Commercial Production: Occupations and Work Habits

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Commercial Production: Occupations and Work Habits


Marketing . During the Middle Ages, trade and commercial production were usually undertaken by different people, except at the outset of the period. Marketed produce of agricultural origin was the first sign of either economic activity, since the sale of the surplus in essentials for survival first jump-started the medieval exchange economy. Subsequently, production of goods and rendering of skilled services became the bases of most medieval occupations, known collectively as crafts or artisan activities. A general profile of the medieval artisan is difficult to establish, however, for while his contacts outside Europe were relatively limited, the possible variations in his way of life were still broad depending on the type of craft, the location and concentration of his population group, his socioeconomic status, gender, and age.

Historiography . Just to enumerate the myriad walks of life of those involved in production in the Middle Ages is not an easy task. One way scholars attempt to determine typical production occupations of the Middle Ages is by examining medieval pictorial documents for representations of an activity that led to the manufacture, or the making, usually by hand, of a product, versus an activity pursued without apparent production goals. If someone could not write, he probably left no account of his work life, but sometimes with a picture, most often a manuscript illustration, its story has been told, at least in brief and despite the fact that most production techniques have changed dramatically since the Middle Ages. Nothing guarantees, however, that the medieval working person was accurately represented, since illustration, most commonly undertaken as an embellishment of the written word, was a particular medieval skill in itself, usually perfected by a member of the clergy or the nobility. Nonetheless, a person depicted at his task would probably have borne some resemblance to the contemporary depiction, and although he might not have had any part in its representation, in knowing how to go about his craft, he at least presented an accurate model to the artist of the painting.

Visual Images . One might expect the illustrations of medieval craftsmen to be less than obvious as to the trade, since of the crafts with a commercial component, only farriery or blacksmithing from the rural sphere and prostitution and beggary in the urban areas are still conducted as they were in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, candle makers, saddle makers, or shoemakers at work would presumably still be recognizable as such. Glassblowing, masonry, and sculpture were also clearly illustrated medieval artisan activities. Often grouped together in a single image, various crafts were connected to medieval textile production: spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, tailoring, millinery work, and embroidery. Of course, there were also the undisguisable public hairdressers, the first opening for business in Spain in 840.

Products . Yet another detective route to posit the variety of medieval producers has been to enumerate the known products of the time. Who raised the British wool, wove the Flemish and Italian textiles, smithed the prized armor, jewelry, and religious metal objects for the churches and cathedrals? This approach is also a potentially informative method for deriving the multitude of services that medieval artisans provided. Medieval learning and art were the products of teachers and artists. The self-employed teacher conducted classes in front of groups of students; the court painter executed frescoes or decorative wooden panels. A slow and ultimately expensive process, the copying of certain manuscripts was painstakingly and efficiently carried out by scribes for hire in booksellers’ shops, particularly in university towns and cities. In the early fourteenth century, nine doctors, for example, lived and practiced in Car-cassone, along with sixty-three notaries and fifteen advocates; in Florence, there were sixty doctors and eighty moneychangers. Although the back-garden pig remained the most effective town garbage collector, a human undertaker of the task also existed in the Middle Ages. Through his services, town litter and refuse, which were usually just dumped into the street, were cleaned up as often as once a week.

Rural and Urban Producers . Given its variety, medieval craft activity necessarily split into different ways of life, at least into that of the rural craftsman and that of the urban artisan. The rural peasantry emphasized crop and animal production that entailed hard physical labor. A boost in their standard of living came to them through work of the land and permission from their rich or generous lords to sell their surplus goods. The early medieval agricultural economy was not designed to allow for the agricultural surpluses of individual peasant families to be sold directly by them, but over time so many lords gave that right to their peasantry, often in return for rent or monetary payments for land use, that for the last centuries of the Middle Ages, agricultural surplus was effectively being sold by all order of peasants: serfs, villains, aldus, tenant farmers, and anyone licensed to sell produce at a local market. What had begun as the landowner’s acknowledgment to a peasant, that his obligations could be fulfilled through his labor and a portion of his own yield less than his own surplus, led to farm produce being regularly for sale. This development was a welcome sign to any town or city dweller who procured it. With carpenters and blacksmiths as the main exceptions, the medieval population, the massive peasantry, never did acquire a skill for commercial purposes, but once surpluses could be sold publicly, this lack was not as much of an impediment then as it would be today. Piers the Plowman lamented he could not be Piers the Businessman, for had he the crop, he would have brought new “corn” to market and there bought pullets, geese, and piglets.

