Look, everyone hates their job. Everyone hates their boss. Everyone hates how it crushes their dreams, and destroys what little creativity they ever had. But things could be worse. How much worse? These 16 jobs throughout history are horrible, disgusting, tedious and foul. They’ll have you kissing your boss in no time.
Compared to most of the other professions on this list, nomenclator doesn’t sound so much horrible as excruciatingly tedious and mind-numbingly boring. Your job as a nomenclator in ancient Europe is to be a walking, talking phonebook. You follow your master around parties where they get excruciatingly drunk, and you remember who the people they meet are, how to contact them, the bullshit small talk stuff like how many kids they have. In other words, the classical version of a campaign volunteer. Yeah, it might not have the horrible human remains and utter vileness of the other entries on this list, but as someone who can’t remember their pet’s names half the time, I’d be the worst nomenclator ever, and probably be sold for lion meat or something similar after a couple of hours.
15. Ship’s Surgeon
During the heady day of European naval battles, British aquatic domination, and general Master & Commander bullshit, the ship’s surgeon received a lot of respect for not being one of the lower-class, below deck rabble who made up most of the shipmen, instead being a person of education and breeding. Unfortunately, they had to deal with all the horrors of living in a cramped space with no hygiene and a high chance of disease and infection. You think scurvy sounds bad to get, try treating a crew full of people like that, with their teeth falling out and bleeding everywhere. Where you have to amputate and perform surgery without anything resembling sterile conditions. Where rampant corporal punishment means frequent infection and gaping wounds that are hard to treat. Can you imagine the infections that would get in someone’s back after being whipped for talking back to the captain? Trying to save people’s lives among the filth and grime? How utterly miserable.
Apart from being a name that’s totally fucking metal, and that has been used for comic characters, books and movies, the whole process of sin-eating is rather disturbing. Traditionally performed in 19th century Europe, a sin-eater was an outcast, poor and shunned by everyone for their profession, who was only sought out once a person had died. It was the sin-eater’s job to absorb all the sins of a dead person in order to let them into heaven, exchanging their own eternal torment for a ludicrously small sum of money. When they were hired, a piece of food and bowl of drink were passed over the dead, absorbing their sins, which the sin-eater then devoured. The logic that the sin would pass on to the social outcast, and the dead could ascend freely. Wow, hated and outcast for your entire life, starving and destitute, and now sent to hell for the sins of dozens of people? That’s a shitty deal.
Not dangerous, but excruciatingly tedious. A punkawallah’s job was to be a human fan. During the days of the British rule in India and Pakistan, ceiling fans were the hot new invention, but they certainly weren’t motorized. Instead, a punkawallah had to spend all their waking hours standing in one spot, pulling the controls for the fan to keep it going. The concept goes back much further than that, to that classic image of a slave fanning their master to keep them cool. What a soul crushing and tedious job. In some ways it’s even worse if you aren’t a slave, because you know that’s the only job you could get it keeping some rich bastard cool on a hot day for almost no pay.
12. Whipping Boy
The term whipping boy (and the related concept of a scapegoat) has now just become a phrase that we bandy about without realizing that it was a very real thing not too long ago. It arose in the 15th and 16th century, when the divine right of kings was a very real idea, and no one was seen as being able to punish misbehaving princes — after all, they were chosen by God. Sure, their fathers could, but said Kings were usually off ruling the country and bonking courtesans, and didn’t give a rat’s ass about their children’s education. Rather than punish the princelings, which they weren’t allowed to do, a whipping boy was used, and all the punishment was reaped on them. Usually, the boy was a high-ranking noble child who was raised with the prince and their only friend, the ensuing bond making the prince feel horrible when the whipping boy was punished. Which was markedly less effective if the prince was a sociopathic rich asshole who didn’t care about the suffering of others.
11. Soap Maker
Soap’s clean, right? Surely making it should be a rather pleasant and nice-smelling endeavor, right? Well, now, sure, but in medieval and ancient times, being a soap maker was like being an industrial chemist, but without any sort of protection. There were no fume-hoods in ancient Britain. The early recipes for soap contained ingredients like lye, ash and rendered animal fats. At its simplest form, it’s just waste ash and leftover animal fat boiled together until it solidifies. I’m betting if you make that it won’t smell like daffodils or whatever the crap in your bathroom smells like. Now imagine you’re in medieval Europe, part of a soapmaker’s guild, and instead working with incredibly harsh chemicals like lye, but without any real knowledge of to protect yourself from it. Fun!
10. Medieval Barber
Medieval barbers did a lot more than just cut hair, in Europe they were doctors, dentists, and general cure-alls, despite having a worse grasp of medical theory than most modern five year olds. Dubbed the barber-surgeon, they would pull rotten teeth, let blood, use leeches, apply heated cups, lance boils, all that jazz. All around, every useful people — except there was no anesthetic, no sterile fields, hell, they probably didn’t even wash the instruments between goes. Can’t you imagine the fun of being the guy to perform an enema in the squalor of the middle ages? The screaming agony of literally pulling teeth with pliers? Why the hell were the barbers doing this, anyway? It turns out priests used to do most of the medical healing stuff, but a papal decree said they weren’t allowed to shed blood, so surgery passed on to another, even less trained field.
