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Urban Living: Craftsmen and Tradesmen

Urban Living: Craftsmen and Tradesmen


Urban Crafts. One of the qualities that distinguished a city from a village or even a market village was the diversity of crafts that could be found in a city. Specialties and sub-specialties in almost any area of manufacture could be found in a regional center. Moreover, as the European economy expanded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the demand for diverse artisanal skills also grew. One way in which scholars can track the variety of crafts is through last names, which were just coming into use at that time. Many craftsmen took names that identified their family with their trade; for example, families working in construction included the Smith, Schmidt, Faber, Tinker, Plumb, Houseman, Mason, Maurer, Thatcher, Glazer, Turner, Carpenter, and Dauber. Craftsmen often dominated urban governments, and certain crafts and their guilds were more prestigious and prosperous than others. The following description of an artisan’s household is based on that of a master craftsman in a less-prestigious craft, such as shoemaker or candlemaker.

A Craft Master’s Household. The household of a craft master was different than that of a burgher, although it could approach the same size. Craftsmen frequently had smaller families because they married later and had poorer living conditions and nutrition than nobles and burghers, but their households were frequently quite large because they included apprentices and journeymen as well as a servant or two. The size of a craft master’s household depended on his ability to support it; a poor craftsman was unable to maintain more than a journeyman and/or an apprentice, while a large, prosperous shop might have several of each.

At Home. While craft masters aspired to houses like those of urban burghers, generally their homes were smaller and less elaborately furnished. A successful craftsman might own his house outright, but some rented them. Moreover, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, urban craftsmen were unlikely to have large yards attached to their homes unless they were in professions that needed space—such as butchers, bakers, and blacksmiths. In some cases their workshops might be on the outskirts of town or in specific, marginal neighborhoods, while their homes and shops were in a different quarter. The average medieval craftsmen lived only slightly better than a prosperous peasant. His house consisted of two rooms, one for general living and a sleeping chamber. Journeymen and apprentices might have their own chambers or might have to sleep in the main room, which at least had the advantage of a hearth. Wooden tables, benches, and chests were the most common furnishings, and cooking was done on an open fire in either the center of the room or, increasingly, against one of the outside walls. An artisan’s home followed the same model as that of a burgher, but it was often shorter and narrower and consisted of only two stories. Floors in the downstairs were most likely packed dirt, while the walls were similar to wattle and daub.

Integration of Home and Work. A craft master’s household integrated work and family life. The front of the house was often the workshop; sales took place in that room or at a market stall nearby. The bulk of most craftsmen’s wealth was in their tools and supplies, which were stored in the workshop or in small cellars or outside sheds. The craftsman’s family included not only biological relatives but also those bound to him under long-term work contracts. Generally apprentices paid for their apprenticeship. They received no wages, but they were given training,


Begínning in the late twélfth century, the town council of Paris passed a series of regulations for bakers. The following excerpts from twelfth- aiid thirteenth-century kws show the widespread goverranent concern about certain crafts.

Mastery cetetnony : “The new baker… , shall take a new clay pot and fill ít with nuts. and wáfers; and he shalt come to the house of the master of the bakers, and he shall luye with him the tax collectar, and all the bakm, and the master journeymen…, And this the new baker shall hand his pot and nuts to the máster of the batees, and say, ’Master, I have finished and compfeted my four year.’ And the master shaü ask the tax-coEector whether this is trae. And if he says that it is truc, the máster shall hand the new baker his pot and nuts, and comniand thát he throw them against the wall, and then the new baker shall throw his pot and nuts and wafers against the outside wall of the house, and then the máster, the tax-coEector, the new baker; and all the other bakers and journeymen shall enter the inaster’s house, arid the máster shall provide them wMi wine and a fire, and each of the bakers, and the new*ne, and the master-joumeymen, all owe a penny to the paaste* of the bafcers for .theirwine and the fire.”

