Western Reserve Public Media


In the Middle Ages, there was a definite structure in society. You were born into a class of people and generally stayed in that class for your entire life. Working hard did not change your status. Your clothing, food, marriage, homes, etc., were determined for you. After the rank of king, the hierarchy was the nobles, the knights, the clergy (religious people), the tradesmen and the peasants.

A trade or occupation generally refers to a job that requires some specific kind of skill. It often refers to people who produced goods or services that required specific skills. Generally people who were tradesmen lived in cities. They formed guilds, which were associations of craft people with a specific trade. Tradesmen generally had a higher level of education and had more privileges than people who worked in the fields.

Tradesmen often worked an apprenticeship, a system of training in which a master craftsman assists beginners in the learning of a trade. Most of the training is done on the job while working for an employer. Often some informal, theoretical education is also involved.

Tradesmen called merchants commonly traded items such as salt, iron and textiles. There were also rarer items, such as silk and spices, that came from trades in China and the Middle East. With time, craftsmen produced cloth, made shoes, became brewers (beer makers), made glass and shaped stones for buildings.

A family surname, or last name, is the part of a person’s name that indicates to what family a person belongs. In the Middle Ages, surnames often were derived from a person’s occupation. Examples include Miller, Smith, Cooper, Fletcher, Driver, Skinner, Tanner, Hunter, etc..

Trades That Are Still Practiced Today

  • Clerk

  • Constable (law enforcement)

  • Watchman

  • Weaver

  • Woodworker

Trades That No Longer Exist

  • Ewerer — heated water for the nobles

  • Fuller — shrank and strengthened clothes by hitting them on a rock

  • Gong farmer — emptied the latrines (toilets)

  • Cooper — made barrels

  • Fletcher — made arrows



Trades That Have the Same Name Today, but Different Meanings

Name Duty in Middle Ages Meaning Today
Bailiff Gives jobs to the peasants and repairs tools Assists in the courts
Barber Cuts hair, is a dentist and sometimes is a doctor Cuts hair
Blacksmith Shoes horses and makes weapons for the knights Shoes horses and forges iron for many uses
Spinster Spins the yarn or thread from sheared sheep An unmarried older woman
Miner Digs tunnels during sieges to undermine a castle Digs for ore




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