9. Execution Cleaners
Whenever you start reading about ancient practices, sooner or later you’re going to get against some truly horrific descriptions of torture and capital punishment. Executions were bloody, disgusting, and public affairs, sometimes lasting days at a time. Death by tiny cuts, being roasted alive in metal bulls, having your limbs ripped off, all that sort of wonderful jazz. Hell, being sawed slowly in half was pretty common. Mercy and speed were not at the top of the list of priorities until at least the French revolution. Now, think of the poor guy who has to clean up the mess. The person who has to pick up the charred hunks of human flesh, who has to fish the bones out of the fetid water they were slowly drowned it. The person who has to pick through the filth, excrement, and blood associated with human death.
8. Ancient Miners
Mining is a shit job, even today. While thankfully rarer, collapses still happen, and lung infections, cancer, shitty work conditions, injury, and low pay are all still par for the course. Now imagine it was hundreds of years ago — and you can understand how much worse it could be. Can you even conceive of being a coal miner in those sorts of conditions, where there are no oxygen tanks, no electric lamps, no elevators? Everything done manually down cramped little caves where your body becomes all gnarled from being bent over all day. And keep in mind all the illumination came from flame lamps, so the risk of hitting explosive gas was a constant worry. Filthy, deadly, and horrible. What a life.
7. Body Snatcher
In the 19th century, medicine was a rapidly advancing field, with new theories and practices revolutionizing health care. With this growth came plenty of new medical students, who desperately needed cadavers to learn on — but were only allowed to use executed criminals. With fewer than 100 people being killed this way in the UK per year, it wasn’t nearly enough to meet demand, so the business of body snatching began. The resurrection-men as they were sometimes called, would have to dig up the freshly (and sometimes not-so-freshly) buried, and sell them off. They got pretty cunning at it too, figuring out how to extract them without disturbing much soil so as not to alert the bereaved as to the status of their loved ones. This was helped by the fact that body snatching was a misdemeanor, at worst.
6. Wool Fuller
After you have made a garment out of wool, after you’ve carded and spun and weaved, you’re still not done. Because now, it has to be fulled. It needs to be scoured clean and then thickened, but the first step is rather vile. See, in order to bleach and clean the cloth, you needed ammonium, and how common do you think that was in ancient Europe? In fact, there was only one good source: urine. It was so in demand that the Romans taxed the stuff. As a fuller, you had to stamp on cloth in a puddle of urine for hours at a time — and often other caustic and dangerous chemicals like lime were used, too.
5. Leech Collector
Everyone knows that leeches were a popular healing method throughout historic Europe, right? The whole bloodletting thing? So how exactly did they get the little creepy crawlers? Enter one of the worst gigs possible: leach collector. There’s only one way to get leeches reliably, and that’s to let them attach themselves to you. A lucky few had old farm animals they could use for the purpose, but most of the women who did this job relied on their own gams. They’d slowly wade through filthy swamp water, allowing the leeches to latch on to their legs. Then they had to wait for them to have their full of blood before detaching, and being gathered — no lighters or rubbing alcohol around. And if you try to pull them off, the teeth detach, and they’re worthless and wound’s worse. Then you have to do it all again, except now you’re wading into the swamp with open wounds all over your body, begging for infection.
4. Plague Burier
The black death killed ? of the population of Europe, devastating the continent as it made its multiple sweeps through time and again. Guess who had the incomparable joy of picking up the piles of the deceased? That’s right, someone’s job was to go around with a cart, piling up the dead to be thrown in enormous pits. Guess how clean it was, what with the only basic hygiene around anyway, and society crumbling around them? Seeing as the mechanisms of disease weren’t understood in the slightest, the buriers just tied a rag around their face to stop the smell, and went about shifting the deadly bodies. I can’t imagine their fate was particularly pleasant.
3. Leather Tanner
For centuries, tanners were reviled around the world, even for doing incredibly important work. In India, only the untouchables could do it, and all through Europe they were forced outside of the cities due to the horrible, horrible stench they produced. Why was it so vile? Excrement. Lots and lots of excrement. The hunters would give the tanners the skins, still bloody with chunks of meat and fat attached. They would be soaked in water to remove all that stuff, leading to a pool of rotting meat. Then, the hair had to be removed, either by soaking the skin in urine, or letting it hang to rot, and then cutting it off with a knife. After that came the soaking in a slurry of feces and water, and kneading them in it to soften the skin, for hours at a time. After that it was stretched, dried and sold — but can you imagine the combined stink of rotting flesh, urine and feces? That’s the life of a tanner.
2. French Beggar
In pre-revolutionary France, times were horrible, and a huge percentage of the population was reduced to begging. Competition was rife, as the beggars struggled to gain what little money was left in the profession. Sometimes, things got so bad that they would self-mutilate, making themselves hideous and pathetic to attract more sympathy. No case of this was more terrifying that the denatsate: the mouth was slit from ear to ear, in a joker’s grin. The gums were removed, but the teeth left in place. Finally, the nose was hacked off. A living skull, begging on the streets of Paris.
1. Gong Farmer
Whenever you get humans living together, shit becomes a problem. Without plumbing, where does it go? Enter the job of the gong farmer, the horrible soul who has to deal with cleaning out privys, longdrops, shitholes, outhouses, and everywhere else you do your business. Called by this name in Tudor England, they’ve existed in one form or another in just about every civilization, and their lot is a bad one. The Tudor example is particularly bad, because even though they were paid well, they could only work between 9pm and 5am, were exiled to the edges of cities, had backbreaking labor (you try digging out a cesspit) and would sometimes die from the fumes. Aren’t you glad you’re sitting in your air-conditioned office right now?