Occupations . In urban areas craftsmen of all sorts were well represented: shoemakers, tailors, candle makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, glassmakers, and so forth. Their absolute numbers were higher in urban than in rural areas. Those individuals dedicated to earning a living by their craft tended to settle in towns, each with his whole household, and to sell goods and/or skills for barter or money. Studies show that approximately four-fifths of the inhabitants of most towns and cities were involved in the production of goods and other services by the fourteenth century, with, in northern Europe and Italy, the highest percentage in textile production. The increase in urban populations along the Northern and Italian coasts was, however, more rapid than in the balance of Europe, and the reason for this is largely what is reflected in the overwhelming number of workers dedicated to a single area of production.


The following is a list of the wages that London carpenters could earn during the reign of Edward I (1272–1307):

Time of YearWage
Source: Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). 
St. Michael-St. Martin (29 September-11 November)4d. or 1-1/2A and table
St. Martin-Candlemas (11 November-2 February)3d. or Id. and table
Candlemas-Easter (2 February-Easter)4d. or l-l/2d. and table
Easter-St. Michael (Easter-29 September)5d. or 2-l/2d and table

Enhancement to Family Income . Since through sales and payment for service, medieval craftwork was initially an enhancement to a family’s income, it is not surprising that artisan activity continued to be more attractive among the lower social classes than it was among the wealthy. The noble male with his preoccupying acquisition of the skills of knighthood, horsemanship, and weaponry is somewhat of an exception to this generalization, representing another form of commercial “production” in the Middle Ages, the rendering of a service with accomplished skills. The females of wealthier families who learned artisan skills, most notably spinning and weaving, exemplify better the distinction between the craft involvement of the wealthy and those of lesser means, since wealthy women rarely deemed either “distaff” skill to be perfected to a business end. Free but poorer women and men availed themselves of access to virtually all types of day-labor employment. Those people who made it through the lower ranks of training in any variety of craft guilds could remain in someone else’s steady employ throughout their lives, even if they could not save enough money to establish their own business.

Women and Artisanal Work . Although when they did commercial work, women as well as men were the artisans, the variation in type and scale of production throughout Europe predominantly based on the area and its local raw materials, which affected the role of specific genders in a craft. Most craft associations or guilds did not allow women to join, and in any case they could choose only among limited options for training. They might be apprenticed in another household to learn domestic skills, but some did receive employment training in the hairdressing trade or a textile craft. Where the making of thread and cloth were undertaken primarily for personal use, such as in Britain, women were most frequently the spinners and weavers. In Flanders, where for several centuries weaving cloth from the surplus of British raw wool production had been a commercial enterprise, men, however, became the expert textile workers. Nonetheless, true to Geoffrey Chaucer’s characterization that “deceit, weeping and spinning” were traditional women’s skills, in late medieval England many women were also commercial textile workers. In the fourteenth century, a city such as Florence had thirty thousand workers, male and female, in its two hundred textile shops.

Children’s Work . Children as well as adults were skilled craft workers, although many towns did have laws that disallowed children from working in certain crafts. For peasant children, learning a skill other than farming was not necessary nor even permitted for their future livelihood. Occupational choices were quite narrowly defined in rural areas, as they did not have the wide need of the specialized crafts of cities and larger towns, but only of those that supplied the agricultural community, such as farming, black-smithing, and carpentry. The demands of the medieval rural economy and society meant that most children had to spend much of their time farming or helping with farm tasks. For rural children, craft training took place in the home. Boys learned agricultural skills from their fathers, and girls learned housewifery from their mothers.

Distinct Characteristic . Although the type of craft, the location and concentration of a population group, socioeconomic status, gender, and age caused great variation among craftsmen, one unifying characteristic of the urban artisan was his house, not perhaps in terms of building materials but in layout. Given the craftsman’s means of livelihood, urban shops and homes were often not separate. As artisan and shopkeeper, the medieval craftsman lived, worked at his craft, and sold his goods or services in his home. Virtually all town dwellings and shops were, like rural houses, built of whatever materials were handy, such as stone, brick, or little more than mud. At first, town houses were two—sometimes three—stories high. As the urban population grew, however, and as land became in short supply, they often stretched up to five or six stories, with the upper floors built seemingly precariously out over the street.

House of the Urban Artisan . A craftsman’s home consisted of a living-refectory-dormitory area, where the artisan and his family lived, ate, and slept. This domicile part of the building was small, possibly containing separate bedrooms but often simply a single undivided living-sleeping room. Until the end of the Middle Ages, glass was too expensive for use in any but public buildings or the homes of the rich, so the windows of artisans’ homes had shutters, with oilcloth coverings. Often there was a garden or court at the rear of an individual craftsman’s house. Once again, however, as the pressure for land became intense, gardens gave way to new buildings.

