Medieval Crafts

Would You Rather Find a Job or
Be a Vagabond 500 Years Ago?

If you’ve been feeling left out of this so-called gig economy, imagine how you’d fare in another time. As in traveling back in time to, say, 500 years ago, just to check one of London’s job listing boards 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 instance, who enjoyed 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 be wise to King Arthur and his gallant knights, 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. You may as well 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 likely the case if your last name is Baker, Brown, Blacksmith, Coleman, Taylor, White and so on.
But you’d be surprised with the bulk of professions still relevant, five centuries and a whole universe of technological advances later. People still work in government, or for someone, have their own business, or simply own a crooked idea of what it means to make a honest buck.
One could argue, though, that few thieves or professional criminals would’ve dressed up as wealthy people then, while now, heyday of sorts for the lying business, we may have one at the White House. But really? What when they’d pillage and burn to the ground a whole country? That’d assure them graces and riches from aristocracy and royal titles to boot. So, it all always comes down to being humans.
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, those in charge of court entertainment.

At large, there were military and religious occupations, sailors and scholars, flora and fauna laborers, 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 under the ‘regular folk’ lists where demand for a variety of skill sets would get you by, as well as some of those names could be found. Did some traveling? you could be a palmer, someone (more)
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who’s been, or pretended to have been, to the Holy Land. Enjoy the outdoor life? what about being a tenter, an unskilled workman’s assistant? No pay but soup and bread, and confy hay shed boarding.
If you were a weaver, a carpenter, chandler or cooper, a glover, a tanner, fletcher, mailer or a potter, no one would ask you for an autograph, thinking you were related to you-know-who, fated 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 interrupting 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 has 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 poor sods who usually die anonymous and undignified deaths wholesale throughout the movie.
Such lesser roles, reserved to the poor folk, inhabiting some filthy scum just outside the silver screen, are rarely the subject of glamorous gossip on social networks. But even people who longed and finally started to get a more nuanced depiction of the times in contemporary mass entertainment must admit that then, as now, there were too a huge plethora of shady, no-good characters to go 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.

There were 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). (Note to self: find contemporary equivalent to those.)
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 them by heart, or 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 likely to be a way more formidable competition to you than even that young, good looking kid, waiting to be interviewed ahead of you (and who’ll probably be hired instead of you). We’ll call you, don’t call us.
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 get them, tiger. You know for sure you are no whipjack.

(*) Originally published on Feb. 12, 2012.

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