Merchants & Craftsmen of the Middle Ages

Anyone for the last few choc ices now?

Farming was a vital livelihood for peasants. We have talked about the very rich lords vs. the very poor serfdom, but have yet to mention a middle class. Is there such a thing as a middle class in the Middle Ages? Yes! They were the merchants and craftsmen. Not too rich and not too poor.

These two groups occupied the town. The merchants were the buyers and sellers of goods, while the craftsmen, yes you guessed it..made the goods. Here we will examine a little closer.


These were probably the more prosperous of the two. Some of the merchants would have lived in stone houses (oohh fancy!) but the majority lived in timber framed houses with plaster covering the timber. If another room was needed, it would have been built on top of the house so that the houses jutted out over the street.

If you have ever been to Amsterdam you will see something similar to this. While those houses were not built on top of each other for the laugh, it was more of a space saver idea for the city. Note in the picture also the pulley system at the top of the houses. This is due to the fact that these houses are quite narrow. The pulley allows furniture to be moved in/out of the house.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - 6 SEPT. 2013: Canal houses showing different types of facades, but all with pulleys for freight and painted in discerning colors. Many of the canal houses were built for the aristocracy more than 400 years ago and are now in use as houses, offices and shops. The canal district is a Unesco World Heritage site


The craftsmen had workshops on the ground floor of their building where they would also try to sell their goods. Since very few people in Medieval times could read, the craftsmen would use pictures on signs to illustrate what they were selling. I’m pretty sure they were more basic than this but this fish monger wins it for humor anyways!

shop sign


The barber sign is interesting also. Did you ever wonder why the barber has a red and white pole as a symbol? This dates back to the Egyptians and other early civilisations (3500 BC) Throughout history barbers have not only been tasked with grooming duties. Although many monks in the “Dark Ages” employed barbers to manage their tonsures, barbers have also been tasked with medical duties.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church believed that surgery violated the Holy Spirit’s temple (the human body). In line with this, several meetings of the church, including the Councils of Tours of 1163 and 1179 and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, decreed that priests and monks, who had a long history of medical and surgical scholarship, were forbidden from performing surgeries. Although priests continued to conduct research and serve as physicians for the wealthy, they relied on the barbers for surgical procedures and bloodlettings. This was because barbers also had access to sharp tools. The red and white pole symbolises the blood and bandages applied to a person from the barber. Neat huh!

Moving on…the living quarters of the craftsmen were usually found above their workshop. Chamberpots were used for toilets and the contents were thrown out the window with the warning shout “GARDEZ LOO!”.

 Have you also wondered where street names came from? Well a lot of them are named after famous people…such as the O’Connell Streets in Ireland are named after Daniel O’Connell. Other streets are name after amenities or important sites such as a church “Church Street”. You will however come across street names like Mutton Lane, Baker Street, Cobblers Row etc. This is because in towns, unlike today, they were structured in a way that all tailors/barbers or butchers were located in the one area. That’s where the names come from. So if you live on Baker street or something similar, chances are, at one time, that street would have been full of bakers.

baker st


Yes that’s right…bed time! In the Middle Ages, fire was such a big threat to towns that curfews had to be imposed. Think about it. Pretty much all houses in a town were made from timber. There is no electricity so open candles were burned while open fireplaces were common to keep the people warm. Houses are also built up on top of one another and their roofs made of thatched straw. As Tommy Tiernan once said:

It is like a Pub made of Christmas trees and petrol built in between a fireworks factory and a remand prison for young pyromaniacs! A fire is going to break out!

The word curfew actually means ‘Cover the Fire’ and curfew was imposed at night. Leather fire buckets and big hooks used for taking thatch off roofs were often found hung outside the door of houses. A man was also employed to walk the streets at night to make sure all lights were out and to announce on the hour that everything was fine. I know if I was trying to catch some sleep that man wouldn’t be shouting for much longer!


Funny enough, you would think that in the Middle Ages with technology the way it was that these people would have made pretty crappy goods. But on the contrary! The merchants and all the crafts or trades had a Guild of their own. A guild was an organisation that regulated the business of the craft. They controlled the standard of the goods being sold and also chose who could be a craftsman and who could not. It seems a little “Mafioso” in a way..they chose where your shop would be and at what price you could sell your goods. On the other hand, the Guild took care of it’s members when they fell on hard times, such as if they were sick or too old to work.

So there you go..the ‘Middle class’ we will call them existed in the Middle Ages as Merchants and craftsmen. Hopefully they were as hardworking as these workaholics! For more on the Middle Ages and other topics…keep it here!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s