Posted in Bad Jobs, tagged Bad Jobs, Castrato on July 15, 2009|
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When it comes to bad jobs, choral singer would normally seem to be an odd choice. Though not the most lucrative of professions, it did pay the rent and granted a great deal of admiration of one’s peers. During the 16th century, it also enjoyed a resurgence of popularity that put the singers in high demand. These choirs were typically filled with young men who were raised by the church and trained at an early age to sing about the wonders and glory of God. Their voices were legendary and transcendent, and to hear them harmonize in unison was said to be like reaching out and touching the divine.
In order to reach those really, really high notes, however, certain… alterations needed to be made, usually by a half-blind monk with a rusty knife and complete lack of anesthetic. The operation would only take a few seconds, but the effects lasted a lifetime. These Castrato would never go on to reach sexual maturity, and were destined to spend their lives without hair on their chins and rather confused feelings whenever Isabella the barmaid walked by. The lack of testosterone in their system further meant that their bones grew out in a unnatural manner, prompting their limbs to become long and gangly.
Of course, the act of castration was no guarantee of a successful career. Many Castrato would sing in the heavenly choirs for just a few short years before the priests stumbled upon an even younger lad with an even more beautiful voice, and replaced them without a second’s thought. It was a distinctly sad sight to witness these functional eunuchs on the streets of Rome with hand-made vellum signs that said, “Will sing God’s seven virtues for food.” They also tended to get beaten up by the tenors, who still had all their jiggly bits and were generally renowned as unruly sorts.
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So you’re a medieval peasant. You’ve decided that you don’t want to be a farmer, or a soldier, or a blind beggar. What professional options are available to you? Why, to be a rat catcher, of course!
Rodents were a tremendous problem in the medieval cities. They ran wildly through the streets and snuck into granaries to eat the food within. The local magistrate would therefore employ citizens to take care of the furry menace, typically offering a single coin for every ten rat tails provided. You could recognize these fine entrepreneurs by their trappings – a long rat killing stick, a small beagle (which they used to hunt down their prey), and a huge cloud of flies wherever they went.
The main problem with the job was the short life expectancy. Rat catchers had an odd tendency to come down with the plague with great frequency. Not to mention ratbite fever, choriomeningitis, and leptospirosis. It had something to do with constant exposure to diseased vermin and traveling through filthy sewer systems on a regular basis. The fact that soap wasn’t available may have also contributed a bit. But hey, it paid well. You could get a bowl of porridge on just a day’s pay!
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You’ve definitely seen this guy before: he stands on the street corner, holding up a huge sign that advertises $100 off if you drop what you’re doing and move into the local condominium. He’s sometimes dressed strangely, in a chicken costume or zebra outfit. He also dances non-stop to music that no one but him can hear, shaking his arms wildly and kicking up his legs. This is often accompanied by him spinning the sign with a great flourish. His job title is technically ‘Small Business Promoter’, but he’s really the Dancing Guy on Street Corner.
The position inevitably pays minimum wage, without benefits. And while it may look like fun to spend the day in 100 degree weather dancing up a storm, it turns out that it’s actually pretty miserable. You look like an idiot, you’re not allowed to take bathroom breaks, and you have to regularly dodge beer bottles thrown at you by drunken teenagers. That said, there is some value to this job – it serves as a cautionary tale for people about what could happen if you don’t study hard in school.
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Contrary to what Walt Disney would have you believe, being a chimney sweep was not a fun-filled occupation meant to be celebrated in motion pictures. There were no happy orphans spinning about with brooms in hand as they merrily broke into song and performed synchronized dance moves in the streets. Nor were there grandiose adventures across rooftops and mischievous winks to the viewer at the end. It was actually one of the most miserable jobs of Victorian England, consisting of grueling work and perpetual health hazards that dramatically reduced the individual’s life expectancy.
Most chimney sweeps were young boys between the age of six and nine. Their smaller size enabled them to fit into incredibly tight spaces, and their Cockney accents were perfect for cursing in a believable manner. Salt water was often rubbed into their wounds to harden them for the climb, and their only reward for their laborious efforts was black lung and a night locked in a closet. The profession would eventually fall into decline with the rise of central heating systems, but not before an entire generation of children became unrecognizable due to the overpreponderence of soot.
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Kings and queens throughout history had to face all manner of political intrigue. Many of them possessed dozens of enemies within the court who wanted nothing more than to see them dead, and had to deal with shadowy assassins being paid to pour vials of odd-looking black powder into the soup. It was therefore common practice to employ a royal food taster to consume some of the food and wine before the king sat down for his dinner. This way, it would just be a lowly peasant who died, and not someone important whose parents were first-degree blood cousins.
Now, the job wasn’t all bad. The food taster got to eat some of the finest meals of the time – roast suckling duck, candied yams, several types of stinky cheese. . . it was only a taste, though, and then the royal advisor would make sure that he wasn’t twitching uncontrollably or foaming at the mouth. If he was, they’d know that the food was poisoned and send for a new platter of plum pudding. The royal food taster would then get tossed into a ditch with all the other food tasters, which, depending on the political climate, could be quite large. If you’d like to know more, please consult with your local duke or baron for exciting employment opportunities.
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One of the most difficult problems faced by Medieval nobility was how to punish their children whenever they misbehaved. The young prince or dauphin couldn’t be whipped themselves, of course, such an idea was laughable, and would result in immediate imprisonment for the mere mention. No, the European royalty chose instead to pluck a peasant child at random from whatever village happened to be closest, raise him in the same castle as the noble son, and give him the special title of ‘Whipping Boy’.
When the prince did something bad, it was the Whipping Boy who received the punishment. This came in the form of thrashings; pummelings; floggings; whollopings; trouncings; and good, solid beatings with a stick. The prince would observe close at hand, usually while spread out on a couch that was draped full of satin pillows, until a full hour had passed and it was deemed that he had successfully learned his lesson. For some odd reason, it never seemed to stick.
The Whipping Boy did receive some small compensation for his repeated indignities – generally a half penny per week and dank rat-infested pit to sleep in. If he was particularly lucky, then he would get to keep his job over the years and become the “Whipping Surly Teenager”, though when the prince finally came of age his former playmate would be automatically tossed out the castle door and into an offal pit without so much as a letter of reference. And you thought your job sucked.
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