Want to know what kind of jobs there were in the Middle Ages? A unique source from the 15th century gives us some beautiful images of medieval people at work.
Known as the House Books of the Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation, these were records of a charitable foundation started in the German city of Nuremberg in 1388. The foundation would assist poor and needy people by providing them with training to work in a trade.
Starting around 1425 their books would contain one-page illustrations of the people they had helped, usually giving their names and a short description of when they lived and what they were doing. Here are forty examples of medieval jobs from the 15th and early 16th centuries.
Hans Lengenfelder is cutting meat on a thick table, while other products, including sausages, are for sale. Butchers would be needed to prepare meat for many customers, but their profession was one that created a lot of smell and waste, leading towns to regulate where they could practice this trade.
Zenner is placing bread to be baked in an oven. Bakers were often heavily regulated in the Middle Ages, with authorities making sure their products could even be bought by the poorest people. Click here to learn more about bread in the Middle Ages.
Konrad is using a pickaxe and other tools to work over the stone blocks. Stonemasons would prepare the materials for construction, whether it be houses, walls or churches.
Hans is working on a loom. The making of clothing required several professions during the Middle Ages, such as the weaving of thread into cloth.
Hans is using a sickle to cut the grapes from the vine. This specialized type of farming was needed to produce wine.
Fritz Richtel is pulling up a net with three fish, while two more traps hang from a pole. Fishermen in the Middle Ages often used traps and nets that were placed in rivers or lakes, while others used boats to sail out into the ocean. See also: Sustainable and Innovative: The Medieval Art of Fishing
Reinhold is using a two-handed plough in his fields. Most medieval people would be employed on farms. They could also do farming in cities – see Were medieval cities greener? Urban agriculture in the Middle Ages
8. Trumpet Player
Peter is standing in a bell tower and blows the hourly chime. Employed by city officials, trumpet players would be used to help deliver messages and signal the time.
9. Shoemaker / Cobbler
Peter Velner sits in his workshop, working on a shoe with a curved knife. Other leather shoes are on display. Sometimes also known as cordwainers, they would make much-needed footwear for people.
Thomas Wagner is using a hatchet to work a spoked wheel lying on a wooden frame. Wagons and carts would often see their wheels get damaged and need replacing.
Fritz is standing on a ladder and placing tiles on the roof with the use of a bucket of mortar and a trowel. This would be one of the trades involved in building a house or other structure.
Albrecht is sitting by his iron anvil with a hammer and a padlock. Doors and chests would often be protected by locks in the Middle Ages.
Peter is stepping into a tub to work on an animal’s skin. The process of turning an animal hide into leather involved having the skin dehaired, degreased, desalted and soaked in water. It was an occupation that would be regulated by towns because of the smell and waste it created.
14. Tax Collector
This unnamed man is at a gatehouse and taking payment from a merchant. Governments needed to collect money and employed people to do so. As one might expect, this profession was not looked upon kindly by the people who had to pay taxes.
15. Belt maker
Herman Paumgartdener is using a hacksaw and anvil to punch holes in the belts. This was another type of specialized clothing maker.
16. Grocer / Merchant
Berthold Uslaunb is selling spices from a table he set up on a barrel. He holds a pair of scales in his hands to weigh the product. In the Middle Ages, merchants often focused on selling a particular range of products, like spices, foods, or second-hand goods.
Hans Pernecker is polishing various pieces of armour, while other tools of his trade are spread around his workshop. This profession would need to have specialized knowledge to make the equipment used by knights and soldiers.
Rudolf Meier has finished the framework for a house. You can see some of his tools. Carpenters would work with wood to create a range of items, from the small to the large.
Wilhelm is standing in a kitchen, cooking food on a fire. There are spoons and jars around him, and a pot hanging from the ceiling. Cooks could find employment with wealthier households.
