In short, a great deal!
From The Distributist Review.
By Russell Sparkes
What Were the Guilds?
The Spiritual Role of the Guilds
Historians are almost unanimous in holding that, taking into consideration that less was spent on food, rent, and furniture, and above all on intellectual needs, it was easier for a workman’s family to make both ends meet in those days than it is now … it is not too much to say that, materially the position of the journeyman was at least equal, if not superior, to that of the workman of today. It was also better morally. He sometimes assisted in the drawing up and execution of the laws of the community; he was his master’s companion in ideas, beliefs, education, tastes. Above all, there was the possibility of rising one day to the same social level… [in the case of] the lesser guilds where the workshop remained small, intimate, and homely. [However], directly we go on to study the great commercial and industrial guilds profound inequalities appear.2
One of the most remarkable features of medieval guild life was the way in which it combined secular and religious activities in the same social complex. The guild chantry, the provision of prayers and masses for dead brethren, and the performance of pageants and mystery plays on the great feasts were no less the function of the guild than the common banquet, the regulation of work and wages, the giving of assistance to fellow-guild members in sickness or misfortune.3
The medieval city was a pattern of Christian society as we find it in Thomist theory… with its cathedrals and its intensive church life, its religious confraternities and guilds, its care for the spiritual and material welfare of its inhabitants, and its educational charitable institutions (it appears) as the highest point of the medieval spirit.4
To the extent that medieval man theorized about his society he regarded it not as a Gesellschaft or association like a firm, but as a Gemeinschaft or community like a family: as an organism with the Pope as the head, the warriors as the arms and the peasants as the feet…. The economy of medieval Europe in general, leaving aside a few highly unusual areas, was an agrarian peasant economy which was characterized by a high degree of self-sufficiency within each community.5
If the bond of love and friendship is laudable among mere rational men, then how much more is that which is between Christians who are tied by the strongest bonds of faith and religion; but above all by those Christians who form one fraternity bound and linked together by a solemn oath.6
The support of chaplain to celebrate for the souls of former guild members and for the welfare of those still living makes it clear that the fraternities can be regarded as a kind of collective chantry, supported in some cases by men who could not afford to endow one on their own account. Behind such foundations was the fundamental outlook of those who established them, the belief that life on earth was but a passing phase of existence, that man’s true destiny was eternity, and that the sacraments which were necessary for salvation could be administered by the priest alone.7
With some variations all medieval guilds were modeled along the (same) lines—the maintenance of lights before images and the Blessed Sacrament, the procurement of attendance, and prayers, of the whole guild at funerals of deceased members, and finally the exercise of sociability and charity at a communal feast associated with the saint’s day.8
With regard to production, the guilds prided themselves on giving an official guarantee to the consumer. Hence the many articles contained in the statutes in which they boast of their good faith, or make a mark of emphasizing the honesty of their trade dealings; hence the complicated regulations for the prevention of bad work; hence the minute instructions prescribing the number of vats into which the Florentine dyer was to dip his materials and the quality and quantity of the colouring matters he was to employ…. The guild prided itself on letting nothing leave its shops but finished products, perfect of their kind; it examined and stamped every article, and further required that it should bear a special trade mark stating where it was made and its just price.9
Their most potent economic function was to control entry into the craft or ‘mystery’, thereby preserving a local monopoly and by the enforcement of apprenticeship, maintaining both the standards of the work and the level of wages. Full membership of the guilds then became a formal path to the “freedom” of the town and thus the right to carry on business there.10
Loans are made largely for consumption, not for production. The farmer whose harvest fails or whose beasts die, or the artisan who loses money, must have credit, seed corn, cattle, raw materials, and his distress is the money-lender’s opportunity. Naturally, there is a passionate popular sentiment against the engrosser who holds a town to ransom, the monopolist who brings the livings of many into the hands of one, the money-lender who takes advantage of his neighbors’ necessities to get a lien on their land and foreclose.12
The Doctor, in short, still exists as a roughly recognizable figure. The Dyer has totally disappeared…. The reason why the Doctor is recognizable, and the Dyer is unrecognizable, is perfectly simple. It is that the Doctors not only were, but still are, organized on the idea of a Medieval Guild…. The British Medical Council, which is the council of a Guild … does what a Guild was supposed to do. It keeps the doctors going; it keeps the doctors alive, and it does prevent one popular quack from eating all his brethren out of house and home. It sets limit to competition; it prevents monopoly.13
The merchant or craftsman found in his craft guild security in times of trouble, monetary help in times of poverty, and medical assistance in case of illness. At Florence the carpenters and masons had their own hospital. When a member died, shops were shut, every one attended his funeral, and masses were said for his soul.14
Apart from the obligatory assistance at certain offices and at the funerals of its members, the fraternity owned a chest, that is to say a fund maintained out of the subscriptions and voluntary devotions of the members, as well as the fines which they incurred. Of these funds, collected from various sources, part was given to the poor, to the hospitals, and to the expenses of worship. Thus at the Rennes the fraternity of bakers ordained that in every batch of bread one loaf of fair size should be set apart, called the tourteau-Dieu, which brings to mind the portion for God or the poor.15
When the royal commissioners went out in 1546, and again in 1548 to survey the colleges, chantries, obit land, guilds and fraternities which the crown was about to seize, they were interested in institutions with permanent endowments of land and property—that was what the government was after.16
If any of the forsaid brotherhood falls into such mischief that he hath nought for old age or be able to help himself, and have dwelled as the brotherhood for 8 years and have done thereto all duties within the time, every week after he shall have of this common box 13 pence for the term of his life or he be recovered of his mischief.
Modern Lessons from the Guilds
- See B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 2005. Also G.A.H. Hodgett, A Social and Economic History of Medieval Europe (Methuen: London, 1972).
- G. Renard, Guilds in the Middle Ages (G.Bell: London, 1919).
- C.H. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Sheed & Ward : London, 1950).
- E. Troelscht, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (1912).
- Hodgett, op cit.
- Quoted in C.H. Dawson, Medieval Religion (Sheed & Ward: London, 1935).
- J.F. Thomson, The Transformation of Medieval England 1370-1529 (Longman : London, 1983).
- E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale University Press, 1994).
- Renard, op cit.
- D.C Coleman, The Economy of England 1450-1750 (Oxford University Press : London and Oxford, 1977).
- Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, op cit.
- R.H. Tawny, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (John Murray : London, 1964).
- G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (Faber & Faber : London, 1932).
- Renard, op cit.
- Renard, op cit.
- J.J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Wiley Blackwell; 2nd edition, London, 1985).
- Thomson, op cit.
- Renard, op cit.