Everyday Life

Earning a Crust: Saxon Trades, and Skills

The Saxon period, spanning from the 5th to the 11th centuries, was a time of significant cultural and economic change in Europe.

Understanding the jobs, trades, and skills of the Saxons provides us with valuable insights into the daily life, economy, and social structure of these early medieval communities.

Here we will explore some of the diverse range of professions that the Saxons engaged in, the skills required for these jobs, and the division of labour between working adults and children.

Saxon Jobs and Trades

Saxon society was primarily agrarian, and the majority of the population was engaged in agricultural activities. However, a variety of other jobs and trades existed to support the needs of these early medieval communities.

Part of a Saxon field system in Bishopstone, Swindon. No one said farming in Saxon times was easy!

Farming was the backbone of Saxon society. Farmers cultivated crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye, as well as raised livestock like cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry. The work involved planting, harvesting, and tending to animals.

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Saxon farmers played a vital role in sustaining their communities, providing essential crops and livestock for sustenance and trade.

Agricultural Practices

Saxon agriculture was characterised by a combination of traditional and innovative farming techniques. These practices were adapted to the local climate, soil conditions, and available resources.

Crop Cultivation

Saxon farmers grew a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, oats, and rye. These grains formed the basis of their diet. Each crop had specific planting and harvesting seasons, and farmers carefully observed these cycles.

Ploughing and tilling were essential steps in preparing the soil for planting. Saxon farmers used wooden ploughs, often pulled by oxen, to break the earth and create furrows for seeds. This labour-intensive process required skill and physical strength.

Saxon Ploughmen with their plough and ox.

To maintain soil fertility, Saxon farmers practiced crop rotation. They alternated the types of crops planted in a field from one season to the next. For example, after a season of wheat, they might sow barley in the same field.

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Animal Husbandry

Livestock, including cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry, were crucial for Saxon farmers. These animals provided meat, dairy products, wool, and labour. Farmers had to care for their livestock, ensuring they were well-fed and healthy.

Craftsmen and Artisans

Craftsmen and artisans were expected to produce high-quality goods and tools. They needed to possess and maintain the necessary skills and craftsmanship to meet the demands of their trade.

Craftsmen and artisans played a vital role in Saxon communities. They included blacksmiths, potters, weavers, carpenters, and metalworkers. These skilled individuals produced essential tools, pottery, textiles, and other goods necessary for daily life.

Saxon craftsmen and artisans were responsible for creating a wide array of products, from household items to decorative pieces.

The Saxon craftsmen produced utilitarian goods that were essential for daily life. These included items like plates and bowls, clothing, tools, and even jewellery.

Craftsmen focused on creating objects that were not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Their work often featured intricate designs and decorative elements.

Local Materials

Craftsmen utilised materials readily available in their local environments. For example, potters used clay from nearby sources, while blacksmiths worked with locally sourced metals.

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They would often employ traditional techniques that had been passed down through generations. These techniques evolved over time, but the core principles remained the same.

Many artisans were involved in a diverse range of crafts. Here are some of the more key crafts that contributed to early medieval life.


Blacksmiths were essential for crafting tools, weapons, and various other metal objects. They worked with iron and other metals to create items like knives, nails, ploughs, and armour.

The hilt of the Abingdon Sword, found in Oxfordshire is typical of Saxon metalwork.

Metalworkers also focused on creating decorative metal objects, such as brooches and buckles. They used techniques like casting, forging, and engraving.


Potters crafted pottery and ceramics used for cooking, storage, and other household purposes. Their creations included pots, jars, and plates.

Potters were responsible for preparing the clay, which included processes such as wedging to remove air bubbles and ensure uniform consistency.

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Saxon potters used various techniques to shape clay into desired forms. Hand-building involved coiling, pinching, and slab construction, while wheel-throwing used a potter’s wheel for precision.

Potters often decorated their creations with motifs, patterns, and designs. Decoration methods included incising, stamping, and the application of glazes.

Firing was a crucial step. Potters had to determine the appropriate firing temperature to ensure the durability and functionality of the ceramic items.

Some pottery items were glazed, providing both a protective layer and decorative finish. Saxon potters had expertise in glaze formulation and application.

A late Saxon ‘Sandy ware’ cooking pot in fantastic condition. The pot has survived for over a thousand years.

Potters could tailor their work to meet the specific needs and preferences of their clients, demonstrating their ability to provide personalised ceramics.


Weavers were responsible for producing textiles from materials like wool and flax. They created fabrics used for clothing, blankets, and other textile products.

Weavers prepared raw materials, which included cleaning and processing wool or flax. The quality of the material influenced the final product.

