiring opportunity among those who actually lived through all of that. They’d probably be a much more formidable competition to you than even that young, good looking guy waiting to be interviewed ahead of you.
Hopefully, given that kind of perspective, you’d feel invigorated and imbued of a renewed sense of self confidence and optimist about your professional prospects, right here and right now. After all, there may be a reason why there no such a thing as a time machine. We’re way better equipped to succeed in our own era, not before, and much less in a hypothetical future.
Think about it and go and get them, tiger. You know for sure you are no whipjack.

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