Most of us will have heard this old nursery-rhyme:
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The candlestick maker!
And they all set out to sea…
For centuries, most people did not live in cities. Mostly because it wasn’t practical and wasn’t safe. Crime, disease, overcrowding, the absence of sanitation and low employment made cities generally undesirable places to live. And the majority of people lived in the country, either on farms, in castles, or in villages or towns nearby. And for centuries, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, right up to the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s, life carried on like this, virtually unchanged for over a thousand years.
But no matter whether you lived within stone’s throw of a castle, in a country town somewhere, or in one of the few cities of any significant size, no civilised settlement at all was possible without certain tradesmen, craftsmen and professionals setting up shop first.
In this posting, we’ll have a look at some of the staple occupations in society which were necessary, for hundreds of years, for any community to flourish, grow, or even to just survive!
What’s the most important craftsman of all? The baker for the bread? The butcher for meat? The carpenter? Stonemason? The chandler? Farrier? Farmer? Miller?
None of the above.
Not for nothing is the Blacksmith known as the King of Craftsmen.
For centuries, until the 1800s, civilised life was impossible without the aid of one man. The blacksmith. On his broad, muscular shoulders rested the trades and crafts and services of all others. A lumberjack could fell, split and carve no trees without an axe and saw. A farmer grew no vegetables without a fork and shovel. The carpenter sawed no wood, screwed no screws, and couldn’t nail two planks together without the blacksmith. The blacksmith made the nails!
Ever since antiquity, the blacksmith, or the ‘village smithy’ was the hub of any community. He made everything from gates, to candlesticks, nails, screws, chains, axeheads, swords, saws, hammers, chisels and horseshoes.
The blacksmith’s home was his FORGE. A forge is not only the building where he works, but specifically, the enormous firebox which is the heart of his world. Fueled by charcoal and powered by bellows, a blacksmith could not do a thing without his forge.
The forge was required to heat metal (usually iron) until it was hot and soft enough to be worked by the smith. Red hot iron was not good enough for anything. For it to be malleable enough, it was usually heated until yellow hot. White hot metal was usually too soft and sparkly to be of any use when working.
The Anvil and Vice
Every good blacksmith needed an anvil. Originally made of stone, most later anvils, of the kind used by Wil-E-Coyote for everything apart from smithing, were made of iron.
An Annotated Anvil
The picture above is of a typical blacksmith’s anvil. The horn and shoulder were used for bending, curving and curling metal. The step or table was also used for bending metal. The face was a general-purpose working-area, used as an impact-surface for hammer-blows.
On the face are the Hardie Hole and the Pritchel Hole. These two holes are used for slotting in various smithing-tools, such as wedges or splitters, over which the hot piece of iron was hammered and split, broken, cut or otherwise modified during its transformation. The heel, just like all other sharp edges on the anvil (the step and the edges of the face) was used to bend and shape the hot metal.
The Anvil and Vice
Accompanying the anvil was its little brother, the lesser-known blacksmith’s tool called a vice. The vice is like any other vice that you might have bolted to your workbench at home. The only difference here is that it’s designed to put up with extremely high temperatures!
The vice was used to hold a piece of metal in a particular position while it was being worked on or modified in some way. The vice was most commonly used in the process of twisting.
The elaborate twisting patterning on this fireplace poker would’ve been achieved by heating the iron yellow-hot, before clamping it in the vice and twisting it around with a pair of tongs to achieve the spiral effect.
The Hammer and Tongs
Every blacksmith needed these two basic tools. The hammer, for pounding out the metal and shaping it, and the tongs, for holding the metal and twisting and bending it. Because smithing is seen as such hard, heavy, dangerous work, done with speed and brute-force, we still have an expression that survives today – going at something “hammer and tongs“.
Seven Skills of Superior Smithing
The Blacksmith was the keystone and hub of the community for centuries. Without him, nothing could happen. He held the entire place together, and every other profession, craft and trade relied on his ability to work his magic on metal for them to do their jobs.
But to be a good blacksmith required a lot of skills. Seven in total. All major projects undertaken by a blacksmith generally involved some or all of these skills.
Skill No. 1. Splitting
The ability to punch and split a hole through bar-stock and pull it apart. You couldn’t get pitchforks without the ability to do this effectively.
