The professions of the Middle Ages

The professions of the Middle Ages

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There is a great diversity of working methods in the middle ages : from the labor provided by the slaves then by the serfs to the domestic or salaried work of the servants and companions, through the chores provided by the peasants to their lords, the many small craftsmanship revealed by the administrative texts are developing and financial, but also through paintings, sculptures, stained glass, illuminations. Approaching the discoveries of these trades makes it possible to penetrate the heart of a society in movement always in search of new knowledge and experimentation techniques.

Mine work

Ignored from antiquity, coal was collected in the early Middle Ages on the beaches of England in the form of pieces of hard coal called sea coal. The extraction of rare earth coal still comes from surface mines or in shallow galleries. The miners who search for iron ore include the diggers who dig the mine, the carpenters for the timbering of the galleries, the peckers who attack the vein. It is a very dangerous activity (landslide floods lack of air) so the profession is assigned to slaves and condemned ... Only the rich and the powerful have the capital necessary to open the mines (depending on the time this are the “grave lords” the Cistercian monks or rich merchants). In the 15th century, with the demand for metal, mining villages developed in Oisans and in Lyonnais, the profession became more attractive following progress in the suction of water and the pumping of healthy air. Ore production quadrupled between 1460 and 1530 in Europe.

The extracted ore is crushed with a mallet cleaned by hand over water, transported in hoods to the foundry where, mixed with lime, it is heated at high temperature in the furnaces, the impurities flowing through a orifice in the surface of the molten metal. The furnace has the shape of a semi-buried hemispherical cap and bears the name of the blast furnace or Catalan furnace, used until the appearance of blowers and blast furnaces which allow complete liquefaction of the metal. The cast iron is purged of its carbon in the refineries by specialists in the steel industry.

The Ferrons, the ironmasters monopolize the production of cast iron in plates or sheaves and sold to blacksmiths.

The iron

According to Etienne Boileau's book of trades (provost of Paris in 1268) there are twenty-two specialties of ironwork. The blacksmiths transform and shape the metal in modest workshops equipped with anvils, chimneys bellows pincers and hammers. The forge is built in refractory earth or burns charcoal, the fire is revived by side bellows maneuvered by valets. Providing weapons, armor, household tools and utensils, plowshares, sickles and shovels, shoeing horses' hooves, the blacksmith enjoyed prestige in the rural community and made himself his spokesperson among the powerful. Locksmiths install and repair locks, forge gates, candlesticks, sometimes the clappers of bells, but also manufacture clocks until this specialization is attested by a statute in 1483.

The cutlers manufacture the blades and the cutting weapons then assembled by the cutlers-handle makers. The artillerymen produce this terrible weapon which is the iron crossbow.

The potters, the wood trades, the salt

Potters are numerous in medieval villages. They work in families or in small, fairly poor artisanal units. In the first century, the clay was modeled, molded and fired on an open area without an oven, it was not until the Carolingian period that the use of these spreads, with production becoming more abundant. The 11th, 12th and 12th centuries saw the emergence of villages specializing in pottery making common ceramics intended for everyday use, built on the edge of forests to provide the fuel necessary for cooking. The carpenters called fustiers, who make tables, benches and chests, share the woodwork with the carpenters who work on the construction sites, build the half-timbered houses and cover the roofs with shingles, the carpenters and clog makers.

The production of salt supports many regions because it is necessary for the preservation of meat and fish, for the manufacture of butter and cheese. It is obtained by evaporation in salt marshes. In northern Europe there are “salt houses” where seawater is boiled in large cauldrons to extract the salt.

Stone and glass

The quarrymen tear the stone from the rock walls with the help of picks, then equalize it with a hammer or with a "brette ou bretture" refine it with scissors and polish it with a rasp. Paid by the piece, the stonemason engraves his mark on each piece. The stones are then transported by boat or carts to the construction sites.

The term glassmaker designates two specificities: the artist who paints stained glass windows and the glass craftsman whose factories are also built near forests. The ovens require large quantities of wood and their considerable heat makes the job difficult and dangerous. requires great skills. The use of glass, known since antiquity, spread in the 14th and 15th centuries. The glass paste is composed of siliceous sand and beech ash. Glass plates replace the oiled paper or the parchment of the windows among the richest, the scientists wear glasses of sight, since 1320 the word glass indicates the vases to drink. The introduction of blowing cane and coloring before firing accompanied the rise of glassmaking at the end of the Middle Ages. Despite the fame of Normandy and Lorraine, Venice was the first glassmaking center to compete with Bohemia in the 14th century.


The continued growth of cities, the enrichment of the princes and the clergy who built palaces and cathedrals benefited the building trades whose specialties are numerous: tile makers, cottage carpenters, bricklayers, pavers and plasterers. From the modest mud house of the worker and the craftsman to the splendid hotels of the rich, many are the sites opened over the centuries! The gigantic cathedrals represent a long-term work.

