Tanners, Scullions, and Messengers
In an era full of wretched jobs with awful smells, tanners had a reputation for being dirty. Now, that should tell you something. The medieval process of tanning was simply one sickening task after another.
To begin with, you started with animal skin (or an entire dead animal carcass). At a time when travel was slow, and refrigeration didn’t exist, you can imagine the problems this would present. So the tanner’s first task was to assess the situation and determine how to continue.
Assuming they could proceed, they would begin by removing and treating the skin. This process involved soaking it in a variety of liquids. The procedure differed from tanner to tanner, but most used a saltwater brine or urine so that the animal fur would start to rot.
After the soak, tanners would often apply a sprinkling of alkaline lime or sulfuric acid. To finish, the tanner would scrape the hide to remove any remaining fur. This process (scudding) took days and was done by hand. Gross.
Then things got dirty!
Tanners softened the hides by pounding them with copious amounts of animal dung. Dog feces and bird droppings were particularly favored. Finally, after months of letting the poop (and the bacteria it contained) do its thing, the hide would be ready to receive a proper washing. After that, the tanner would sell their finished leather to the craftsmen (cobblers, tailors, etc.) who relied on the tanner’s dirty work for their material.
When someone today thinks of a medieval banquet, a particular scene comes to mind. There’s probably a great room with a series of long tables, overflowing with food and drink. And while not all of this imagery is inaccurate, one thing is almost always left out of the scene — who had to clean it up later?
The answer was, most likely, a scullion.
Scullions were domestic servants, employed by wealthy landowners or merchants. In terms of the servants’ hierarchy, scullions occupied the lowest rung and therefore performed some of the least desirable acts. And that brings us back to the feast.
Scullions spent much of their time cleaning up the kitchen and dining areas within a home or castle. Now, this was a very different proposition to a modern cleaning process. The fork didn’t gain widespread use until the 16th or 17th century — medieval guests ate mostly with their hands. As anyone who has eaten with a toddler can tell you, food ends up everywhere. Tables, chairs, and floors all had to be cleaned to the best extent possible, given the primitive methods in use at the time.
But the real horror of being a scullion was cleaning the kitchen. A medieval kitchen more resembled a horror film than what we would recognize as a place for cooking. There was a lot of blood, gore, and just plain filth. The concept of ‘cross-contamination’ did not exist. Raw meat, often close to, or outright rancid, was just one of the horrible things for the scullions to clean up.
For large banquets, animals were sometimes slaughtered in the kitchen to ensure the freshness of the meat. This meant that the animals might have carried muck and filth from their enclosures into the kitchen — and it was the scullion’s job to clean that up.
Furthermore, medieval kitchens were hot, smoky, and crawling with vermin. And as a scullion, you spent most of your time on your hands and knees cleaning up all the mess.
We’ve all heard the expression, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Of course, in modern times, this is just another way of saying, “I’m not responsible, don’t take it out on me.” So while being the bearer of ill tidings to your boss, spouse, or friend may elicit some irritation, it rarely leads to violence.
Yet, in medieval times, this wasn’t the case. In a time well before the advent of the internet, phones, or even reliable postage services, important messages were often delivered in person. And back then, as now, some of the things said were provocative.
For example, if a Lord wanted to issue a threat to his neighbor, he might send along a lowly messenger first, rather than risking a member of his inner circle. If the rival Lord didn’t take kindly to what was being said, he might send back the messenger’s head as a way of saying, “I got your message, and I didn’t care for it.”
Yet this practice of ‘punishing the messenger’ wasn’t just the result of powerful men with anger management issues. In some cases, messengers were tortured, not because of what they had said, but rather because of what they knew — or might know. Messengers, traveling from realm to realm, might be privy to confidential information: the disposition of military forces, the location of critical supplies, or weak points in a castle’s defenses.
For all these reasons, being a messenger could prove hazardous to your health.