Skill No. 2. Punching
Every good blacksmith had to be able to work a punch. That is, to take a punch (block) and drive it through hot metal with his hammer, to create a hole in the metal. This is how the holes in axeheads were made for the shafts, and how sword-hilts were punched open, to slide onto the ends of sword-blades.
Skill No. 3. Curling
No. Not that Canadian thing. Curling is the ability to bend and curl metal into a spiral. This doesn’t serve any practical purpose as such, and is mostly decorative.
Skill No. 4. Jumping Up/Upsetting
The ability to compact one end of bar-stock to make it thicker and denser than the other end. Nail-heads and screw-heads were made this way.
Skill No. 5. Drawing Out/Tapering
Drawing something out involved flattening it and thinning out one end of an item, to literally draw it out and make it longer and thinner. Nails were made this way for centuries.
So far, all these skills can be seen in one common, everyday tool which most men are likely to have lying in their garden sheds.
One end must be jumped up, then punched and split. Then curled over. The other end must be flattened and drawn out. And both ends must be bent and twisted to give the bar its distinctive crook-shape.
The other two skills are…
Skill No. 6. Twisting
Curling and twisting are more decorative than practical, but they’re still considered essential smithing skills. This is achieved by clamping iron bar-stock or rods (heated to a malleable temperature) in a vice and twisting them around to create the spiral shape. To open up the spirals into the cage-like appearance of the candlesticks above, the top of the twist is beaten down with a hammer, to force the spiral to break and spread apart. The whole item is then left to cool to hold the shape.
While the candlesticks above do look very pretty, there is one serious side to the smithing skill of twisting iron…where do you think all those pretty spirals in your screws used to come from?
Skill No. 7. Fire-Welding/Forge Welding
Blacksmith chain. Every link has been fire-welded shut,
to prevent breakage under heavy strain
Prior to electrical welding and blowtorches, the only way to weld anything at all was to send it to the blacksmith. And welding was a fiddly, tricky and extremely dangerous undertaking.
Welding is literally melting two pieces of metal and fusing them together by heat. Prior to the introduction of modern blowtorches and electrical welders which were capable of extremely accurate, high-temperature precision welding, the only way to do this was to fire-weld or forge-weld something together.
Let’s say you broke your sword. Or the tine on your gardening-fork snapped off. To weld it back on, the broken element, and the main body, had to be heated at the break-points, until they were literally white-hot. Once this phenomenal temperature had been achieved, the broken piece was attached back to the main body. The blacksmith then bashed away at the join with his hammer, melding the metal back together. The extremely high temperatures melted the iron, causing it to run together. Once the temperature dropped, the entire piece would be one whole item again.
Meat was rarely eaten by most people in medieval times. But nevertheless, the village butcher was an important man to have around. But the butcher of old was expected to know a lot more than how much to charge per-pound for sausages. He was expected to know how to make the sausages, how to get the meat, how to clean it, preserve it, sell it and store it!
Meat and the Butcher
A butcher typically handled three types of meat, which would come from cows, sheep, or pigs. From this, you would get…
Pork, bacon, and ham, from a pig.
Various cuts of steak and veal from a cow.
And lamb or mutton from a sheep.
Veal and mutton are not the same as beef and lamb. Veal is taken from young cows, beef from older cows. Mutton is taken from older sheep, lamb from younger sheep. You might be familiar with the expression: “To sell mutton dressed as lamb“, meaning to pass off an inferior product (mutton) as lamb (which was considered a much more expensive product).
Meat and Class
In older times, social status determined not only IF you ate meat (which was rare for the poor), but also WHAT type of eat you ate, if you could get it.
Not only could the wealthy eat meat more often, but they could also get the better cuts of meat. And they could also eat such prized meats as lamb, veal and venison, which were generally out-of-reach of lower classes.
Lamb is the meat of…lambs. Baby sheep. Since sheep were FAR more important as producers of WOOL, to kill a lamb for its meat was considered extremely wasteful, when it could live for years and give you tons of wool. Only someone who could sufficiently compensate the farmer for the loss of his lamb (i.e., someone rich) could afford to eat lamb. Most people ate mutton, which was from the meat of much older sheep, which had been producers of wool (the backbone of the British economy for much of the Middle Ages) for several years.
