10 Horrible Jobs in History

10 Horrible Jobs in History

Sometimes curiosity gets the better of us, whether it be a deep dive into history, media or geography. And, sometimes, those deep dives come up with something pretty disgusting. Dating back all the way to the Middle Ages, these are some of the worst jobs in history. So, let’s take a look at exactly why these jobs are horrible. As well as some of the consequences workers had to endure.

Leather Tanner

Many of us own or has owned something leather right? Right? Thanks to the leather tanners, we have the leather that we know and use today. Back in medieval times, leather tanning was the process of taking animal hides and turning them into leather. This is because the protein in the hides is altered permanently which supports in them not decomposing. This process also creates long-lasting leather that’s both strong and flexible and can be used in a variety of ways.

Courtesy of Granger, NYC

Dating back to prehistoric times and Ancient Egypt the leather tanning process has been refined for modern times. Even though chroming tanning is still a massive part of the industry, vegetable tanning is also practised. This has lead to the creation of many products that we see every day. Products such as, footwear, clothing (leather trousers and jackets) and handbags, because who doesn’t love a great accessory.

However, this job is extremely harmful, due to the chemicals that are used in the process can cause cancer. This is due to the exposure of the toxic chemicals from the dye and process the leather. For example, arsenic, the most common chemical used in a tannery, has been linked to lung cancer in those who are exposed to it every day. 

Leech Collector

Leech collecting certainly lived up to its name and, in retrospect, not for the faint of heart as their little suckers stuck to you like glue. In the 1800s, there was a leech craze that spiralled from when the French physician, François-Joseph-Victor-Broussais had claimed that diseases can be cured through bloodletting. What is bloodletting, you may be wondering? Well, bloodletting is the withdrawal of blood from the patient to support the prevention or curing of illness or disease. This practice is what led to the near-extinction of leeches throughout Europe in the 18th century. Luckily, this did not happen as surgeons still find a use for leeches today.

Courtesy of George Walker, 1814. From the New York Public Library

Leech collecting was often given to the poorer citizens and were often women. The women would have to trudge through ponds, bogs etc. to attract leeches with two kinds of bait. One of these baits was the use of old horse legs which could have lead to the workers paying an extortionate amount of money. The second kind of bait was using the workers own legs.

Using their own legs as bait, allowed the workers to be efficient when collecting leeches and was considered less expensive due to not having to purchase bait when it ran out. However, by doing this, the position caused many of the collectors to suffer from wounds that would bleed for several hours, even though it was beneficial for catching more leeches. In the end, most of the collectors suffered from severe illnesses that were caught from the slimy critters and the amount of blood loss from their wounds.

Plague Burier

Many of us have learned about the Great Plague that ravaged Europe in 1347. However, there may have been one job that was left out of the history books. So what was it? Plague buriers were those tasked with burying those that had passed from the plague. This job proved to be quite difficult as the buriers could have been burying their friends and even family.

However, individual burials couldn’t be prepared and bodies had to be buried in a plague pit. A plague pit is a term that refers to the mass graves where the victims of the Black Death were buried. This happened across Europe and with the death toll rising, space was becoming limited in local church graveyards. Even today, scientists are still finding plague victim remains in a mass black death grave with one being found as recent as 2016.

Plague in London, 1665 Credit: Wellcome Library, London

As a result, plague buriers were recruited throughout the country. This was because those that fled from the first infection site ended up spreading it throughout different towns. As with all the jobs on this list, this one had life-altering consequences. Those that worked at the burial sites were always at risk of being exposed to the illness. This led to the infected having up to 3-5 days to be with their families before passing, causing the victim rates to rise. This was due to some of the strains being airborne and the buriers being exposed to them for long periods of time.

Water Caddy

Today, having running water in homes is a must-have. However, in the Middle Ages, people didn’t have running water that was easily accessible in their homes as it is now. Thus, the water caddy job was invented to help provide water for homes. Water caddies had to fill the caddy with water which can become very heavy. There were only five wells that were dotted about the cities making the job harder. They had to carry over 30 kilos on their backs, this included the weight of the water and the barrel combined.  As you can imagine, the strain on the caddies backs would have been extremely painful and wasn’t supported by those who required their service.

Courtesy of Medievalists.net

So, who were the unfortunate souls that took this job? Usually, it was ex-soldiers who were no longer allowed to return to battle. However, it wasn’t just them who had to take on this excruciating task. The soldiers’ wives also had to work as water caddies who had to carry water for hours despite their aching muscles. Aching muscles were the side effect of making 36 trips to different people who were scattered through the city just to earn a wage. Sometimes, water caddies had left a trail of water behind them as they made the trips. This made the job more difficult as if they had lost a fair amount, the caddies were no paid the maximum wage.

Arming Squire

Arming squires were those aged between 13 and 18 years of age. Yup, children as young as 13 were tasked with ‘babysitting’ their knights to learn skills for their future. Squires were also required to run unprotected in the height of the battle to replace broken armour on knights. It was essentially like changing a tyre on a car, with the added risk of battle.

Arming squires also cleaned the armour as the knights could have blood and mud all over them from the height of the battle and fighting in all weathers (yes, even snowy fields on occasion). As this job was at the bottom of the hierarchy, the squire also had to clean the waste and sweat of the knight, as well as other things… guess there are no restroom breaks in the midst of battle.

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

So, arming squires replaced armour but what else did they do? Whilst working for the knight, the squire would also learn about the different jobs which could be obtained by watching the knights in their daily lives. Squires would also take care of the horses as well as the armour. If a horse was injured or killed it was up to the squire to find a replacement for his knight. Everything a squire learns during his time with the knights is later used in the future when he eventually reaches knighthood at 21 years of age.

