From manorialism to medieval guilds, traders and cities
Manorialism, amongst other things, was the result of the inability of high lords (like kings and dukes) to directly control their holdings. The agrarian manorialism system was an effective way to manage the land and its people by creating self-sufficient units (manors) controlled by one person (the Lord of the Manor), who would have a direct relationship with his lord (Knight, Baron, Earl, Duke etc). However, as the world emerged slowly from the dark ages and trade became once again a major economic force, towns were chartered as locations where people could exchange goods. Due to this influx of raw materials from the manors and all over the world, towns became manufacturing centres which all kinds of artisans and craftsmen called home. These skilled men came together and formed associations to protect their trade and their rights, and thus, medieval guilds enter the stage.
Merchant and craftsmen guilds
Merchant guilds were organizations of merchants. They were involved in long-distance commerce and local wholesale trade; they may also have been retail sellers of commodities in their home cities where they possessed rights to set up shop. The largest and most influential merchant guilds participated in international commerce and politics, and established colonies in foreign cities. In many cases, they evolved into, or became inextricably intertwined with, the governments of their home towns.
Craft guilds were organized for particular trades. Members of these guilds typically owned and operated small businesses or family workshops within the city. Craft guilds operated in many sectors of the economy. Guilds of victuallers bought agricultural commodities, converted them to consumables, and sold finished foodstuffs; examples include bakers, brewers, and butchers. Guilds of manufacturers made durable goods and, when profitable, exported them from their towns to consumers in distant markets; examples include makers of textiles, military equipment, and metal ware. Guilds of a third type sold skills and services; examples include clerks, teamsters, and entertainers.
The role of medieval guilds
Medieval guilds were established in order to make sure that the rights of the craftsmen they represented were protected. They did that by organising their members and representing them as a group, both in matters regarding the city’s administration and in their relations with other guilds and merchants. In addition, guilds set rules with regard to working hours, wages and working conditions, which their members were supposed to abide by.
Another very important role of the medieval guilds – either merchant or craftsmen – was the enforcement of monopolies. Guilds allowed only their members the right to exercise a craft within the confines of a city. Anyone who wished to practice the craft had to be vetted and accepted into the guild before doing so. This ensured that the quality of work was regulated, but also that competition was kept in check. Medieval guilds were also responsible for any legal disputes between their members, and it was quite common for guild meetings to also have legal proceedings in their agenda.
Finally, in some cases, medieval guilds operated as the middleman when large contracts were placed by the city, or when competitions for a contract were announced by a king or noble. Contract competitions became more common with the rise of organised armies and militia, and particularly during times of conflict. A good example of this would have been the weavers or blacksmith’s guilds of a city receiving a contract to product several thousand pieces of clothing or armour to equip a regiment of an army.
Medieval guilds education and ranks
In our previous article regarding medieval education in Europe, we mentioned that guilds played an important role in the education of craftsmen. As grammar schools and, later, universities provided education for the elite of the medieval world, guilds were the driving force behind the education of the rising city-dwelling middle class.
Cities were inhabited by men free of feudal responsibilities (freemen) which meant that, for the first time, common men had the opportunity through their own faculties to be in control of their own fates and the fate of their children. If a family had enough money, they were able to ask a master craftsman to take on their child as an apprentice. The family would have to pay the master enough money to house, feed and clothe the child for 9 years. During these nine years, the child would do the master’s bidding and shadow him in his workshop, slowly learning about the craft. Apprentices had no easy life and in most cases had to do the most mind-numbing and filthy work – only those truly committed would manage to accumulate enough knowledge to reach the next rank of the guild and become Journeymen.
After several years of being an apprentice (and eating, in most cases, the scraps off the table,) the master of the workshop would anoint the pupil as a Journeyman of the guild. At this point, he officially became a member of the guild and he would have had limited access to the guilds resources and – most importantly – a fair wage. As a journeyman, he would continue working under his previous master. or any other master of his trade. During this time, if he so wished, he could begin work on his masterpiece. A masterpiece is an item of exquisite craftsmanship, detail and artistry, or a major innovation in the field of his craft. Once a journeyman had completed a masterpiece, he could submit it to the guild for approval. If he was successful, the Journeyman would then receive the rank of Master.
