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The 5 Most Common Jobs in a Medieval City

By Lucie Laumonier

What were the most common jobs in a late medieval city? In this piece, we’ll look at the case of fifteenth-century Montpellier, a city located in the South of France.

Established in the late tenth century, Montpellier had become, three hundred years later, one of the main urban centres of Southern France. Before the Black Death, more than 30,000 called the city home. Montpellier was famous for its university that taught medicine and the trade goods that came with access to the Mediterranean, a dozen kilometres away. Detailed information on its population comes from a series of tax records spanning c. 1380-1480 that yield the names of nearly 10,000 householders, and the occupation of approximately 6,500 of them. So, who were the most numerous urban workers?

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To answer this question, I’ve looked at tax records dated 1435-1446 in which a little under 2,200 households are listed. The profession of the head-householder is known in two-thirds of the cases. A handful of women who helmed their own household also declared a profession to the city’s authorities. Dozens and dozens of occupations existed at once in the city, a result of the great fragmentation of chains of production in the Middle Ages. The five most common jobs were farming, carpentry, butchery, shoemaking and Church-related work.

A view of Montpellier from 1572, part of Civitates Orbis Terrarum by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg

1 – Farming

Peasants made up 25% of the workers whose occupation was known in 1435-1446, and 16.5% of all the taxpayers. In Toulouse and Avignon, in the fifteenth century, peasants made up 17% of the testators with a known occupation. Unsurprisingly, peasants were more numerous in the suburbs than in the walled city. Most of the fields were located outside of the city’s walls, even if medieval urban centres did count a large number of gardens, orchards and small vegetable beds. Urban peasants, called “ploughmen” in the Montpellier fiscal sources tilled, sowed and harvested the fields. Others raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Some laboured in their orchards and vegetable beds.

Although numerous, the Montpellier agriculturalists could not produce enough food to supply the entire city. Rather, grain, meat and other foodstuff had to be imported from the city’s backcountry and overseas commercial partners. Imports of grain were essential to sustain urban populations. At times of food shortages, such as during the great famine of the early fourteenth century, the death toll in urban centres was staggering. In Montpellier, the chronicle asserts that people resorted to eating grass to survive.

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If you want to learn more about urban peasants, check out my article on urban agriculture!

2 – Carpentry

Called “fustiers” in the local vernacular, the carpenters formed an ill-defined professional group. “Carpenters” could build houses, make furniture, or chop and sell firewood. The “fustiers” only made up 6% of the taxpayers whose occupation was known in 1435-46 (81 individuals, including a woman). But the art of “fusterie” was essential to medieval communities. The workers built housing and furniture and provided heat to all households. Carpenters were frequently hired by the city’s government to undertake construction work on public buildings.

Carpenters in a 14th-century copy of Tacuina sanitatis

In Montpellier, the carpenters tended to live close to the city’s ditches. The reason is that trees imported from the nearby woods were stored and drenched in the ditches before their processing. Cutting down the timber into workable pieces was undertaken by specialized workers, called “ressaires” in the local vernacular, a term that could be translated as “pitsawyers”. Few “ressaires” appear in fiscal documents, suggesting that the carpenters could have done the job themselves, or that pitsawyers identified themselves as carpenters.

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3 – Butchery

Medieval people who were Christians refrained from eating meat during Lent and fast days (in total nearly 150 days a year). But still, they ate large quantities of meat the rest of the year. In the South of France, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, people ate on average 26 kilograms of meat per year or a ration of 120 grams on the days they were allowed to. In modern France, people eat on average 160 grams of meat daily–not far from the medieval rates.

The Montpellier butchers made up 4% of the 1435-46 taxpayers whose occupation was known. During that period of time, some sixty butchers laboured at once in the city, for a population of fewer than 20,000 people–one butcher for 300 inhabitants, approximately. In Toulouse, in the early fourteenth century, the ratio was one butcher for 225 people.

A medieval manuscript image of a man and a woman slaughtering a pig

Butchers usually specialized in one specific type of animal: pork, mutton, or beef. Among the Montpellier butchers whose specialization is known, 55% sold mutton meat; 35% sold beef; and 10% sold pork. The animals’ offals were processed by workers known as “tripiers” who would prepare and cook the offals to make, for instance, pies or sausage. Poultry was sold by a different type of workers, called “poulterers.” Few appeared in local documents, suggesting that most people kept chickens in their backyards for eggs and white meat.

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4 – Shoemaking

The Montpellier cobblers, who made and repaired shoes, were quite numerous, making up 4% of the workers paying taxes in 1435-46. They were organized in different guilds, based on the street in which they kept their shops. In 1360, nine cobblers’ guilds were attested in documents, all situated within the city’s walls. After the devastation caused by the Black Death and the subsequent plague epidemics, the number of cobblers’ guilds declined. In 1444, only five shoemakers’ guilds appeared in the Montpellier sources. Cobblers worked with leather, which was processed in the northern neighbourhoods of the city. Tannery was a highly polluting industry.

Detail of Shoemakers from the Altarpiece of St. Mark by Arnau Bassa — Image by Ramon Manent/ Wikimedia Commons

Shoemaking could be an even bigger employer in other medieval towns. In the Catalonian town of Manresa, near Barcelona, cobblers were the most numerous workers mentioned in fiscal records. They made up 15% of the local workforce, coming first before the local farmers. It is not surprising to know that Manresa was a centre for shoe production in Catalonia.

5 – Church Work

The category “cleric” encompasses deacons, chaplains and priests, monks and nuns, priors and prioresses, and even the local bishop, who possessed some estates in the city. Clerics made up a little under 4% of the taxpayers with a known profession. In England, the Poll Tax records of 1377 showed that 2% of the households were clerical. But demographer Josiah Russell and historian Michael Postan have postulated that the clerical population was probably twice as large, matching our estimates for Montpellier.

Choir, from Book of Hours, Paris 1450 – c. 14 British Library MS Harley 2971 f. 109v

In the Mediterranean city, the clerical population was probably even larger than what fiscal sources suggest. But many clerics were exempted from personal taxation and did not appear in fiscal documents. For instance, Montpellier was the home of dozens and dozens of students who had travelled across France and Europe to attend its famous university to learn medicine or law. Students enrolled in medieval universities were considered clerics. But fiscal documents seldom recorded liberal arts, medicine and law students. If they had been inscribed in tax records, no doubt that the estimate of the Montpellier clerical population would have been higher.

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More medieval jobs

Here are the sixth to tenth most common jobs in late medieval Montpellier, according to the 1435-46 tax records:

6 – Tailors
7 – Notaries
8 – Barbers
9 – Retailers
10 – Stonemasons

This article has looked at the most common jobs based on the sheer number of occurrences of occupational titles. But, due to the great fragmentation of chains of production in the Middle Ages, the distribution of occupational titles does not reflect the size or importance of a given industry. For instance, none of the top-five jobs includes workers of the textile industry, although textile production represented a major source of income for the people of Montpellier. Weavers, shearers, dyers, drapers, even tailors, cotton makers, embroiderers and needle makers were all part of the industry. In terms of industry size, food production and retail, textile work, construction work and international trade were the main employment sectors of the late medieval city.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

Further Reading:

Jeff Fynn-Paul, Family, Work, and Household in Late Medieval Iberia: A Social History of Manresa at the Time of the Black Death (Routledge, 2017)

Valerie Garver (ed.), A Cultural History of Work in the Medieval Age, (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Kathryn Reyerson, Women’s Networks in Medieval France. Gender and Community in Montpellier, 1300-1350 (Palgrave, 2016)

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