Judging breads : “And at the windbws where they fiad bread for sale the máster takes the bread and gives it to the jurors, and the jurors examine Ít to see if it is adequate or not, and if ít is adequate, the jurors return it to the window, and if it is not adequate, the jurors put the bread in the hand of the máster; and if the máster determines that the bread is not adequate, he can confíscate til the rest of it, even that which is in the oven. And if there are several types of bread in a window, the máster wul háve each one assessed. And those which are found to be too small, the máster and jurors will have them doáatecj to charity,

Provisions for sales : “The bakers Hying within the región of Paris can sell their defectíve bread (that is their fejects, such as damaged bread that rats dt mice have gnawed on, excessrvely hard bread, burnt or, scorched bread, overrisen bread, doughy bread, ill-turned or undersized bread, which they are not allowed to sell in the stall) on Sunday in the Halles, at the place where iron is sold in front of the eernetery of Saints-Innocents; or, if they like, they ean sell ít on Sunday between the pórtico of Notre-Dame and St.-Chrístopher: The bakers … can carry their bread on Sunday in these places in their baskets or iñ their panniers, and carry their stall or boards or tables, provided the staljs are no more than 5 feet long.”

Soorce; Jeffrey 1. Singtnan, Daily Life in Medieval Eumpe (Westport, Conn.: Grsenwood Press, 1999), pp. 1ÍS-196,19S-W.

room, and board. Sometimes their master gave them some small change, but it was not required. Journeymen’s contracts provided for salaries, but when cash was tight the craft master was often behind in payments. Wives and daughters were involved in managing the shop and sometimes in producing goods.

Crafts and Neighborhoods. Originally attracted to a location because of its amenities, such as water or good roads, crafts concentrated in specific neighborhoods and along certain roads. Street names in modern Europe perpetuate these medieval patterns; most European cities have a Carpenter, Furrier, or Saddlery Street. Streets were also named after churches and religious communities that existed on them, such as the Road of St. Genevieve or Mary Magdalene, or for activities that occurred in the area, such as the “rue ou Ten cuit les oeufs” (the road where they cook eggs) of medieval Paris. These neighborhoods allowed members of a similar craft to band together for mutual protection and at the same time to police each other for violations of craft statutes. These practices are reflected in medieval laws. The laws of many medieval towns and crafts made the person who failed to report a crime just as guilty as the person who committed it and liable to the same penalties.

Money. Cash was a rare commodity in medieval Europe, and much trade in rural communities was conducted through barter and credit. Not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did a cash economy trickle down to the village level. Because of their commercial nature, however, cities had always been much more dependent on coins than villages. The problem facing the development of cities and the medieval economy in general was the variable worth of such coins. In the ninth century many lords had the right to mint their own coins, and it took centuries for kings and major lords to reserve these rights to themselves. Moreover, the worth of a coin was based on its precious metal content, which meant that all but the smallest coins were worth more than most peasants or smaller artisans might earn in a week. For example, a single ounce of silver was generally a week’s wages for a skilled worker. Because of this standard, people shaved or otherwise diluted the precious metal content of a coin, and, as long as it still contained the seal attesting to its value, they could make their own money by reminting the metal into additional coins; such counterfeiting occurred and invoked stiff penalties. A merchant in medieval Europe needed to know the value of gold, silver, and copper coins minted by many sovereign states at different periods. Moreover, he or she needed to be able to translate this value into one of the standard units of account used throughout Europe. Given the complexities of such conversions, the development of coins with guaranteed and stable values, such as the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat, was of inestimable value to European trade.

Wages and Prices. Wages and prices varied according to many factors: the current economy, the size of the local work force, the availability of a product, the quality of the worker or product, and the negotiator’s skill. Inflation was far less a factor than in the modern world, and, on average, prices stayed the same for centuries. These averages, however, conceal sizable annual variations—especially in the prices of foodstuffs, which could increase up to ten times their normal cost in several months if the weather had been especially bad and supplies had become short. During these times town councils attempted to fix prices and patrol cellars to prevent hoarding and price gouging, both from a sense of Christian charity and to prevent riots by starving urban residents. Wages also differed. Some workers were paid by the year; some were paid by the number of days they worked; and others were paid by the piece. Pay varied according to the time of the year, in part because the length of the working day varied depending on the hours of daylight. An employee generally received at least one meal a day from his employers, and it was not unheard-of for a worker to earn housing and clothing as well.