In 1253 the construction of Westminster Abbey gives an idea of ​​the trades necessary for its construction. Are listed: thirty-nine stonemasons, thirteen stonemasons, twenty-six masons, fourteen glassmakers, four plumbers, thirty-two carpenters, nineteen blacksmiths, many laborers.

Those who build cathedrals are in fact highly skilled, skilled and well paid workers. The elite of the building comprises the "stoners, spiders, or notchers", the masons who are content to lay the stone "the sleepers or seated" are the "lower" class of the corporation. The project manager is a mason for whom a long tradition of knowledge enables the drawing up of plans and the marking of the foundations on the ground (the term architect does not exist in the Middle Ages). Graduated ruler stick and gloves are his honorary attributes, he is represented with a compass. The stained glass windows set with lead appeal to glassmakers specializing in this art.

Very little scaffolding is used for the construction, the masons install small wooden walkways supported by rafters inserted in holes of bowling and use the building as it is erected. (How many accidents and deaths are they attributed to this precarious system?) The stones are lifted by a system of ropes and pulleys, sometimes of gallows or cranes at the end of the Middle Ages. The tools do not change much: the serrated hammer (or brette) the hammer-pick for stone, the plumb line, the trowel and the square. The construction workers have a cabin called a lodge where they shelter and store their tools. This term is gradually associated with the group of masons for whom its written "the statutes of the lodge". All the trades move according to the sites.

Specializations in the capital

The tool makers are extremely specialized: the twists make the twists, the forcetiers the forces (large scissors which are used to shear the woolen fabrics) they are united in 1463 in the trades of the `` great white tailors '' who claim the Manufacture of tools intended for carpenters, lumberjacks, coopers and sheet trimmers. Traveling rewinders compete with knife or force grinders. The lormiers make horse bits, stirrups and spurs, their trade is linked to that of saddlers. Armor is produced by harness makers. The helmets make the pieces of armor, the haubergers those of the chainmail.

Wheelwrights encircle the rims of the wheels with iron. Fevers forge nails and locks, ironworkers are the ancestors of our scrap dealers, they recover and recycle old metal objects.

Mirrors and bells are due to the pewter craftsmen who left the manufacture of the dishes to the pewter potters. In 1268 many other metals were worked in particular copper and bronze. Copper smelters and moulders produce belt buckles and everyday utensils. Lampers make candlesticks and lamps out of copper.

The boilermakers or peyroliers shape the pots and cauldrons stoves of copper and bronze. Plumbers work the metal to which they owe their name, intended in particular for gutters. In addition, there are small trades such as fasteners who make small nails to decorate belts and harnesses, buttonholes and patenostiers who make metal rosaries. This dispersion of metal craftsmen in small family workshops hardly allowed them to enrich themselves apart from certain gunsmiths. At the top of this hierarchy are the coinmakers and the goldsmiths, true craftsmen, they frequent ecclesiastical and lay courts.

The windmills

The mills characterize the medieval landscape, they use the force of the water to actuate their vertical wheel maintained by an axis, connected to another horizontal itself joined to the stones to be crushed. Intended first of all to grind grain and olives, the water mill was perfected and its uses diversified in the 12th century. It turns into a mill for treading fabrics and working iron and paper. The windmill may have originated in the east. It is a wooden structure containing the machinery and the stones to be crushed mounted on a central foot, three branches maintain its wing.

The peasants who bring their grain to grind must pay a royalty often in kind intended for the lord, which also benefits the miller (called bonnet) who has a bad reputation because of his rapacity, (many jokes and songs preserved by the folk tradition attest thereby ).

The period ofMmiddle age never ceases to amaze us by the incredible variety of itscraft and commercial activitiess governed by codes and statutes (the word artisan comes from the Italian "arte" which implies a knack). The ancestral know-how of the trades, transmitted by apprenticeship, is perpetuated and refined over the centuries in all areas of the lives of men and women of the Middle Ages.

Food professions in the Middle Ages

Bakers and pastry chefs

If in the countryside each family makes its bread which it will bake in the seigneurial oven, this practice is prohibited in most towns where the production of bread is the monopoly of several trades. The "blatiers" provide the flour to the bakers who knead the dough while the "furniers" bake the bread. They have to work even on Sundays, do not have the right to produce cakes reserved for other corporations (they are subject to statutes erected in 1305). In the thirteenth century the pastry chefs or "forgetful" who run shops make the "snout" small crunchy and hard oven, the "raccoon", the "talemousses" cheesecake, the "bridaveaux" sort of waffles and others. pastries: scalded, cabbage and marzipan.

They also have a monopoly on meat or fish pies, which were very popular in the Middle Ages (pie with salmon, eel, pork, turtledove, woodcock, lark or quail). The “forgotten items” are sold in the street by street vendors.


