Medieval Guilds

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Guildhall, Leicester. 14th century with later 16th/17th century additions.

In the 10th and 11th centuries Europe began to flourish, with towns being established and growing larger. This lead to an influx of merchants, who had, up until this time, mostly sold their wares by travelling from place to place personally carrying out all of their own trading transactions. With the increase in these peddlers roaming from town to town with their goods, came the opportunity for robbery, so many merchants banded together in order to protect themselves from bandits. The craftsmen mainly chose to form associations with those of the same trade, such as textile workers, carpenters, glass workers and masons, probably to ensure the protection of trade secrets and methods. Although there were several types, the two main categories were Craft and Merchant Guilds. The word Guild is from the Saxon “Gilden” meaning “To pay” and refers to the subscription paid to the Guilds by their members.

Gradually these groups of merchants and craftsmen began to settle in one place whilst delegating tasks such as the transportation of goods to others. Over time these groups became more organised and structured, becoming legally recognised by town governments. In order to regulate and protect their member’s trade certain rules and regulations were established. In most towns in order to ply your trade you had to be a member of a Guild. Foreign merchants and traders were made to pay a fee in order to participate in local trade, and some outsiders were prohibited from participating at all. Many guilds obtained a charter and founded their own towns.

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The interior of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

A guild would ensure that anything made by one of its members was up to standard and sold for a fair price. Any member found to be cheating the public would be fined, and made to re do the work at their own cost. The worst offenders would be expelled from their Guild. This would mean they could no longer trade within that particular town. Being a member of a guild was an honour, as it marked you as a skilled tradesman and respected member of society.

Each guild was required to perform public services such as policing the streets and aiding the construction of public buildings such as chapels, and they would contribute by donating windows to churches and cathedrals. The guilds also provided particular services for their poorer members, such as covering funeral expenses and giving aid to their families, and providing a dowry for their daughters. The members were also covered with a type of health insurance and assistance with care for the sick. The members of the guild were called, confraternities, brothers, helping one another.

There was a close connection between the guilds and the local authorities, and the city or town councils could intervene if there was trouble between guilds. The council could also establish the hours of work, prices and weights and measures used. Guilds usually voted as a unit, so guild officials were frequently appointed to serve in government. They also paid taxes as a group.

By the 13th century guilds were comprised of the most influential and wealthiest citizens. Guild members were divided into a hierarchy of masters, journeymen and apprentices. A boy could be apprenticed from the age of 12. He would usually board with a master, who would provide food, clothing and an education, in exchange for free labour, or more commonly a large payment from the boy’s parents. The apprentice would serve a fixed term ranging from 2 to 14 years, during this time he was forbidden to marry, and a visit to the local inn was usually banned as well! Once the apprenticeship was completed he would become a Journeyman, entitled to a wage, and expected to create a “Masterpiece”, a piece of his own design which he could only work on using his own tools and raw materials, in his own time. Once he had completed his Masterpiece he could present it to the guild in order for them to vote on whether he was competent enough to become a master.

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The Medieval Merchant Adventurers Hall, York. Again a medieval timber framed structure.

This was no easy task, as the state of the economy guided the vote; it was undesirable to have too many masters in one guild if the economy was under strain. However, if he was successful he could go on to set up his own workshop and train apprentices himself.
Guilds flourished up until the 15th century, when their slow decline began. Working exclusively for their own interests the guilds had begun to erode their own usefulness, by setting ridiculously high standards for apprentices and journeymen, and selective entrance polices corrupted with nepotism. Attempting to monopolize trade within their own communities they were frequently hostile towards anything which may threaten their member’s interests, and they sought to remove any activities which they could not bring under their control.

By the 16th century many merchants had begun to form their own companies, rendering the merchant guilds less important. Advancing technology had damaged the craft guilds, and the Reformation had been hugely disruptive.

In the 19th century the guild system was disbanded and replaced by free trade laws, although modern guilds do still exist in different forms around the world. However, many fine examples of medieval guild halls still remain.

Caz