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The development of the craft guilds in Medieval Society had a vast effect on the institutional structure of most towns. At first, when a town was founded, there was only one guild and all the town inhabitants were members of that guild. The guild's officials were the governing body of the town and were the ones who exercised all the powers granted by the town charter. This led to a hesitancy amongst the guild members in power to admit new members. Serfs could flee to the town, live there a year and a day, and so become freemen, but most did not gain admittance to the guild. This practice led to most towns having an unprivileged sector within their population.
After a time, great differences in wealth and economic interests began to develop among the members of the guild itself. Artisans were inclined to make far less money than the merchants who lived by trade. The merchants were interested in using their monopoly for importing goods and selling them within the town to keep prices high. This annoyed the artisans who did not share in the high profits. Gradually the structure of the "one" guild broke down as more and more artisans broke away from the town guild and formed their own separate corporations. This differed from town to town. For example, in Oxford the town guild still remained the dominant guild with other guilds subordinate to it and the rules stipulated that no one could belong to an occupational guild who was not a member of the town guild. However, this was the exception and not the norm which was for the guilds to break off and form a complete separation from the town guild. This left the original "one" or town guild to become the merchant guild.
This formation process of the craft guilds lasted over many years. By the end of the twelfth century the only craft guilds found in England outside London were those of the textile workers: weavers, dyers, and fullers. In London, the guilds eventually became known also as liveries. A guild obtains its charter from the monarch, but its grant of livery since 1560 comes from the Court of Aldermen, who have to be satisfied that "....a number of men of good repute from some trade or mystery not already represented by an existing guild have joined together for a time sufficiently long to justify the belief that they will continue to gold together and are not likely to fall apart from lack of interest or support."
This guild structure appeared a little earlier in France but it took until the thirteenth century for it to develop fully. In France, almost every conceivable occupation was represented by a guild. There were butchers', bakers', sword makers', goldsmiths', tanners', leather workers', booksellers' and parchment-makers' guild. Even the prostitutes had a guild in some French cities, notably Paris and Toulouse. As a rule the members of a guild tended to live together on the same street.
In the first half of the 14th century the guilds of Florence, Italy were divided into the seven great guilds called the Arti Maggiori (greater guilds) and 14 lesser guilds called the Arti Minori (minor guilds). Both the members of the greater guilds known as the popolo grasso (fat people) and the members of the lesser guilds known as the popolo minuto (little people) could vote. The great guilds included the wealthiest and most powerful men of the city and were comprised of:
The fourteen lesser guilds included smaller businessmen and craftsmen. These lesser guilds were often called the craft guilds and were comprised of butchers; shoemakers; blacksmiths; builders; secondhand dealers; wine-dealers; innkeepers; sellers of salt, oil and cheese; tanners; armorers; ironworkers; girdle makers; woodworkers; and bakers. There were many other crafts than are identified here, and they formed their own organizations but belonged to the same larger guild.
These 21 guilds comprised only a small percentage of the population and yet held all the power. In order to hold political office, a Florentine had to belong to one of the guilds. The guild-member citizens assembled in the public square to pass major laws.
Gentlemen were involved with one of the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, music, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry or astronomy).
Below these twenty-one guilds were seventy-two unions of voteless working men. Below these were thousands of day laborers forbidden to organize and living in poverty. At the bottom of the ladder were a few slaves. By the middle of the 15th century the number of guilds extended to well over a hundred in Venice with such industries as shipbuilding, iron manufacturing, glass blowing, leather dressing and tooling, gem cutting and setting, textiles, etc.
The number one purpose of the craft guild was to protect the economic interests of its members. Rules regulated membership and trade. No artisan could work in a town unless he was a member of the local guild. No goods could be imported into a town if they competed with local products. It was in this way, that the local guilds held a monopoly of the market within its own town. Competition amongst members of the same guild was discouraged and the guild would do almost anything to prevent it. Each guild laid down detailed regulations governing the quality of its product, the methods of manufacture, and the price that could be charged for it. These regulations were meant to promote the ideal of every member of the guild making exactly the same thing by the same methods and selling it at the same price. Even the hours of labor were rigidly controlled. For example, a member of a guild where careful, difficult work was required was not allowed to work before sunrise or after sunset.
With the power of a monopoly structure behind them, the craft guilds could obviously abuse their power by lowering the quality of their goods and raising the prices. It was up to the government to step in and oversee the guilds. In England where the royal government was strong the more important guilds were carefully supervised. The English government set the weight, quality, and price of loaves of bread and the quality and measure of ale. Strict regulations for the making of cloth was laid down and enforced by governmental inspectors. In France the guilds were more likely to be controlled in cities where the lord was powerful. The regulations of most guilds within Paris had to be approved by the royal provost and he was then responsible for seeing that the guild officers enforced them. Other various dignitaries controlled the other guilds. For example, the booksellers and ink makers were ruled by the rector of the university, the makers of candles and sacred vestments by the bishop, and the wine dealers by the royal butler. Unfortunately in self-governing towns control was difficult and the guilds tended to abuse their monopolies rather freely.
