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Occupations in The 16th Century
In the Elizabethan Era, occupations were as varied as a bowl of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. There was some much to do as the times were changing rapidly. Professions in this time and age ranged from rabbit catching to working with royalty. Making weapons, clothes, working in the house, working in the castle, selling goods in the marketplace, and healing others were just some of the more common trades of the time.
Break out the weapons! Two mortal enemies, sworn to cut each other’s throats, are at it again on the old battlefield. One side of the field is pouring with men in rusty brown uniforms, while the other side sports pale blue tunics. There is no end in sight, each side is fighting at their best. Then from the brown side the warriors step back and a valiant knight riding a horse steps into the clearing. Without a word, an equally terrifying champion on a horse steps out of the opposing crowd to face the combatant. Both armies step back and watch the scene in amazement. The champion in blue swiftly whips out his bow and arrows and aims it at his opponent. His adversary gives him a dry look and whips out his own weapon. He says deftly, “It’s made in Paris with about #25 draw weight. Made out of the choicest materials by the local fletcher and bowyer.”
“Really?” the other sneered, “I got mine from the best blacksmith in London! It’s made out of the toughest wood and a four-sided spike on the arrow head developed to penetrate plate armor.”
The fighter in blue gasped and his face grew red. He threw his arrows on the ground and reached
for his sword. Just before he could put in a harsh word, his adversary cut in, “Let me guess… that’s a steel pommel and guard with a leather wrapped hilt. The blade is 30″ long, am I right?”
The steely faced warrior had regained his composure and slowly nodded. The other grinned and said, “Here I have in my had the famed Sword of Vaelen, a wonderful tempered blade…made, of course, by the finest blacksmith in Spain!”
The fight was on – the champion in blue had his weapons made by various specialists, like the armorer, a farrier, a saddler, and cutler. The fight even went as far as to see who had the better horseshoes on their horses. The knight defending the brown side had all of his weapons specially custom-made by a blacksmith. As the fight went on, the brown side started cheering louder and louder, for it was clear that the knight was winning. Finally the last blow struck. “Ha! You paid five times as much as I did for my armor! From the looks of both, my weapons are far sturdier than any of yours!” shouted the knight, as the champion stared daggers at this daring warrior. The champion called out to his men and led them away from the battlefield, waving his sword and muttering something about ?…waiting until they got caught off guard next time.’
Working with iron proved to be a very useful and resourceful trade during this time period. To come into battle with high quality equipment would lengthen one’s warrantee in the game of life. For a one stop shopping place to buy a variety of weapons, the blacksmith was always at hand to take orders for the customer.
Another line of work was found in the clothing department. Fashion depended on whatever the queen felt like wearing and shops had to be prepared for anything new that came out. If the style changed, the first to start copying the design was the seamstress, who made smocks and shirts. The clothing was then sent to the draper for the public to buy. To get a custom -made suit designed to one’s particular taste, a tailor was usually called in. The tailor would first
go to the mercer to buy wool, silk, and linen to fashion whatever was needed, and from there he
would draw out the suit.
Work could also be found in and around the home. Well-off members of the gentry almost always had a large estate to maintain, and thus they would be highly likely to employ many hired hands. It usually started off with a steward who would oversee all of the workers and servants and attend to their needs. In the kitchen, besides the cook, there would often be an acater, fowler, and/or warrener. The acater did the job of necessary procuring goods not produced on the land, the fowler would shoot game birds for the table, and the warrener would catch rabbits for the evening feast. Where did children fit it? If there were children, there would be a nurse to take care of and tutor them. If there were infants, there would often be a wet nurse to nurse the young, as it was not the proper place of a wealthy woman to take time off and breast-feed her child. If something needed to be built, such as furniture, a modest accessory for the house, the steward would take lumber to the sawyer to have it cut into the right sized planks. The lumber would then go to the turner or the joiner, who fashioned it exquisitely to the master’s taste. All the master’s investments and expenses were balanced by the Man of Business, who acted as an accountant.