Master Artisan’s Shop . The house contained special rooms where the artisan worked at his craft, and in the front at street level, an area where the public could see and purchase his wares. Like craftsmen tended to settle together in the same quarter, and city streets often derived their names from artisan activities located there. The craftsman presented the “best” side of his house to the street. Its sign and largest opening, doubling as a door to the workroom and business area, defined by a pair of shutters, presented the artisan as ready for business. It has been noted that a striking feature of medieval cities was their paucity of public buildings and spaces, and indeed in addition to the many craftsmen’s shops, most other urban buildings were part of town commercial life, including the bakery, tavern, perhaps a brewery, storehouses, and even a hospital.

Lifestyle . To a rough-and-ready society, medieval artisans presented a vibrant example of a productive and well-ordered life. As unsheltered as they were from the world, artisans frequently nonetheless lived lives of quiet industry. Undoubtedly the guilds, which by the eleventh century crafts workers began forming, afforded them this

luxury. By the twelfth century, virtually every town had its guilds, fraternities, or associations, representing each type of commercial or manufacturing enterprise: baking, butchering, weaving, dyeing, and so forth. The lives of artisans were controlled to a large extent by their membership in a guild, in that the guilds set the standards for skilled work. In effect they did their best to identify the practices that they felt ought to be almost automatic to the best guild artisans. Most of these were craft dependent, as for example that the bead maker must reject any beads that are not perfectly round; that the alewife use no ingredients other than grain, hops, and water to make ale; and that the butcher not mix tallow with lard.

Discipline . Guild rules seem to have fought against two possible characteristics of the life of an artisan. Their strategies for countering the first, that the craftsman’s life was comprised largely of exhausting toil, will be discussed here. Guilds stressed the value of physical work, recognizing that craftsmen had to work hard in their ateliers. The blacksmith raised and lowered his hammers, even the light ones weighing up to five pounds, continuously. The weaver firmly beat his newly placed weft thread into place with every pass of the shuttle. The back-and-forth motion of the carpenter’s saw had to be repeated until the wood was cut.

Conditions of Work . Guilds wanted to preserve the strength, proficiency, and dedication of the craftsman to his demanding tasks. Largely to this end, guild rules set hours as well as conditions and standards of work, among them the provision that craftsmen should work only during daylight. This situation led to seasonal schedules even for year-round crafts, such as blacksmithing or weaving. The workday varied from fourteen to fifteen hours in the summer season to from dawn to dusk, or as little as eight hours in the winter season. Enforcement was, however, apparently extremely strict only for the noisy crafts, such as smithing, because work could disturb the neighborhood’s sleep. Craftsmen of most trades were obliged not to work on Sundays and on all high-church festivities, particular those in connection with Christmas and Easter. The longest work-year estimates run three hundred days, with the church requiring sexual abstinence and fasting for at least one hundred days annually to honor holy days and seasons.

Workday . Although most details about a craftsman’s workday date from the fifteenth century, certain allowances in the work schedule, reflecting the need for meals and occasional rest intervals, would have figured already in the earlier period. With work beginning at dawn, quarter-hour rest periods would have broken up the morning, perhaps as often as twice. Midmorning breakfast and midday lunch breaks would have counted anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half depending on the time of year. Artisans had two meals “on the job” supplied by the employer if the craftsman were working for “wage and table”; neither the food nor utensils were lavish. Beans, dough cakes or bread, soup, vegetables, and as much meat as was affordable made up their main diet. There was beer and wine for festive meals.

Guild’s Moral Perspective . As well as their attentions to set hours, conditions, and standards of work, guild rules reflect a further moral perspective: recognition that as an artisan one was part of a community of like craftsmen. The guilds provided many special services to their members. At guild schools, often established for the offspring of their members, children in the cities and towns of the mid twelfth century could meet their basic educational needs. Guilds did much to care for their poor and sick members, providing them with food, clothing, and medical attention, as well as for traveling artisans from like guilds, providing them with hospitality in the form of rest places and food. When a guild member fell sick or became too old to work, he was moved into the care of other guild members with fraternal artisans serving as the next of kin.

Guild Association . Generally guild brethren continued to care for the widows and children of members who died, although the bonds of guilds were stretched to the limit during the years of the Black Death (1347–1351), when members looked after their craft brothers, however dreaded the disease. As described by a chronicler in Flanders, town dwellers would visit a sick man, “do business with him, or even carry him to the grave,” although inevitably they would “quickly follow him there.” This highly developed sense of corporate responsibility led public authorities to spread the duties of policing and creating civic ceremonies across a city’s guilds. Both the guild’s cohesion and power and the tactics of the urban nobles worked toward the entry of middle and lower social classes into political life. Some municipal guilds created such tight administrative communities that in many places kings and nobles sold charters to them, allowing them collectively to rule their city.


Prosper Boissonade, Life and Work in Medieval Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

O. F. Hamouda and B. B. Price, “The Justice of the Just Price,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 4 (1997): 191–216.

Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 900-1350 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

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Commercial Production: Occupations and Work Habits

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