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"Yesterday we had rat, today mole … and now I'm off after the corgis with my little cleaver!"

Butcher Beynon, from Under Milk Wood Dylan Thomas

Basic Information

A butcher is one who makes a living by preparing animal carcasses for consumption. In most times and places he may also create the animal carcasses and sell the resulting meat. Indeed in many places "butcher" may be used to refer to any seller of meat (or at least meat for human consumption) whether or not they actually prepared their own product or not. Any given butcher may slaughter and dress animals brought to him by clients for a fee, or purchase stock at his own venture, slaughter it and sell the meat - and many combine the two practices.

Butchers may specialise by type of animal, but apart from divisions like poulterers (who deal mainly in birds) and fishmongers (who deal in seafood), this is unusual.

Where a culture has a proper form of ritual preparation of meat - such as kashrut or halakka - then a butcher will need to be at least familiar with it, and may even have some form of religious initiation to perform appropriate rites. Other, more general skills would include decent physical condition (especially where large animals are being killed and dressed) - although not always a slim figure or great fitness (indeed the traditional English butcher would seem to be a rather stout man), and being handy with a variety of knives, saws and axe-like things … indeed the polearm known as the poll-axe may well have derived from a slaughterman's tool.

In a low tech society, a butcher may also conduct some meat derivatives work such as tallow rendering - although this is the sort of job likely to be palmed off onto an apprentice or labourer. The same may well apply to blood products in any culture that uses animal blood - black puddings1 (and indeed white puddings2), black soup and those sorts of things. Preserving meat may also be part of the butchers trade - or a separate one. This may depend on market volume and specialisation but it is not unreasonable for there to be some mixture of trades (for example a town butcher may make and sell dried or smoked sausages, but if you want a barrel of salted beef you will need to go to a professional salter).

Generally, the butcher is an uneasy social position - for most of history, meat has been a luxury food and so butchering relatively lucrative, and yet the blood and gore and bits of stray animal would tend to make this an "unclean" profession (even if the culture in question doesn't make such a distinction openly), but equally - and unusually for an "unclean" profession - they handle food.

This may have something to do with the strong undercurrent of suspicion that so often seems to exist towards butchers - mainly to do with sharp business practice3 or adulterated meat, but also a general unease towards someone who is expected to be comfortable around that much blood and who has an impressive array of sharp objects and, in many cases, the ability to subdue and kill quite large animals. The legend of the cannibal butcher is never very deeply buried.

Added to this there is the tradition of awarding the title "The Butcher" to anyone who seems particularly fond of killing …

Also relevant to the butcher's trade is that of the knacker - who removes fallen stock unfit for human consumption and processes it for industrial use and/or animal feed. This is very much a lower caste version of the butcher, and likely not to be admitted to any relevant guild, thus to draw a hard (if possibly over-optimistic) line between those who feed people and those who don't. Depending on setting, a knacker may also collect any wastes from the workplaces of genuine butchers and sell them on to renderers, glue-boilers and other such customers4.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The cannibal butcher is always a good cliché. This can be blended up with something like a tamanous in a butcher's apron, sneaking a little of his victims into the food chain to ensure his own continued food supply.
  • A butcher might make a decent surgeon for an emergency amputation - as long as you have some way to stop the bleeding afterwards.
  • Also, probably quite handy in a fight … which could be a problem if you're trying to stop him eating people.
  • A butcher will be one of very few people in the modern era to use mail.
  • A high end butcher, especially in a fantasy setting, might commission adventurers to round up exotic beasts for his wealthy clients.
    • Which can take us back into villain territory if the meat happens to be unicorn or the like.
      • "Phoenix liver pate? Doesn't a phoenix burst into flames when it dies?" "When it dies, yes."
  • What passes for "meat" might be a bone of contention - difference cultures, let alone species, may have strong views on what can be hung on a butcher's rail.
  • Consider the possibility of drama when a knacker collecting waste from a butcher is suggested to be dropping off rather than collecting…
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