The townspeople of the Middle Ages were heavy consumers of meat which made the butchers prosperous despite their bad reputation due to the slaughter of animals in the streets and their contribution to the pollution by the waste they generate (see article Hygiene and pollution in the Middle Ages). The butchers sell the meat of beef, veal and cold meats, the "lambs" the meat of lambs, kids, rabbit hares and partridges. The "galiniers" offer poultry, the tripiers offal, the roasters or "hearths" roast goose, hen, game and cold meats.

In the 14th century, grocers sold spices which made it possible to enhance or mask the taste of bland or spoiled meat. The sale of cheese (very poorly paid) is allocated to vendors or street vendors called "regrattiers or regrattières" who also offer fruit and vegetables.


From the end of the thirteenth century in Paris there were three communities of fishmongers: the King's fishermen who exploited the Marne and the Seine, the merchants of freshwater fish and those of saltwater fish. herring and salted cod from the Lent season (the salt allowing the conservation of fish as well as meat). The fish market is held at the Grand Pont, today Pont-aux-change, (it is also a generator of waste and bad odors that city dwellers complain about).

Innkeepers, innkeepers, tavernkeepers and hoteliers

In the Middle Ages, travelers and pilgrims dine in inns which also accommodate customers. The hostels offer lodging, they display an emblematic sign from which they end up taking the name. In the 15th century, the “capitouls” of Toulouse made them compulsory in order to control the activity of innkeepers. Many bear the names of religious figures to attract pilgrims: St. Jacques, St. George, St. Catherine ... or other commercial acronyms: the hostelry of the angel, the three magi, the red hat, the capon, the crown, the dish, or the shield of Brittany, the siren for the Bretons etc. Some of these inns are run by widowed or married women on their own. These are often places of transactions where business contracts are concluded.

The innkeepers serve wine at the counter in pewter or ceramic goblets on the stall, directly on the roadway. Cervoise, a kind of beer, is distributed by the "cervoisiers" while the tavern keepers sell the wine by the barrel or the pitcher.

Craftsmanship in the Middle Ages


The tanners are often pushed out of the ramparts due to the stench they give off. They wash the skins in running water, shave them, soften them with oil and alum. They supply the saddlers who make the leather coverings of the saddles (of which the wood frame is made by the “chapuiseurs”), the “blazoniers who cover them and paint the escutcheons on them, the lormiers, cobbler's shoemakers, glove makers and bookbinders. books. The shoemakers owe their name to the Cordovan leather with which they make the most beautiful shoes intended for the aristocracy, while the poor are content to call on the cobbler. Gloves use very fine leathers: kid goat, hare or sheep deer skins, while shovel makers sell furs from the Nordic countries.

The development of civil and ecclesiastical administrations, the birth of the university allowed the development of the parchment profession.

Textile industry

The production of wool and other fabrics is the most important urban activity of the Middle Ages, all the cities have their draperies. After shearing, the women beat the wool on racks to eliminate the impurities, then immerse it in successive baths to remove the ooze, then the carding takes place (the wool is placed between two small rectangular wooden boards with handles and teeth) and spinning, often rural activities, sources of income for the peasant household. The fleece (ready to be spun with the distaff) is transformed into thread thanks to a delicate system of rotation created by the weight of the spindle. Once the spool of thread has been formed, weaving can begin. It begins with warping, the warp threads are stretched over a wooden frame called a beating.

The vertical looms limit the size of the pieces, it was not until the 11th century that horizontal looms developed which made it possible to increase the size of the woven pieces. With this system, the creation of patterns becomes possible thanks to the shuttle that two men return to each side of the loom. At this stage the woolen cloth is grayish, rough and irregular (it is used for the blankets of the horses or for the use of the poor and is called "quilt or tail"). It must still undergo different operations: washed several times, scraped with thistle to make it felt and remove any knots still present, this is the job of the straighteners or trimmers, then they are trampled underfoot by the fullers in vats or the water is mixed with sand or wine lees in order to expurgate the remaining oil (Fullers are a corporation of poorly paid workers with appalling working conditions). The woolen sheets can then be sold plain or colored.

The dyers, called "blue nails" trample the sheets in baths of dyes, mordants and alum. The pastel called “guède or waide” in Picardy gives a very popular blue making the fortune of the cities which produce it (Amiens Toulouse). Brazil wood gives the color pink, guaude yellow and green, walnut stain black and Kermes or cochineal red. Once dyed, the fabric is shaved again to obtain a better softness. The Parisian clothiers manufacture the "biffe" a renowned fabric. The merchant entrepreneurs thus make five different trades work: weavers (also weaving flax and hemp) shearers, fullers, dyers and tailors. At the end of the Middle Ages, mixed fabrics appeared: futaine which mixed cotton and linen, wool and linen "saye", and wool and animal hair felt (rabbit or beaver).