As a Master of the guild, the craftsman was now a fully fledged member. He enjoyed the benefits and, of course, he then held the right to found his own workshop, taking on his own apprentices. Very rarely, two masters would continue working together, forming a partnership. This kind of practice gave rise to the later corporations. Very commonly, children (natural or adopted) would follow their fathers, first apprenticing under them and then later working on alongside them. These kinds of family businesses are encountered nowadays as well, and are commonly seen in names like “John Cobbler & Sons”. In fact, this strong hereditary tradition and such monopolies would have a very important role in the dissolution of guilds in the 18th century.
Contrary to legends, most medieval guilds had no Grandmaster, nor an inner circle (see Freemasons). Most guilds worked in a very democratic way, with each full member holding equal vote to decisions. More formalised hierarchies began to make their appearance in guilds only much later on, when guilds became larger organizations which spanned many cities and formed complex networks.
Fees and benefits
“The term guild probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon root ‘geld’ which meant ‘to pay, contribute.’ The noun form of ‘geld’ meant an association of persons contributing money for some common purpose. The root also meant ‘to sacrifice, worship.’ The dual definitions probably reflected guilds’ origins as both secular and religious organizations.”
Guilds played a very important role in the city’s politics. It is very common to see Merchant Guilds take the role of founders, mayors and exchequers for cities. Each guild member was obligated to pay a fee in support of the guild’s agenda, members and maintenance. In return, the guild used this money to issue loans to its members, take care of the families of sick or deceased members, and maintain their assets.
Not every guild had a guild house, but those which did used it as a place for their members to discuss issues, and also to sell and exhibit their goods. In the case of merchant guilds or bigger, multi-city-spanning medieval guilds, it was not uncommon for the guild houses to also have lodgings for travelling members.
Most City Charters required that guilds contributed to the city in a meaningful way. These contributions could have been, for example, the construction or furnishing of public buildings, public works, the maintenance of almshouses or the organisation of public events. Remnants of these kind of contributions can still be found across cities in Europe.
List of craftsmen guilds of the City of London
The list below shows the breadth of craftsmen that operated in the City of London Corporation in the late 1300s. You will notice that the candle makers had, in fact, two different guilds which used different raw materials, and were in competition with each other.
Armourers & brasiers (armour-makers and workers in brass)
Barbers (also surgeons and dentists)
Bowyers (longbow makers)
Brewers (beer brewers)
Cappers (cappers, pinners, wiredrawers, and linendrapers)
Carvers (wrights and slaters)
Chandlers (candle makers)
Coopers & Turners (wood workers)
Cordwainers (workers in fine leather)
Cordwainers and shoemakers
CorvisersCurriers (dressers of tanned leather)
Drapier and hosiers
Dyers (hewsters, bellfounders)
Farriers (shoers of horses)
Feltcappers or feltmakers.
Fletchers (fletchers, bowyers, boopers, and stringers)
Founders and pewterers
Girdlers (girdles and belts as clothing)
Goldsmiths (jewellers, clockmakers)
Headmakers (smiths, cutlers, and plumbers)
Innholders, cooks, and victuallers
Joiners, carvers, and turners
Loriners (stirrups and other harness for horses)
Mercers (general merchants)
Pattenmakers (makers of wooden clog-style footwear)
Scriveners (writers of court letters and legal documents)
Tallow chandlers (candle makers)
Vintners (wine makers)
Wax Chandlers (candle makers)
Weavers (fullers, chaloners)
Woolmen (winders and packers of wool)
The fall of the medieval guild system
The medieval guild system became a target of much criticism towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. They were believed to oppose free trade and hinder technological innovation, technology transfer and business development. According to several accounts of this time, guilds became increasingly involved in simple territorial struggles against each other and against free practitioners of their arts.
Two of the most outspoken critics of the medieval guild system were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, and all over Europe a tendency to oppose governmental control over trades, in favour of laissez-faire free market systems, was growing rapidly and making its way into the political and legal system. The French Revolution saw medieval guilds as a last remnant of feudalism. The Le Chapelier Law of 1791 abolished the guilds in France. Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter X, paragraph 72):
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
– Adam Smith
- The Crafts and Culture of a Medieval Guild, Joann Jovinelly, Jason Netelkos, Rosen Publishing Group (2006)
- V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Later Medieval Chester: City Government and Politics, 1350–1550 (Decay of the Guild Merchant). This chapter is based in part on research and earlier drafts by J. Laughton (1350–1500), J. I. Kermode (1500–50), G. C. F. Forster (1550–1702), and A. P. M. Wright (1702–62).
- Life in a Medieval City, Frances and Joseph Gies