What did people do: in a Medieval City?

What did people do in the Middle Ages? If you meet a random person on the street, what is his likely occupation? Or did people work at all? Were the Middle Ages some Communist utopia, where everybody laid around all day and things were magically produced by fairies?

Of course not. They didn't have electronics engineers and computer programmers, but they did have coopers, bakers, blacksmiths, and many other jobs that made their society go around. If you do a little research, there were tons of medieval occupations. Luckily, I've done it for you, so you don't have to!

In the following list, I have made a link to the online version of Webster's Dictionary, so you can find out what things are. In some cases, the definition is also included locally. I am slowly making local definitions for all these occupations, for your convenience.

Is there something on this page you'd like to see that isn't here? Send me an email at svincent@svincent.com -- let me know what you were looking for -- maybe I can help. Also, do you know more occupations that aren't on this list? Do you have definitions that I'm missing? Send them in! I'd love to improve this page!

Open Questions

This site gets me a fair few questions via email, many of which I can just answer. Some of them have stumped me. This is my current list of stumpers:

If you can answer any of these, or even have some clues, mail me. I and my questioners would be ever grateful.

Governmental Occupations

These are the people who run things. They keep society moving smoothly, if they're good at what they do, and can bring society to a crunching halt, if they're not. Rife for corruption, government officials can play a significant role in many campaigns.

Military Occupations

Who keeps the country safe from encroaching enemies and wild monsters? Why, the military, of course. These brave men - and sometimes women train against the possibility that they'll have to protect their country with their lives.

Criminal Occupations

Wherever there is society, there are criminals. These occupations include only the so-called "professional criminal": it ignores those people who are corrupt at every level of society who has a legal "front", from kings to beggars.

Religious Occupations

If Government officials run the affairs of earthly beings, then those occupied with religious pursuits mediate between earth and the gods.

Priests are relatively common in role playing games. These men and women are the people behind the church: not typically "adventuring priests", but vitally important to the church nonetheless.

Merchants

In a society based on trade - either with hard currency or barter, there are always those who spend their lives in the pursuit of selling things to others.

Note that most craftsmen also sell the results of their labor, farmers typically must sell their crops themselves, people in service trades often must hawk their own wares. This section does not include them. It includes only those people who spend their entire lives devoted to selling things, and nothing more.

Artists/Entertainers

In any society, there is the need for spare time. And what did people do before television? Well, they mostly sang songs, told stories, and danced. From this, some professional entertainers developed.

Also included in this section are artists: those who devote their lives to creating works of beauty and expressiveness. There is enormous overlap between artists and entertainers... I won't get into the argument of whether art should be used to entertain or express the artist's true feelings. That's beyond my scope here, certainly.

Farming and Workers with Flora and Fauna

Ah -- the farmers. Without them, we'd starve. Wresting sustenence from the very earth itself. There's a large number of occupations associated with farming: you need people to watch the animals, work the fields. In fact, probably most people in a medieval society were farmers.

Also included are hunters and gatherers: those who travel into nature and grab things to eat, as well as all those who work with animals.

There's also a good overview of horse history in Europe.

Scholars

They may have called it the dark ages for lack of scientific output, but there were still people interested in the world around them, willing to poke and prod it until something broke.

Sailors

The lure of the sea, the crash of the waves: a boat-filled life was the norm for a great many medieval people. Some sailed on rivers, some on the ocean. Exciting and dangerous trade missions with far-off empires, exploring strange new places, and always coming back home to tell exciting stories in the local tavern.

Regular Folks

One of the problems with coming up with a list of Medieval Occupations is that lots of people in a feudal economy didn't have occupations at all. They were just tenants of other folks. Also, there are in any society, a large number of homeless and impoverished.

This section deals with people like that.

There's a fun story about a peasant, who had a bit of an adventure, at Stefan's Florilegium.

I've also heard that the book A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1297-1344, by Judith Bennett, is recommended by some schools. It reconstructs the life of Cecilia Penifader, a medieval peasant, from various legal records. I've never read it, but it seems to get good reviews!

Craftsmen

Game worlds typically have armorers and blacksmiths, but then it breaks down, and everything else is available from the marketplace or the "general store". Add a bit of spice to a campaign by having the player's harness become damaged, and have to deal with the local harness maker - who is also the town shoemaker and his loud wife!

Most of the occupations on this list are craftsmen and service occupations. Because of this, I have seperated out the most common craftsmen from the bulk of the list, so that the gentle reader can make sense of it. The list of common occupations was derived from the tax list for Paris in 1292, from the book Life in a Medieval City, by Francis and Joseph Gies. The number indicates how many there in the city.

Common Craftsmen - sorted by frequency

Less common craftsmen - sorted alphabetically

Service Occupations

There are many important positions in society for those who do not produce, but serve their fellow man. When they're done their job for the day, there are no new products, no changes in physical objects, but people are moved, jobs get done, and society keeps moving. These are the service workers.

Service workers can play an enormous role in your campaign. All the time, characters need to get their hair cut, have water fetched, or have something written down.

Unfortunately, since this list is so enormous, I've again taken the liberty of separating out the common occupations, again, as defined by the Geis book. The numbers are the count of the occupation in Paris, in 1292.

Common Service Occupations - Sorted by Frequency

Less common service occupations - sorted alphabetically

Other

These are occupations that I can't identify. Any help here would be appreciated. Thanks!

Credits

Some of this material comes from Stefan's Florilegium, an online archive of interesting articles from the SCA's newsgroup, The Rialto (at rec.org.sca).

A ton of definitions and editorial help were provided by Jared Oakes. Thanks!

Some definitions were provided by Ryan Ramage. Thanks!

Some of the definitions came from A List of Occupations

Adminstrative Details...

This file is a part of the Crystal Obelisk project.

This page can be found on the Internet at http://www.svincent.com/MagicJar/Economics/MedievalOccupations.html.