Similarly, veal was the meat of young cows. Since cows were far more important as producers of milk, killing a cow before it could produce milk was considered extravagant and wasteful. And only someone who had enough money to recompense the farmer for his extremely expensive loss, would be able to eat it.
Butchering an Animal
These days, most butchers just sell meat. But in older times, a butcher had to be able to do all kinds of things with meat, and had to be familiar with the entire butchering process. Let’s use a pig as an example.
Once a pig had been sent to the Great Pigsty in the Sky…the one with the solid gold slops-trough and diamond-encrusted hog-oiler…the butcher had to get to work.
A pig is a good example because virtually every part of a pig can be eaten, apart from its squeal. Here’s how it’s done…
First, the hog is sliced open. And all the innards are removed. This stuff is typically called “pluck”, because it’s literally the first part of the animal which is “plucked” from the body. Don’t throw that away. It’s good eatin’. You’re gonna find out just how good, later on.
Next, pork comes off. Pork comes from the belly of the pig, nice and close to the ground. The fatty, juicy meat that tastes so damn good when you roast it.
Further up on the sides and on top of the pig is…bacon! Good for breakfast, and good for EpicMealTime (baconstips’n’baconstrips’n’baconstrips…)
Then, you have the hams! Made up of the hindquarters of the pig, specifically its butt and its gigantic thunder-thighs…otherwise called legs of ham!
Everything on a pig can be eaten. Even the head. Even the ears!
Ever heard of the expression “Brains and Brawn“?
“Brains” are…Pig’s brains.
“Brawn” is the meat which is boiled off of a pig’s head. Mmmm.
Now back to them innards. Delicious, warm innards. Here, the intestines are flushed out with hot water and gotten nice and clean. What for?
Well, among other things – sausages.
And, until the invention of rubber – Condoms!
Remember folks. Prevention is the best cure. Next time you pick up that roast for dinner, ask your butcher for a pack of organic, all-natural pig-gut condoms!
Treating the Meat
The animal has been dispatched, disemboweled, and dissected. Now what?
Unless a butcher had a huge family, or was throwin’ a block-party, it was unlikely that an entire pig was eaten before it went bad (after roughly a week or so).
To ensure a pig was good for eatin’ for a long, long time…it had to be preserved or treated. There were a number of ways to do this.
If the weather was right, you could pack the carcass with ice and freeze it. Freezing kills microbes and preserves the meat.
If the weather wasn’t right, but you had a lot of money, you could salt your pork, and bacon, and ham, by coating it in huge amounts of salt, or soaking it in brine (salt-water solution). But you needed a lot of money to do this – salt was expensive. Even today, we still have the word ‘salary‘. Salting dries out the meat, which prevents rotting. Ever wondered why bacon is so damn salty?
You don’t have money? Perhaps you can smoke the meat? Stick it on a hook and hoist it up the nearest chimney (usually in the kitchen fireplace). The smoke from the wood burning far below would coat and cure the meat and give it a nice, smoky flavour. It also dries it out, which prevents rotting.
Can’t kindle a flame? You could try candying. Candying is a bit like pickling. But instead of drenching the food in vinegar, you smother it in…HONEY! Honey is a natural preservative, and it lasts literally for centuries…provided that it’s not contaminated. Archaeologists have dug up jars of Egyptian honey which are thousands of years old…and still good for eating!
Caution: Honey is also a natural laxative. After eating that candied ham sandwich, you better have a toilet nearby.
What about the Rest?
When food was so scarce and hard to preserve, literally no part of the animal went to waste. The butcher would’ve saved the hog’s hairs to make brushes (the first toothbrushes were made of pig-hair). He would’ve fried the ears and eaten them for dinner. Even the pig’s FEET were good for something! Boiled over, and over, and over again, strained, refined and reduced, they produced gelatin. Flavour it with fruit-juice, and you got…jelly!
Anything else that was left over was ground up, chopped up, minced, and forced through the intestines, twisted up, boiled…and sold as sausages!…or condoms.
Soon, the only thing left were the bones. And you might even use those for something if you wanted to be really thrifty. How about soup?
