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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree March 2019 > TRACE YOUR ANCESTORS’ TRADES & INDUSTRIES:The history of OLD OCCUPATIONS


Learn about your ancestors’ world of work, from The fields to The factories. Wayne Shepheard investigates The history of occupations, key sources, and The cultural and climatic background against which The times played out, to help you discover your ancestors’ employment of yesteryear
A map showing The distribution of The industrial and commercial population of The British Isles in The late 19th century
A map showing The distribution of The agricultural population of The British Isles

Most genealogists, if They can trace Their families back far enough, will discover Their ancestors were farmers. But, during The Middle Ages, The establishment of towns across most of Europe and increased migration to These new urban centres meant that a greater proportion of people could earn Their living solely as wage-paid tradesmen, artisans or in commercial and professional endeavours too.

A favourable climate for working people

More to The point, These changes occurred during The Medieval Warm Period, when The overall physical climate of Europe became very favourable for human habitation and societal expansion. Between about 900AD and 1300AD, The world was a warm place with generally stable weaTher (Fagan, 2008; Lamb, 1995; Shepheard, 2018a). With advantageous climatic parameters, consistently ideal farming conditions persisted for years on end, and with few interruptions.

It should be noted that this was a time when The world actually became warm once again, since There had been many oTher warm climatic periods, alternating with cold ones, prior to The 10th century AD. In each of These propitious episodes during The preceding 10 millennia, significant progress had been made with respect to food production and to The expansion of human activities, including in construction, manufacturing and trade.

The differences between The Medieval Warm Period and previous warm eras was largely one of technological advancements which, in and of Themselves, allowed people to be more successful in agricultural pursuits and to begin to specialise in oTher types of work.

Bountiful harvests & specialised jobs

Throughout The Medieval Warm Period The successive bountiful harvests moved food supplies past The historical subsistence levels of previous centuries. Population, as one might expect, soared – Europe growing from fewer than 50 million to more than 80 million people. The populace was healthier; better hygiene led to resistance to disease; life span increased. The rising numbers of people, of course, resulted in higher demand for food which, in turn, led to an expansion of arable land. The profusion of farms, along with improvements in agricultural processes entailed greater food production overall, although not necessarily on a per worker basis.


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Roll up your sleeves and start digging for details about their work today with our top tips for tracing ancestors’ working lives. Learning about your ancestors’ work is the best way to get a feel for the lives they led. Did they have to tramp miles each day to reach the mine? Or did the whole family work together from home? Was everyone down their street employed in a similar industry? Did their toil leave them aching at the end of their shift, or working long into the night, just to make ends meet? Their line of work will tell you about the occupational hazards they may have faced, the sort of income and opportunities it gave, and an understanding of their times and their individual lives too.