Living and working in a castle was not that different from working in a well-to-do estate. The king living in it would rule vast areas of land. By splitting it up into small sections and entrusting it to the local lords, or vassals, the king avoided strife and invasion from neighboring kingdoms. These vassals would then rule the fiefs under the under the condition that the fiefs would fight for the king’s land if necessary. The vassals also could break down the land even further and have vassals of their own ruling the land. In the king’s army, there would be knights of all shapes and sizes. They were legionnaires on horseback, fighting with their lives for the king in return for a plot of land. When a knight went into battle, a noblewoman would give him her
handkerchief for good luck. Noblewomen were the wives and daughters of those with high ranking in the castle. If there was no steward to overlook the servants, the noblewoman would take charge and make sure everything is running smoothly. The servants who work for the king were called serfs; they were peasants who were bound to the castle grounds and separable from the land by the lord’s manumission only. These villagers, did not necessary lead a boring life. Karen Cushman, who wrote Catherine, Called Birdy, states that “…Villagers put aside their hard, tedious lives to dance around the Maypole, jump the bonfires on Midsummers’s Night, and share Christmas with their lord and lady.” (168) For many of these hard-working men and women, living in the castle was not only fun, it was a way of life.
Walking into the noisy marketplace, there are merchants walking up and down and setting up their stalls up for their wares to be displayed. Tantalizing smells fill the air and make one’s nose twitch. The calls of the merchants ring loud and clear, yelling their pitches such as, “Here my good man, sample this fine brew!” and, “The best of the marketplace is HERE! Step riiiight up!” Some interesting shops to look out for in the marketplace include the wine seller, the cobbler, the tiler, and the glazier. Wine was had at almost every meal, and it was a shame not to have any at a feast. People sometimes brewed their own ale, which was the only safe drink, even for children, until a couple hundred years later when piped water came. There were many cobblers in the marketplace; high heels had just been invented and were meant only for the most fashionable of ladies. Another interesting occupation was being a tiler, someone who makes and places tiles on rooftops to keep the rain out. Glaziers made glass for windows, ornaments, and jewelry. Strolling though the marketplace is an adventure in itself; there is much to grok.
The advanced professions during this time lay mostly in the medical sciences. There were no doctors or surgeons, so one would have to go to the barber. People came on a regular basis to
the barber to have their ailments cured. The barber would pull out that sore tooth, give the patient
herbs, or just have the paining limb cut off. Cleanliness was not a big issue, so many deaths often occurred from contamination. Other methods of healing was to drain the ?bad’ blood from the patient, using cauterizing irons, and pouring boiling oil on the wound. The 16th century brought about great men in medicine who realized that these methods weren’t the best, and sought to find the correct treatment. Next to the barber, people also went to the apothecary, who sold medicinal herbs and charms that could supposedly ward away the plague and evil spirits. All in all, Elizabethan medicine was quite different from today’s practices and methods.
From owning a small business to ruling a country, the Elizabethan Era was well knit together with the spice of life – variety. From the marketplace to the king’s castle, there was much work to be done to keep the world running and it was not that hard to find a decent job. For the most part, this was an age where there was a lot of change. Change occurred in the medical sciences, fashion, weapons, and more. This era is one of the many building blocks of today’s advanced civilization.
Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. New York:Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (Author’s note used)
Ramsey, Lia. “Medical Beliefs and Practices.” Elizabethan England. (no date given).
(Accessed on: 4/4/01)
Anderson, Margo. “Elizabethan Accessories.” Elizabethan Costume. 17 September 1999.
(Accessed on: 4/4/01)
Rice, Aaron. “People of the Middle Ages” The Middle Ages. 8 Dec. 1994
(Accessed on: 4/4/01)
Brown, Kevin (et al.) “Occupations and Services” Life in Elizabethan England. Spring 1998
(Accessed on: 4/4/01)
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