The main clothing market is that of dressmakers, haberdashery and hatters. The embroiderers practice needle-painting while the upholsterers create the superb woolen hangings of the stately homes of the Middle Ages.

Intellectual and artistic professions in the Middle Ages

Most of the teachers are clerics, with education controlled by the church. At the end of the Middle Ages, masters and mistresses of secular schools were appointed In university towns, the profession of booksellers or `` stationaries '' appeared in the 13th century, which employed parchment workers, scribes or copyists producing works intended for teachers and students. A clientele made up of wealthy aristocrats and members of the high clergy order their beautiful illuminated manuscripts. The first printers were created in the 15th century in the big cities of France.

If the doctors of the Middle Ages (having taken courses at the faculty) are satisfied to observe the patients and to prescribe them some potion ordered from the apothecary, the barber-surgeons, trained by apprenticeship, shave their patients, practice bloodletting and enemas, place suction cups. As for the tooth pullers, they definitely relieve the patients with the help of large pincers, on the public road in the sight and in the ears of everyone (some even hire musicians to cover the cries of the unfortunate!).

The minstrels or "minstrels" are, under Louis IX, gathered in a corporation which includes a whole hierarchy of masters and apprentices but these people of the spectacle which are also the jugglers storytellers and musicians, are badly paid and little recognized. They are listed in the '' rue aux jugleurs '' which in the 15th century became rue des Ménétriers in Paris (Beaubourg).

The most prestigious and lucrative profession of the Middle Ages is undoubtedly that of the goldsmith acquired after a long apprenticeship of eight or ten years. Lapidaries, crystal makers or scallops cut precious stones (emerald ruby, diamond, rock crystal, etc.) that silversmiths mount on jewelry and gold and silver tableware. In addition to this jewelry activity, there is the creation of monetary productions (royal coin minting workshop). Powerful and honored, they dominate all other artistic professions.

In the Middle Ages the craftsmen who worked with their hands were grouped together in the "mechanical" arts relegated to a lower rank than the "liberal" arts such as law, medicine or theology because at the time, (with exceptions) the talents of the spirit alone are recognized as worthy and rewarding.

Painters, illuminators, sculptors, picture artists, glassmakers, learn their trade during an apprenticeship but these, despite their skill, are rarely distinguished. Yet the “image cutters” in bone, boxwood or ivory enjoyed prestige because they fashioned bas-reliefs, tombs, recumbent statues for kings and the wealthy. The wooden effigies are left to the carpenters or "huchiers". The painters do the murals, the wooden panels and the illuminations, they also draw the patterns for the stained-glass windows. The glassmakers apply these drawings in soggy chalk on large tables the size of the planned stained-glass window, specify their sketches in "sinopia" and place the colored glass plates on them, before setting them with lead.

Apprenticeship, valets and companions

Between twelve and sixteen, apprentices are placed by their parents with a master by whom they are housed, fed and bound by a contract before a notary. For these years of training, which last between two and twelve years depending on the discipline sought, the teacher (who sometimes demands an entry fee from the parents to cover his expenses) engages his professional conscience. During these years he takes the value of a father while the young boy promises to work without complaining, and to remain with his master until the end of his contract, at the end of which he must provide proof of his competence. When the agreement is good, it is not uncommon to see a master bequeath his property or his tools to his apprentice.

Few young people then have the opportunity to settle in their own workshop and continue to work as salaried employees by the one who trained them: they are the valets and maids. Employees called journeyman or boy valets can be hired for a variable duration of a day, a week or a year.

The companions come together to fight against the abuses of the masters, they organize themselves into brotherhoods whose vocation is mutual aid in the event of illness or death. Conflict situations can lead the valets to strike or boycott a city by deciding a collective departure (like the fellow shovellers who left Strasbourg in 1423 to go to work in Haguenau). Sometimes these demands lead to revolts (the differences in wealth between bosses and employees only growing), but these are repressed by force and end in bloodbaths.

The world of professions of the Middle Ages is not without evoking contemporary echoes: the hierarchy within the work, the distribution of tasks between men and women, the inequalities of wages and working hours, all these subjects are very topical.

The astonishing dispersion of qualifications, the specialization of multiple talents declined to infinity, the taste for a job well done are not simple myths due to admirers of cathedrals because the builders of these proud churches, the master glassmakers, the picture artists and all those who remained in the shadows were truly passionate about their profession. There were of course always those excluded (unskilled workers, unemployed beggars, invalids) but medieval documents reveal an omnipresent humanity far from the anonymity of the machine age.

Sources and illustrations: The professions of the Middle Ages, by Sophie Cassagnes-Brousquet, Editions Ouest-France, April 2010.

Video: The songs of Kings and Princes of the Middle Ages


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