The Role of the Butcher
As you can see, the butcher was an important fellow. Every village had to have one. Or, a farmer had to learn how to do his own butchering. And as you can see, there was a lot to learn! Butchers didn’t just work on pigs. They worked on cows, chickens, and sheep as well. Geese, ducks, swans even! And for the extremely wealthy – deer. Only the king, and those who had earned his majesty’s good favours, were permitted to hunt and eat deer. Anyone else was charged with poaching – and faced the death penalty. And for centuries, a person’s ability to eat deer was considered a GREAT privilege.
Who wants venison?
Throughout the western world for centuries, bread was THE staple food. Made of oats, rice, barley or wheat, when you could get it, you’d eat up to five pounds (about 9.75kg) of the stuff every day. But then, you spent that day spliting wood, furrowing fields, planting seeds, felling trees, herding sheep, milking cows, smashing away in your forge, weaving, grinding, sewing, dipping…you certainly needed the calories!
The baker was the fellow who made the bread, in his bakery.
Bakers were important staples of village life for centuries. In the days before imported food from around the country, which didn’t happen until the 1800s, everything you ate was made locally. Including the bread.
Bakers had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves. Flour was purchased from the village miller. And flour was expensive. So the baker did absolutely EVERYTHING to get the most out of his expensive flour that he could.
Bread dough was stretched (adulterated) with everything from the horrific (building-plaster!), to the mundane (sawdust), to the everyday (rice-grains).
To make bread rise, brewers yeast was used. Or if yeast was not available…apple-trees. Apples have natural yeast in them. Sticking a rising loaf of bread under a tree meant that the yeast in the apple-skins seeped into the dough, causing it to rise.
Bread wasn’t just made from wheat-flour. Wheat, especially in the Middle Ages, was expensive! It was usually taken by the lord, or the king, as part of his taxes. So most bread was made of barley, rye, oats or rice.
But even here, the baker tried to squeeze every last penny out of every loaf.
To ensure that nobody could accuse him of being dishonest (yeah, right…), the baker always baked thirteen loaves of bread (the ‘baker’s dozen’). That way, nobody could accuse him of cheating them, or shortchanging them. Which is probably just as well, because his conniving ways didn’t stop there.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it, and prick it, and mark it with a B,
And put it in the oven for Baby and Me!
For centuries, you couldn’t bake at home. Most people had fireplaces at home. But not ovens. If you wanted to bake bread, you took it to the village baker, who baked it for you, and marked it with your initials, as in the rhyme, so that you would be assured of getting your loaf or cake, or pie, returned to you.
But how do you bake without temperature-control?
First, the oven (which is a huge, brick cave), is filled with wood and set on fire. The oven is allowed to get really hot, and the fire must fill the entire oven. Then, once the fire is burned down, the ashes are raked out, the pies and loaves are stuffed in, and a door, soaked in water (so that it swells and creates a seal, and so that it doesn’t burst into flames) is stuffed over the entrance of the oven. Spare bread-dough is used to further seal the entrance and prevent the escape of heat.
A medieval-style oven heating up, with the door open
The bread is now left to bake. It’s done when the dough on the door is also baked. There’s no temperature control, but at least you have a timer, of sorts!
Once the bread is ready, it’s removed from the oven.
But ovens aren’t very clean. A baker wasn’t going to spend all day sweeping the ashes out of his oven, before he shoved in the dough. By the time he did that, he’d lose all the heat, and the bread wouldn’t bake properly.
As a result, fresh bread always had a slightly burnt, black, crusty underside, from where it contacted the bottom of the oven.
The loaves were cut horizontally. The cheaper, burnt undercrusts were sold to the poor and the peasantry who considered themselves lucky to have them. The upper crusts were given to the the lord and his friends up at the manor house.
Another way that the baker made the most out of his flour.
To make up for his bad reputation, it probably helped that the baker had a good sense of humor. Or perhaps, it was better for his customers to have a good sense of humor. Because the baker liked to play practical jokes on people. Like filling trick-pies full of live animals and having them explode out of the crust, and fly and run and scamper all over the dinner-table!…like four and twenty blackbirds…
The Candlestick Maker
While it was the blacksmith who made the candleholders, it was up to the village chandler to make the actual candlesticks, an essential component of life for hundreds of years.
