Top 10 Worst Jobs of the Middle Ages: A Grim Journey Through Labour History

Top 10 Worst Jobs of the Middle Ages: A Grim Journey Through Labour History

The Middle Ages, a period spanning from the 5th to the late 15th century, was marked by remarkable historical events and professions that were far from glamorous. These jobs were often back-breaking, dangerous, and sometimes downright disgusting. In this detailed probe into history, we unravel ten of the most unsavory jobs that thrived during the Middle Ages. To truly appreciate the developments in modern labor practices, it is crucial to look back and understand the hardships that workers of yesteryears endured.

Gong Farmer

Harsh Working Conditions 

Gong farmers were responsible for clearing out human excrement from privies, cesspits, and sometimes even the streets. Working exclusively at night, they were tasked with removing the waste and disposing it away from populated areas.

Health Risks 

Gong farmers were constantly exposed to harmful bacteria and pathogens. It wasn’t uncommon for them to fall ill, succumbing to various diseases due to the unsanitary conditions of their work environment.

Societal Perception 

Despite performing an essential service, Gong farmers were stigmatized and often marginalized by society. They lived isolated lives, staying away from the general populace to avoid spreading the diseases they were frequently exposed to.


Daily Duties 

Fullers played a pivotal role in the medieval textile trade, responsible for refining and densifying woolen fabrics. Their work entailed stomping on the cloth submerged in vast containers, typically mixed with water and fuller’s earth—a specific clay—or even more challenging, with urine. This method effectively stripped the wool of its natural oils.

Physical Toll 

Fullers often worked in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces. The constant exposure to harmful chemicals in the cleansing agents and the long hours standing in the vats made the job physically demanding and detrimental to their health.


Ceremonial Role 

The sin-eater had a role that was more ceremonial than laborious. They were called upon when someone died, and they would eat a piece of bread that had been placed on the deceased, symbolically taking on the dead person’s sins to allow them to enter the afterlife purified.

Social Outcast 

Sin-eaters were viewed with fear and suspicion. Their role in society made them outcasts, often living isolated lives, feared and avoided by the general populace. Their existence was a paradox of being necessary yet reviled.

Leech Collector

Gathering Leeches 

In an era when leeches were commonly used for medical treatments, the leech collector’s job was to gather them. This was typically done by wading into leech-infested waters and allowing the leeches to attach to the collector’s legs.

Dangers Involved 

Leech collectors risked infections and diseases due to the constant bites and the unsanitary conditions they worked in. Moreover, they were exposed to various prevalent water-borne diseases during the Middle Ages.



During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical schools and physicians desperately needed bodies to dissect for educational purposes. Resurrectionists, or body snatchers, were individuals who exhumed fresh corpses from graveyards to sell to medical institutions.

Legal and Ethical Issues 

Apart from the obvious moral dilemmas surrounding this profession, resurrectionists constantly ran the risk of arrest and prosecution. Grave robbing was not only frowned upon by society but was also legally punishable, making it a high-risk job.

Plague Burier

Dealing with the Dead 

During the plague epidemics that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, individuals were hired to remove and bury the bodies of those who succumbed to the disease. This was a grim task, as plague buriers had to deal with the horrific sights and smells of plague-ridden corpses daily.

High Mortality Rate 

The job was extremely dangerous, involving direct contact with infected bodies. Many plague buriers contracted the disease, leading to an incredibly high mortality rate within this profession.


Sewer Scavengers 

Toshers were individuals who scavenged in the sewers of large cities, searching for any valuables that might have been swept away with the waste. They worked in complete darkness, wading through human excrement and refuse, exposing themselves to numerous health risks.

Lack of Legal Protection 

Working in the sewers was not only dangerous but also illegal. Toshers were constantly at risk of arrest, not to mention the various infections and diseases that plagued them due to their unsanitary working conditions.


Processing Animal Hides 

Tanners were responsible for turning animal hides into leather, a process that involved soaking the hides in a mixture of water and lime before scraping off the remaining flesh and hair. This job was not only physically demanding but also came with a perpetual, unbearable stench.

Chemical Exposure 

Tanners were exposed to harmful chemicals on a daily basis, which could lead to various respiratory and skin ailments. The long-term health effects of this job were severe, with many tanners suffering from chronic illnesses.


Carrying Out Death Sentences 

Executioners were tasked with carrying out death sentences, a job requiring them to be physically strong and emotionally detached. The gruesome nature of their work often resulted in a life of isolation, as society feared and shunned them.

Mental Toll 

The psychological toll on executioners was immense. Many struggled with the moral and ethical implications of their job, not to mention the haunting images and sounds that accompanied each execution.

Charnel House Worker

Handling the Dead 

Charnel house workers were responsible for handling and storing the bones of the dead. Once a body had decomposed, it was their job to collect the bones and store them in an ossuary, a place where skeletal remains are stored.

Spiritual and Psychological Strain 

Working with the dead on a daily basis had a deep psychological and sometimes spiritual strain on these individuals. The constant exposure to death and decay could profoundly affect their mental well-being.

Socio-Economic Factors of the Middle Ages 

Stringent hierarchies and limited opportunities for upward mobility characterized the socio-economic landscape of the Middle Ages. Predominantly, society was segregated into three distinct classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry, the latter of which bore the brunt of the most undesirable occupations. The system of feudalism cemented these disparities, establishing a pattern where those belonging to the lower stratum had little room for choice or personal growth.