The art of weaving involved the interlacing of vertical (warps) and horizontal (wefts) threads. Weavers carefully set up the loom and adjusted the tension for precise weaving.

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These tradesmen were skilled in creating patterns and designs. Some used intricate techniques like brocading and tapestry weaving to achieve detailed motifs.

Colour played a vital role in Saxon textiles. Weavers often dyed the threads using natural dyes made from plants and minerals.


Carpenters specialised in woodworking, constructing everything from simple furniture to more complex structures like ships. They were skilled in joinery and carving.

Wood was a readily available and versatile resource in early medieval Europe, making woodworking an indispensable craft. Saxon carpenters were skilled in working with various types of wood, including oak, ash, beech, and other native species.

Saxon carpenters were experts in joinery, the art of connecting wooden pieces to form structures. They used techniques such as mortice and tenon joints, dovetail joints, and lap joints to create sturdy and long-lasting constructions.


Leatherworkers crafted a variety of leather goods, including belts, pouches, shoes, and even helmets (Yes the Saxons wore leather helmets). They worked with animal hides and employed techniques like stitching and tooling.

Leather workers made every day items from shoes to belts to purses. Photo: Phil Hodges

Leatherworkers were responsible for preparing animal hides for tanning. This process involved scraping, cleaning, and stretching the hides.

Tanning was a crucial skill. Leatherworkers employed various tanning methods, including vegetable tanning, which used natural plant extracts, and mineral tanning, which utilised minerals like alum and salt.

Leatherworkers were skilled in tooling leather, which included creating patterns, designs, and embossed motifs on the surface of leather items. This added both functional and aesthetic value.

Responsibilities and Skills

Saxon craftsmen and artisans held significant responsibilities within their communities. Their work was crucial for providing necessary tools, household items, and decorative pieces.

Household Items: Artisans produced household items like pottery, textiles, and wooden utensils. These items were essential for daily life.

Decorative Work: Some craftsmen were known for their decorative work, creating intricate jewellery, brooches, and buckles that showcased artistic skills.

Customisation: Craftsmen often tailored their products to meet the specific needs and preferences of their customers, showcasing their ability to adapt and innovate.

Local Production: Craftsmen played a role in promoting local production and self-sufficiency. Communities relied on their skills to meet their needs.

Innovation and Adaptation: Craftsmen were not static in their practices. They adapted to changing demands and materials, leading to innovation in their respective crafts.

Other Saxon Trades

Traders and Merchants: Traders and merchants were responsible for traveling to markets, negotiating trades, and ensuring the safe transportation of goods. They needed to be well-versed in the value of various items and maintain good relationships with other traders.

Builders and Masons: Builders and masons were accountable for constructing and maintaining structures. They had to ensure that buildings were structurally sound and could withstand the elements.

Saxon Church
The impressive Saxon Church of St Lawrence. Built in the 10c © Copyright Humphrey Bolton

Clergy and Monks: Clergy and monks were entrusted with the spiritual guidance of the community. They conducted religious ceremonies, provided moral leadership, and maintained religious texts.

Hunters and Fishermen: Hunters and fishermen had to skilfully track and capture game and fish to supplement the community’s diet. They were expected to be knowledgeable about local wildlife and fishing techniques.

Healers and Herbalists: Healers and herbalists had a profound responsibility for the health and well-being of the community. They administered remedies, offered guidance on physical and mental health, and addressed medical concerns.

Bards and Storytellers: Bards and storytellers were responsible for preserving the cultural and historical traditions of the community. They needed to master the art of storytelling and commit epic tales and legends to memory.

Child Labour

Saxon children also had roles and responsibilities within the family and community. These responsibilities were often aligned with their age and abilities.

Children often assisted their parents with farm work, such as tending to animals, gathering firewood, or helping with planting and harvesting. As they grew older, their responsibilities increased.

Children would often follow in their fathers footsteps and learn such trades as carpentry.

Saxon children received informal education within the family. They learned practical skills, knowledge about the land, and, in the case of clergy’s families, religious teachings.

Children had daily chores that contributed to the household’s functioning. These included tasks like collecting water, milking animals, and helping with the cooking.


Children also participated in the preservation of oral traditions by listening to and learning from bards and storytellers. They absorbed the cultural and historical narratives of their people.

Saxon farmers, craftsmen, traders, builders, clergy, hunters, healers, and storytellers all contributed to the functionality and cultural richness of Saxon society. Additionally, children, from a young age, were involved in various tasks, learning from their parents and actively participating in the daily life of their community.

This division of labour was essential for the survival and prosperity of Saxon society, and it reflects the resourcefulness and resilience of these early medieval people. The fact we can still see evidence of their crafts today stands as testimony to their skills.