Fritz Hufschmied is hammering a red-hot horseshoe on the anvil. Blacksmiths would commonly be found in smaller villages, where they made nails, horseshoes, and other everyday metal goods. See also: Medieval Blacksmiths: More than just a weapons’ maker
Cuntzlin has four keys, wear wooden shoes known as clogs, and sweeps the floor with a broom. Servants could often be found in wealthy and even middle-class households, with young people often getting the work in exchange for room and board. To learn more, please see Who worked as servants in the Middle Ages?
Hans Verber works over a long blue cloth with his instruments to rough up the garment. Another part of the clothing-making process, the dyer would be responsible for adding colour to the textiles.
Staffelstein the Goldsmith is using a hammer to work a conical cup on the anvil. Goldsmiths would create higher-end products like jewellery, usually for the wealthy.
Ulrich Goczseygert with his selection of hats. Like today, in the Middle Ages one could find a wide range of headwear.
Ulrich the Tailor works at a table, cutting a piece of green fabric with a pair of scissors. The tailor would be the final stage in preparing clothing for people, often creating outfits that were customized for the buyer. See also: Working in the Middle Ages: The Medieval Clothier
Konrad Kelner rides a bridled white horse with a lance on his shoulder, an iron helmet and spurred boots. It was not difficult for men to find employment serving in an army, and many made their careers as mercenaries.
Konrad Eschenloer is using a hammer and anvil to make a bottle. Four finished bottles hang above the rail in the display window, on the shelf below there is a jug with a handle, a bottle without a holder and another jug with a curved bottom. One can also see large sheets of sheet metal. Tinsmiths differed from blacksmiths in that they worked with tin or other light metals that did not need to be heated to be worked on.
29. Carter / Coachman
Hans Preunlein has his two horses pulling a single-axle cart, which is carrying a large block of stone. There was always a need in the Middle Ages for people to transport goods or people from place to place.
Andreas Sporer is creating a spur while several others are on display. This would be a very specialized profession, creating spurs that people would use while riding horses.
Paul is wearing camouflage and wields a long clamp trap to catch birds. Hunting wild animals for food would be another common practice in the medieval world.
Ulrich Holtzhacker is using an axe to break apart wood, while a neat pile can be seen in the background. Since there would be many uses for wood in medieval communities, it would be common to employ people in cutting down trees and preparing the logs for trade.
Nicholas Kerner is sitting on a stool with a palette in his hand and is painting a picture of Mary with the Baby Jesus. While one might think that paintings were made just for upper-class people, there were also painters who could produce affordable pieces of work.
34. Tavern keeper
Nussel Weinschenck fills a jug with wine from a cask. The hanging sign above the cask might be there to indicate the origins of the wine. Every medieval town or city would have inns and taverns to accommodate visitors or be a place for local people to find food and entertainment.
Genskrag stands in the doorway of a church, pulling the rope attached to the bell. Each church would need several people to maintain and run the building, including the sacristan.
Ulrich Schwab sits behind his workbench, working with an awl on a collar to be used on a draft animal. Some of his other products can also be seen. A sadler would prepare items to be worn by horses and oxen as they worked in the fields or were ridden by people.
Kuncz Stirener is dressed in a cloak and hat, and carries a lance on his shoulder and a small shield bearing the coat of arms for Nuremberg. The sending of information, whether it be between government or city officials, merchants, or churchmen, helped to employ many people who would travel and deliver messages. See also: Messengers in Later Medieval England
Otto Schnüer Macher operates the two wheels with the hooks, where he can twist individual threads into a cord. A finished ball of yarn hangs in the display window. The making of rope was another specialized craft, creating something that people needed at least occasionally.
Hans Pfaffenhofer uses pliers to pull a nail out of the horse’s hoof. A farrier would be someone who took care of horses’ hooves, in particular the putting on of horseshoes for the animals.
Erhard Melreder is sifting flour while bags of flour are ready for use. To turn grain into flour for baking, one would need a miller’s assistance. A water or windmill could make this process easier, but a miller could also do this work by hand.
The Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation continued this practice into the nineteenth century, giving us almost 1,200 illustrations of people in their various crafts and jobs. You can see the entire manuscript at this German website or on Wikimedia Commons.
See also: 10 Medieval Jobs That No Longer Exist