Candles were typically made in one of two ways: Dip-candling, and mold-candling.
The typical, long, slender candlesticks which we all know and love are made by the chandler using one of three different materials:
Paraffin wax or beeswax produces the best candles. Clean-burning and bright. Tallow is a cheap, fatty byproduct, used to make cheap, fatty candles. They don’t burn very well and they smoke like an opium-addict. Remember how the butcher had to get the most out of every animal he slaughtered? Any leftover fat (tallow), would’ve been sold to the village chandler.
Candlesticks are made out of cotton or woolen wicks constantly dipped in and out of pools of wax or tallow, and left to dry momentarily after every dipping. Usually, whole racks of wicks were dipped at once – an early form of mass-production. Once the candles had achieved an optimum thickness, the wicks were trimmed and the candles were put on sale.
Fatter, thicker pillar-candles were made by sticking the wicks into molds, and pouring molten wax into the molds and letting the wax cool and harden. Then, the mold was opened and the finished candle was removed.
Ever burnt yourself with molten wax? It hurts. A lot.
Being a chandler could be a hazardous business.
Nevertheless, the village candle-maker was an extremely important person. Although he also had to be experienced – wax was expensive and could not be wasted. But fortunately, wax is also infinitely recyclable.
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, blacksmith…all jobs done by men.
Perhaps surprisingly, brewing beer was one of the few jobs carried out solely (or at least, chiefly) by women!
Remember how I said that most people lived in small communities and avoided big cities?
One of the reasons for this was because there was nothing to drink! Water was often far too polluted to even bathe in, let alone drink! So instead of drinking water, most people drank ale, or beer. And the lady who made this beverage was the brewster.
Believe it or not, beer is responsible for large gatherings of people. And not just for drunken school and university parties. But beer was often the only beverage that was safe to drink, for centuries! The “legal drinking age” was whenever your kids stopped sucking on breastmilk! Yep – even kids drank beer. There was even a low-alcohol beer made specifically for them!
The brewster was responsible for making ale and beer for her menfolk and kiddies. Brewsters could often make a tidy little business out of this. While hubby worked at the smithy, or the butchery, or felled trees, she supplemented the household income by supplying the village pub with its staple beverage! And because brewing doesn’t require any serious exertion of force, unlike a blacksmith, butcher or baker, it was ideal for older women! Yep – in the old days, social security for widows meant brewing beer!
The main ingredients of any beer are water, malted barley, yeast and hops, all things which were readily available to people living in small villages surrounded by farms.
But why drink beer?
Well, one of the key components in making beer is boiling water. Water has to be heated before it can be used to make beer. Unknown for centuries, heating water kills off bacteria – that’s why beer was safe to drink! And why straight water, often unboiled, was unsafe to drink.
Although this connection between boiling water and killing bacteria was not made until the 1800s, people back then knew that there was something about the brewing process that meant that it was a damn sight safer to drink beer than water!
Or, if you wanted to be real safe – drink wine, which has no water in it at all.
The village miller, cooped up in his windmill, or watermill, was the chap in town who ground your wheat, oats, barley, dried corn, rye or other grain into flour.
And he was loathed as much as he was loved.
At best, people would tolerate a miller. At worst, he was a social outcast.
The reason for this was because the miller controlled the village mill. And the mill was the only place for miles around where grains could be ground to flour. And if you didn’t like the rates that the miller charged per-sack for grinding up your wheat – Tough!
Try and find someone else! We dare you!
Ah. You couldn’t, huh? You come crawling back, huh?
That’s why nobody liked the miller.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case, but in the days of feudalism, when the only mill in a given community was owned by the Lord of the Castle, millers were certainly not going to win any popularity contests held on the village square anytime soon. On top of everything else, he was allowed to keep a percentage of any quantity of grain that he milled!
The miller was also one of the wealthier men around town, for rather obvious reasons. And he had the house with the riverside views. And fresh water.
As much as people tended to have love-hate relationships with their local miller, if he was a decent sort of person, for a reasonable fee, he would take a load off your back, and speed up one of your most boring, mind-numbing, backbreaking chores – the “daily grind” – which was literally where the term originated from – the boring, monotonous grinding of quern-stones (milling-stones) to crush wheat into flour.