30 November 2016

Odd Jobs - Tanning: A Medieval Dirty Job

By Kim Rendfeld

In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Hugh, the son of a tanner, eagerly volunteers when King Charles (today called Charlemagne) asks for one man from each free household to serve in the army invading Saxony. When the son of Hugh’s count asks him to join the castle guard, he is overjoyed. He sees a life that’s more privileged and an escape from the tannery. Tanning was a dirty job, even to medieval people accustomed to garbage and dung in the streets.

The tanner first obtained the skins of slaughtered cattle, and the blood, dirt, manure, hooves, and horns that went with them. After trimming the skins, the tanner rinsed the raw material in a local waterway or well. If the former, downstream neighbors might complain about the pollution.

Then, there was the matter of getting rid of the hair all the way down to the roots while maintaining the grain. Tanners would let the hair rot by sprinkling it with urine, folding the skins hair-side in, and piling them up in a warm place. Or they could soak them in an alkaline solution made of wood ash or lime.

When the hairs were loose enough, the tanner spread the hides over wooden beams and used special knives to scrape off the hair on one side and whatever flesh there was on the other. Next came another washing. The tanner could use a solution with pigeon droppings or dog poo, which would remove lime and make the product softer and more flexible. Or the craftsman might use fermented barley or rye, with stale beer or urine as an additive. This could take up to three months.

The hides were washed again in water. (Feel sorry for those downstream, yet?) Then the tanner needed to preserve his work with a solution made with the bark of an oak, spruce fir, or whatever else was available. That was done in two phases. The first pit used a weak solution, probably left over from the second phase (medieval people didn’t let things go to waste). The hides were taken in and out of the first pit until they attained the desired color. Then the tanner placed the hides in a deeper pit and layered them with the bark. Cold water or a weak tanning solution was poured over them. The hides sat, probably for a year. After that, the tanner would sell the hides to other craftsmen, who would provide the finished products.

Disgusting as the process is, tanners fulfilled an important function. They took a byproduct of the cattle slaughter and made it into a material medieval people depended on. Their shoes, saddles, helmets, armor, and many other leather goods were the result of a tanner’s handiwork. But no one wanted them as neighbors. And a young man might welcome a way out of the family business.


English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products, edited by John Blair, W. John Blair, Nigel Ramsay

Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven Livesey, Faith Wallis

The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC - AD 600, by J.N. Adams

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar and its companion, The Cross and the Dragon, both set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld) and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).