The Reseller. Although it was not a prestigious profession, selling used goods was a widespread trade in medieval Europe. Medieval people rarely threw away clothing and other goods. When one person considered something too old or unfashionable, it was sold to someone else. The resellers or used-goods dealers acted as middlemen in these transactions and made provisions to have the goods repaired if necessary. Although a prosperous reseller might have a storefront attached to his house, many operated from a cart or a table near a market square. The regulations for resellers were generally less stringent than those placed on other professions, but a used-goods dealer was not supposed to misrepresent his goods. Women could also work as resellers, and they continued to practice this profession even after they were barred from many others in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Apothecary. The apothecary’s job was a prestigious profession, and some apothecaries became burghers and town councilors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The coat of arms of one of the wealthiest and most powerful Italian families during the Renaissance, the Medicis of Florence, includes the balls that stand for their ancestor’s membership in the apothecary’s guild. An apothecary’s job carried such status because of the education and training it required, the value of his goods, and its lack of manual labor. Much like modern pharmacists, apothecaries dispensed a wide variety of medicines. For example, St. John’s wort, mandrake root, and ground seed pearls were all obtainable at an apothecary shop and had assorted medical uses. The apothecary also dealt in a wide variety of goods, generally small and expensive. He stocked spices and sugar, which were seen as having medicinal properties, as well as lye for making soap or washing clothing, and the dyes and solutions for making ink. Every household of any standing needed to buy goods from an apothecary. Because of the expenses of obtaining these products and their costs to buyers, apothecaries also often had a substantial store of coin, at least according to medieval standards. It was not a large step, therefore, for apothecaries to serve to some extent as community bankers, tendering loans and safeguarding other residents’ resources. Because an apothecary’s work was rarely dirty, he could dress and carry himself like the prosperous tradesman that he was, an appearance that further affected perceptions in medieval society.

The Baker. Because urban bakers supplied basic foodstuffs, they belonged to one of the largest guilds. It was also one of the most tightly regulated. Master craftsmen working for the town council generally inspected shops and bread weekly, setting the prices for each kind of bread produced. In the early Middle Ages bakers were paid much like millers; residents brought their own flour to the bake-shop, and the baker made it into loaves and baked it, reserving a percentage of the flour as his pay. Increasingly in the Middle Ages the system became less complicated, especially in larger towns whose governors feared grain shortages. There central grain markets or barns were established, and a member of the baker’s household went there daily to collect that day’s supply of grain. The baker then produced several kinds of loaves, differentiated by weight and grain, and he sold them for set prices. To minimize the danger of fire from their large, hot ovens, bakeshops were concentrated in set locations within the city. Few urban residents could afford private baking ovens and did not have time to watch their fires all day. Because bread was so essential to the medieval urban diet, bakers worked long hours, and the regulations about when they could work were more relaxed than for other professions. For example, bakers were not allowed to bake on Sundays or major holy days, but they were allowed to open their shops for sales. Moreover, many medieval crafts were not allowed to work after dark or before dawn, but bakers could work at any time. Given the hundreds of loaves a medieval bakeshop was expected to produce in a day, it was common for a baker to have at least one assistant from outside the family. His wife and daughters managed the shop, while the baker focused on preparing the dough and watching the oven. Although the size of his household definitely placed the baker in the ranks of prosperous craftsmen, it was rare for a baker to ascend into the higher levels of urban society. For one reason, the baker’s craft was manual; he kneaded dough, formed loaves, and pulled them in and out of a hot oven throughout the day. In the process bakers might strip to their shirts and tunics, thereby losing the appearance appropriate to a prosperous burgher. Moreover, although a baker sold many loaves, his profit margin was not high. He might live comfortably, but he was unlikely to have the riches of a goldsmith, cloth dealer, or apothecary. Finally, by the nature of his profession, a baker was unlikely to deal with and, therefore, know the most influential members of urban society, burghers and bankers sent servants to buy their bread.

The Butcher. The butcher inspired mixed reactions in the urban community. In the medieval mind a butcher’s profession was necessary but smelly and coarse. Located near a water supply, a butcher’s yard contained livestock waiting to be slaughtered, carcasses in the process of being carved, and meat ready to be sold. Puddles of blood seeped into the dirt, offal was piled into baskets, and skins were set aside to be sold to tanners. The smells were strong, and the noise at times was overwhelming. Yet, a butcher’s goods were in demand, and their sale could be quite profitable.

Sometimes a butcher might accumulate enough wealth to be admitted to burgher status. This craft was often closely regulated, in part because butchers had ready access to long, sharp knives and cleavers and were believed to be ready to use them as weapons.


John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, eds., English Medieval Industries (London: Hambledon Press, 1991).

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

Barbara Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Callings, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

James Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150–1350 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

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