The Three Worst Jobs In A Medieval Castle
Rat-catchers, Gardeners, and Gong Farmers
In scene two of that masterpiece of historical satire, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, the comedy troupe pointed out what is easy to forget about the past: it was a filthy place. Literally.
The scene follows a cart through a scene of muck and death, as the cart master urges townsfolk to ‘bring out your dead’ as he steadily bangs a cowbell.
To close the scene, King Arthur ‘rides’ by, prompting the following exchange:
CUSTOMER: Who’s that, then?
CART MASTER: I dunno. Must be a king.
CART MASTER: He hasn’t got shit all over him.
However funny and absurd, the scene hits on a sad truth. Medieval life was, for lack of a better word, shitty. Running water was rare, food was scarce, and ‘health care’ as we know it did not exist.
So with this reality in mind, what were some of the truly unpleasant jobs that people had to do? Let’s examine a few.
Rat-catchers, the forerunners of modern pest exterminators, were distressingly busy in medieval times. Rats and other vermin flourished inside the walls of medieval towns.
Castles — designed to withstand a siege — often contained stores of surplus grain, vegetables, and herbs. Along with their cool, dark interior, these stores provided a superb habitat for rats and mice.
As bad as catching rats was, you did earn the respect of your fellow residents. Even before the connection between rats and disease was widely understood, medieval peasants hated rats. Why? Well, in a society that often lived on the razor’s edge with regard to starvation, an infestation of rats could mean the difference between life and death in a medieval town.
Unfortunately for both the townsfolk and the rat-catcher, medieval methods of extermination were mostly ineffective. Methods ranged from the odd to the ridiculous. They used spells to curse rats; they used herbs or spices to ‘poison’ them; occasionally, they even tortured and mutilated them as a ‘warning’ to other vermin.
Of course, rat-catchers also applied methods still used today: capture, effective poison, and removing abundant sources of food.
You might be thinking, “I love gardening. Why was that such a horrible job?” Well, the job of medieval gardening was quite a bit different from today’s modern hobby of gardening.
For one thing, medieval gardeners lacked today’s modern equipment.
Need to trim some grass? No lawnmower — only a scythe or crude shears.
Need to water the flowers? No hoses — water would have to be carried in pails from the nearest stream or well.
The backbreaking work was punctuated by the constant need to prune and weed the gardens by hand. Since there were no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, each plant was highly valued. Therefore, a diseased or infested plant needed to be removed quickly to prevent further losses.
In addition to the extensive manual labor in the garden itself, a medieval gardener had lots of ‘fun’ side jobs. In a castle, the gardener was responsible for scaling the treacherous walls to remove vines or other vegetation that could aid an attacking enemy. Needless to say, countless gardeners fell while performing this task, resulting in paralysis or death. Another responsibility was to dig ditches that could be used for defense, waste management, or graves.
When it comes to horrible jobs in a castle, gong farmer has to win the prize. Gong farmers, also known as nightmen, were responsible for cleaning out human excrement from the cesspits within the castle walls.
These unfortunate souls would then transport the waste outside the castle walls, to prearranged locations where it was dumped and buried.
Cesspits, the medieval forerunner of the septic tank, were often located on the lowest level within a castle. The gong farmer would quite literally dig up weeks, months, even years’ worth of excrement from the bottom of these pits. They were paid by the ton — giving some example of how much work they performed. Given the tight quarters they operated in, and the contents of what they were digging up, there were cases of gong farmers suffocating on the job.
Unlike the rat catchers, gong farmers were not admired by society. The manner of their work — and surely their hideous smell — meant that most lived on society’s fringes.
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