Unusual Medieval Professions – Part 1
Our medieval and historically-inspired fantasy settings are crawling with blacksmiths, farmers and priests. But which unusual medieval professions have not made it into our fond reminisces of the past, and why? We’ve been trawling through our favourite unusual medieval professions. We’ve added our own hooks and tips for incorporating them into your stories, too. Feel free to suggest more in the comments below!
WARNING – some are unusual, and some are downright disgusting!
In a medieval church, the Ostiary was literally the doorkeeper. It was a position usually held by a man who wished to progress to holy orders in the Church’s hierarchy. He would ensure that no unbaptised people entered the church during the Eucharist. He was sometimes in charge of other doors in the church, such as those of the Baptistry (where baptisms would take place) and Sacristy (where the vestments and articles of worship were kept). This medieval profession evolved from the Roman habit of having a slave to attend to the door.
Ostiary hooks and tips:
- Perhaps a less-than-moral Ostiary might require a bribe to let your character into the church, temple or shrine. This would be doubly true after hours when, perhaps, your characters might be up to no good…
- He might also be a good source of information – the Ostiary would see everyone who entered and exited the church, temple or shrine.
- You might get an introduction to an important person in the church from an Ostiary, particularly if you did him a favour first.
- An Ostiary might be a good first profession or position for a character, especially one who later becomes a priest or paladin.
This unusual historical profession involved literally leading bears from village to village. Bears were mostly used for bloodsports like bear baiting, in which packs of dogs were set to fight against the bear. Both Henry VII and Elizabeth I were famously fans and, by the Tudor era, increasing numbers of bear pits or “bear gardens” were constructed in major cities. Bearleaders allowed villagers to enjoy the “entertainment” of the big city bear baiting fights in the comfort of their own village. Incidentally, by the 18th century the term “bearleader” came to refer to a different profession, altogether. They were essentially tutor/baby-sitters, who were engaged by parents to keep boisterous, young noble sons under control and out of trouble, particularly during the era of the Grand Tour.
Bearleader hooks and tips:
- A good hook for low level characters might be to help a bearleader recapture his escaped bear. The choice they make – whether to free the animal, try to capture it, or kill it (maybe to put it out of its misery) can crucially show or develop their character.
- Bear fights were a common form of entertainment. They might be found at village fairs, in ‘arenas’ behind taverns, or at bear gardens in big cities. It was a bloody and brutal sport.
- A Ranger character might have fun with this one. Perhaps he has trained a companion bear to always win and makes money from the bear fights. Maybe he is an ex-bear-leader who learned compassion and formed a bond with his animal.
The Master of the Revels
The Master of the Revels was the official in charge of court entertainment. The title first crops up in the records of Henry VII of England (1457-1509) as a minor official. However, someone must certainly have been in charge of the plays performed in Edward III of England’s court (1312-1377), for which records of costumes still remain, and similar performances in later courts. Music and plays were not just for entertainment, but boasted of the court’s culture and prestige both to foreign and domestic visitors – they were status symbols. They were often spectacular and fantastical, with music, costumes of animals and people, acrobats and even floats. Check out, for example, accounts of the Feast of the Pheasant thrown by Phillip le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, in 1454, which included a giant pie and singers dressed as horses. Musicians and playing troupes tended to be itinerant, and so someone had to be in charge of engaging them. By 1534, it had become a full time, independent office.
Master of Revels hooks and tips:
- Any bards or performers seeking work would do well to make friends with the Master of the Revels.
- The Master of Revels might also serve as an introduction to the court for a hero party.
- The Master of Revels might ask you to send any travelling theatre or musician troupes their way, with a commission for your service.
- If they had a problem with a group they’d hired (e.g. they’d stolen something), the Master of Revels might come to your group confidentially and pay you to resolve it.
The Pissprophet – also called a Water-Scriger – was a doctor who diagnosed disease from the sight, smell, and taste of a patient’s urine. Scientifically, this isn’t quite as insane as it sounds – some conditions really can be diagnosed with urine alone, such as diabetes (which makes the urine sweet), dehydration (strong, dark-coloured urine) or a urinary tract infection (which leaves blood in the urine). They did develop something of a reputation for quackery, however. The term seems to originate from the 1600s, but the profession itself dates back to the medieval era.
Pissprophet hooks and tips:
- A character who isn’t particularly educated or doesn’t know any better (it could be a regional vogue) might have a rather bizarre examination with a Pissprophet, particularly if he decided to go to the “cheaper doctor”.
- A man masquerading as a faith healer might really be a pissprophet.
- Or a real (magical or otherwise) healer might actually require a urine sample, leading to an accusation of being a pissprophet and wanting his name to be cleared.
- A character, incorrectly diagnosed by a Pissprophet, might come to your party for help, or for a rare “cure” – proper research may reveal him not to be ill after all!
The Muck Raker
The muck raker – this is probably the most repulsive unusual medieval profession in this article. For modern day city dwellers, it’s easy to forget quite how revolting historical cities, especially in the medieval era, could be. In medieval London, for example, there were no raised pavements and people had to walk, by and large, on the bare earth. Except that it wasn’t just bare earth, it was – squishier. The ground was covered with the excrement of both people and animals, as well as animal entrails and rotting food. In fact, the inhabitants of medieval London – human and animal – produced 50 tons of excrement a day, and plenty of that ended up on the street one way or another. There’s a reason noblemen and anyone with means would take carriages – or, in the 17th century and beyond, sedan chairs – to protect their clothes and shoes. Other measures, such as protective overshoes, also came into use.
Muck rakers were the brave men who cleaned these filth-ridden streets, and were employed by the city to collect muck – feces, debris and soil – and take it beyond the city limits by boat or cart. They were better paid than the average working man, which is no surprise considering the repulsive conditions they had to work in. They could earn in 11 nights what a skilled labourer 6 months to earn. (For more about labour and wages in the Medieval world, read here.)
Muckraker hooks and tips:
- The most repulsive streets are “memorialised” in London with names like Gutter Lane and Staining Lane. Others were later renamed, like Shiteburn Lane which became Sherbourn Lane. Why not incorporate some “earthy” districts and names into your fictional cities? This would raise the chance of your characters catching disease, having to deal with filth, or at least needed to fork out for a bath and a change of clothes?
- Maybe there are stalls by the city gate selling overshoes. Only a character who has city knowledge would know why they’re necessary.
- On the other hand, perhaps the society you’re in is fastidious in its public sanitation. In that case, what amazing plumbing has been invented to deal with the problem of high population density?
- A muck raker would have a powerful and unpleasant odour, but would also be an excellent informant. He’d witness plenty around the city, and you can learn a lot about people from their garbage.
- A muckraker would have plenty of money to spend, but might have trouble finding a wife, or with other social communications.
- You might meet a muckraker in his cart or boat outside the city, on the way to a dumping site.mu
- Your characters might be offered a job as a muckraker, to make some quick money in unskilled labour.
Do you have more hook ideas for main characters or NPCs in these unusual medieval professions? Are there any other unusual medieval professions you’ve heard of? Let us know in the comments below.