Treadmill Workers

When we think of treadmills, we think of exercising equipment. However, in medieval times, hearing the word treadmill struck fear in so many. A treadmill worker had an important role when building cathedrals, as it was the treadmill that provided power to the cranes. Thus, leaving only two options.

One of these options was having a wheel that a person pulled from the outside. The other was building a bigger wheel that could hold two people. However, due to the massive loads, there was always a chance of the new machinery collapsing, which happened on more than one occasion. The collapse of machinery usually occurred due to it being in the experimental phase for a few years.

Source: Buffalo Architecture and History Museum

Treadmill workers would also have to put in the extra effort depending on the size of the stone. This job wasn’t the best for those who tired quickly as workers had to step on the wheel for hours at a time, ultimately leading to exhaustion. Exhaustion also happened due to the massive stones they had to lift, adding extra weight to the wheel and more pressure to move it.

Although tiredness and the weight of the stones factor into why this job is one of the worst jobs in history, there is a final factor. Depending on how well the machinery was built, the weather became an issue. If the machinery was half-heartedly built, heavy winds and rain would make it collapse, leading to many deaths of workers.

Fullers

Fullers were a part of the wool trade back in the Middle Ages. They were tasked with cleaning and reshaping the wool as it still contained the sheep’s natural oils. Now, fulling has two different processes that were used in making cloth. One of the processes was scouring, which sounds awful but is not as bad as other jobs on this list. The scouring process was used to clean the wool of its natural oils such as grease and other impurities. So, what did fullers use to clean the wool? Fullers had to smear the cloth in soap and very hot water in troughs ready to be trampled on.

Source: Isle of Wight History Centre

After the cloth is cleaned, fullers moved onto the second process which was milling. Milling is the process used to thicken the cloth. This is where the cloth was taken to a trough to be beaten with wooden mallets, also known as fulling stocks. Sometimes the cloth can pass through fulling stocks several times before thickening even with the trough contents changing.

Some of the contents that filled a trough were human urine as the ammonia supported the cloth in felting the fibres together. Thus, leading the workers to suffer from some very unpleasant smells. Fullers also used a substance known as ‘fuller’s earth’. Fuller’s earth is a dry clay that supported the urine in the felting of the cloth’s fibres. This jobs sounds like it could be messy with the transferring of contents between troughs.

Link Maker

We’ve seen what a coat of mail looks like from many museums and photos. However, there’s always the question of who makes them. A chain-mail maker is a person who sits for hundreds of hours cutting the metal into tiny little rings that makes the chain-link of a knight’s armour. On the other hand, this job can become quite tedious due to the number of tiny rings needed.

Those who were cutting the metal would also increase the risk of deep cuts and infection from the rust. Afterwards, the link makers would clip the coil and heat it to create the ring, which, this also causing a risk f burns and extreme heat in the workshop. Now, the rings were only heated to support them in being riveted together to make the coat of mail.

Manuscript from 1698 showing the manufacture of chain mail. Source: Deutsche Fotothek

Not only was this job tedious and caused many injuries but some were also children. Link makers were made apprentices at 12 years old and had to work long hours without pay. Making the coat could take a while due to the thousands of rings that were needed and depending on who needed the coat. For example, if the king had commissioned the worker would get the best metal (such as bronze) for the coat. This is when the coats were used for all armies as they are protected against crossbows and bludgeoning weapons in battle.

Royal Food Taster

Food tasting is, of course, nothing new. Though over 100 years ago this term had a different meaning and was quite important among the royal family. A royal food taster was the person who tried the royal family’s food for unusual textures or flavours. The taster had to eat a fair amount of food to prevent the poisoning of the king and his heirs. However, by the Middle Ages, the tasting of food became a safeguard. This is where testing began in the kitchens.

For example, if the dish had a crust (such as a meat pie), the taster would have to break the crust and use a piece of bread to taste. This was not only reserved for food though, but the tasters also had to drink water, wine and ale. The drinks had to be tested due to see if the drink had been poisoned also. Tasters also tested the water the king used to wash to see if it caused any irritation or burning. 

Courtesy of British Library Manuscript. Illumination of a Monk Wine Taster

However, the tests were not just for food and drink. Yup, the tests stretched to where the royals were sitting too. The servants also had to kiss the tablecloths and seat to test for poison. As a result, if their lips didn’t swell or become itchy the seat or tablecloth was poison-free. If anything was poisoned the taster would suffer symptoms such as diarrhoea, stomach pains and vomiting. There was also a chance the taster would lose their life depending on how strong the poison was. 

Royal Messenger

Sending messages today is easy thanks to the technology we possess. However, back in the 1700s, it wasn’t as easy, hence the hire of royal messengers. The royal messenger was the person who travelled by either horse or foot to deliver messages on behalf of the government. These are messages that were delivered across England and other countries as the primary means of communication between officials such as local sheriffs and mayors. This was done to ensure that local authorities were acting reasonably and the King or Queen was updated on how smoothly the country was running.

Courtesy of Medievalists.net

Royal messengers also had the responsibility to carry valuables such as money or valuables around the country. The King or Queen would employ between 30 and 60 people for this role. However, when the wars ravaged Europe in 1795, the messengers were also put at risk. They became extremely vulnerable during that time, to the extent where some were killed on duty. Despite the added risks, the messengers still succeeded in their duties travelling to and fro on the battlefield.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself if the documents were really worth the risk, especially at the cost of your life. Even so, predicting when the messenger would arrive became extremely difficult and resulted in the use of Home Service messengers and leading to the creation of the Home and Foreign services for international travel.

Abi

Abi

Abi is an introverted gamer who prefers survival horror and JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) who also has a love for reading and anime. When she isn’t busy, you can find her playing either a Resident Evil or Final Fantasy game.

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