In this period, wealth and resources were heavily concentrated among the nobles and the church, leaving a significant portion of the populace grappling with poverty and destitution. The peasantry, which constituted a large portion of the population, was often subjected to a lifetime of hard labor, bound to the land owned by their lords. They had limited access to education, significantly reducing their opportunities to acquire skills necessary for more favorable professions. Furthermore, the scarcity of resources often instigated fierce competition for available jobs, forcing many to accept whatever work was available, irrespective of the conditions or the risks involved.

Moreover, the fluctuating economy, frequently beset by famines and war, compounded the precariousness of the job market. Many resorted to professions that were not only laborious but also carried social stigma simply to secure a means of sustenance. The bleak economic realities of the time, coupled with a rigid class structure, virtually shackled a large section of society to disdainful and hazardous occupations.

Despite these hardships, it is noteworthy to mention the emergence of guilds during this era, which attempted to introduce some form of regulation and standardization in various professions. These guilds were early precursors to modern-day unions, offering a glimmer of protection and solidarity among workers in an otherwise unforgiving socio-economic milieu.

Health and Sanitation

In the Middle Ages, the arena of health and sanitation was markedly primitive, casting a long and difficult shadow on the occupational sector. A significant portion of the populace was engaged in jobs that exposed them to a myriad of health risks, including infections, diseases, and physical injuries. For instance, the leech collectors were constantly at the mercy of parasites and water-borne diseases, and gong farmers faced daily exposure to harmful pathogens due to the unsanitary conditions of their work environment.

Moreover, the general lack of hygiene and disease transmission knowledge exacerbated the health risks associated with these jobs. Basic sanitation concepts, like washing hands or utilizing protective gear, were largely absent, providing a fertile ground for the rapid spread of diseases, some of which had the potency to instigate epidemics.

The workers were also exposed to harmful substances without any protection. Tanners had to deal with chemicals that could cause respiratory and skin ailments. Fullers were subject to a noxious mixture of human urine and other substances that were harmful to their health in the long run.

In this backdrop, the Middle Ages manifested as a period of severe health crises, where the line between life and death was often precariously thin. The occupational hazards of the time were not merely confined to physical injuries but extended to a broader spectrum of health issues that could have lasting implications on an individual’s lifespan and quality of life.

The Psychological Impact of Medieval Professions

The psychological toll exerted on individuals engaged in the harsh professions of the Middle Ages cannot be understated. Daily, workers faced physical exhaustion and an array of mental challenges that accompanied the grotesque and perilous nature of their jobs. Executioners, for instance, grappled with moral dilemmas, as their roles demanded a certain detachment from the emotional weight of taking a life. Gong farmers, on the other hand, faced social ostracization that could cultivate feelings of loneliness and dejection.

Moreover, individuals engaged in jobs that revolved around death and decay, such as plague buriers and charnel house workers, were incessantly exposed to scenes of human mortality, which could potentially lead to symptoms akin to modern-day Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The psychological resilience required to persevere in such environments was immense, often demanding a level of mental fortitude that could arguably be comparable to that of a soldier in a warzone.

In a society where mental health was not yet recognized or understood, the cumulative strain on these workers’ psyches remained largely unchecked, potentially resulting in chronic anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. These individuals, shackled by the societal structures and economic necessities of the time, bore silent witness to the extreme limits of human endurance. While scarcely documented, the mental ramifications of these professions paint a vivid picture of an era fraught with darkness, not just in the physical realm but deep within the corridors of the human mind.

Legal and Ethical Aspects of Medieval Occupations

The legal and ethical frameworks governing labor and employment during the Middle Ages were significantly underdeveloped. Workers had scarce legal protections, allowing for the perpetuation of hazardous and exploitative work environments. The feudal system entrenched a social hierarchy where the labor class was expected to serve the interests of the nobility and clergy, often at great personal sacrifice. Workers’ rights, as a concept, were practically non-existent, allowing employers to dictate terms that were heavily skewed in their favor, thereby fostering a culture of exploitation and abuse.

Ethically, many professions raised significant moral quandaries. Occupations like executioners, who were tasked with carrying out public executions, faced social isolation and moral disdain, caught in a web of societal duty and personal conflict. Furthermore, the occupation of sin eaters, believed to absorb the sins of the deceased through ritualistic food consumption, existed on the fringes of societal acceptance, navigating a complex moral landscape intertwined with religious beliefs and superstitions.

Religious influences played a pivotal role in shaping the ethical dimensions of various occupations. Certain professions were considered spiritually defiling, thereby casting individuals into roles that were not only physically grueling but also morally conflicting. Despite the starkness of this period, it serves as a powerful reflection of humanity’s evolving understanding of labor rights and ethics. It stands as a testimony to the journey society has undertaken from a period of pronounced inequalities to a modern era where the principles of justice, equity, and human rights hold a more prominent place in the workplace.


An exploration into the worst jobs of the Middle Ages offers us a sobering glimpse into a time when labor conditions were far from ideal. These ten professions depict a harsh reality where workers faced dangers, societal ostracization, and grueling physical demands on a daily basis.

Today, as we enjoy the benefits of modern technology and improved labor laws, it is essential to remember the struggles and sacrifices of those who lived during the Middle Ages. Their endurance and resilience paved the way for the advancements and comforts we enjoy today. A reflection on these professions is not just a historical study but a homage to the indomitable spirit of human endeavor, even in the face of the most challenging circumstances.

As we delve deep into the annals of history, we are reminded of the remarkable journey of labor evolution, fostering a deeper appreciation for the relentless human spirit that continues to strive for better, safer, and more dignified working conditions for all.