To make such a closely controlled monopoly such as the guilds represented work effectively, the supply of products had to be adjusted carefully to the demand for the products. Each guild tried to do this by limiting the number of its members. If a young man wished to be admitted to a guild, he first had to learn the trade by serving as an apprentice to a guild member or master. If you wanted to follow in your father's business, you had to go elsewhere to learn it, for the law forbade fathers to take their own sons as apprentices. This resulted in fathers placing their children in the care of a friend or colleague whom he knew to act as the child's "master" and train them in the business. Children were usually placed as apprentices between the ages of seven and nine. Fathers had to pay for their children to be apprenticed and placing a child in a well-know house of business was expensive.
Each guild set the number of apprentices each member could have and the number of years the apprentices had to serve. This way, the guild was able to control the number of craftsmen in its occupation. Each guild had its own uniform in order to be able to determine for example a shoemaker's apprentice from one who belonged to a different craft.
Many times fights would break out between apprentices of different guilds. And at still other times, they would play together. Sometimes apprentices were a great nuisance to other people in the towns. Apprentices would take matters into their own hand often and though probably not meaning anything more than fun, would often let pranks go to far. A rather extreme case of this took place in 1516 when some London apprentices tried to murder a man whom they had taken a dislike to. The man's friends hid him in the gutters of his house while the apprentices looted and ransacked the man's shoemaker shop.
Standards were set to make sure that those wishing admittance to a guild were adequately trained in its particular craft. This resulted in the practice of an apprentice producing a "masterpiece" at the end of his training which he presented to the guild's officers as proof of his ability to practice the trade.
At the beginning of the guild system, each member of a craft guild had a small workshop where he worked with a few apprentices. When an apprentice finished his term of training and his "masterpiece" passed inspection by the guild officers, could start working for anyone who needed a helper and if he saved enough could become a master and have a shop of his own.
As time went on however, there was a natural inclination on the part of the masters who were the members of the guild to keep their numbers down, have more workmen under them, and thus increase their profits and keep the competition down. This resulted in apprentices having to work for a certain number of years past their initial training period as a journeyman or hired day laborer. This allowed the masters to have fairly large shops in which apprentices and journeymen worked for them.
The masters preferred to take on more apprentices rather than promote journeymen into master status in order to keep their numbers down and therefore secure their share of the available market. Eventually it became almost impossible to become a master unless you were the son of a master or married a master's daughter. This left the majority of men working in the craft without hope of rising beyond journeyman status.
Unfortunately, the journeymen were almost completely at the mercy of the masters who ran the guild. The guild did guarantee every journeyman work. In Paris the journeymen of a guild gathered each morning at a certain place where the masters came and chose the men they wanted. If any journeymen were left over, the guild officers assigned them to masters. Through the guild, the masters set the journeyman's wages and regulated the hours and conditions of his work. In some towns, those journeymen brave enough, tried to form organizations of their own in order to fight the masters rule. However the masters always had the support of the town government and the journeymen were rarely successful.
When girls were placed as apprentices, usually at the age of seven or eight, the masters' wives took charge of their training. Most guilds excluded women but some allowed women to join, though at the same time excluding them from full participation in social activities. Some of the guilds allowing women were those of the butchers, ironmongers, shoemakers, hot-food sellers, bookbinders, and goldsmiths. Still others, such as those involving domestic activities such as brewing, spinning, and silk making, were exclusively female industries. If a woman found herself widowed, she was allowed to practice the trade of her deceased husband. These women could then become masters in the trade but usually were required to give up their membership in their guild if they married men belonging to different guilds.
Guilds performed social and religious functions within its ranks along with its chief purpose of economic control. They cared for the widows and children of members who died and paid the costs of the funeral. Very often they ran schools for the children of their members. Each guild also conducted religious ceremonies in honor of their patron saint. These religious functions were usually performed by a separate organization called a confrerie, but it members were the members of the guild. This religious influence can be seen in the construction of the Chartres cathedral, where each of the town's guilds donated a nave window.
Eventually the antagonism between the ruling merchant guild of the town the the craft guilds erupted into serious political disturbances in many cities, even riots and revolts. In Flanders during the fourteenth century the craftsmen rebelled, overthrew the government of rich merchants, routed the king of France who was the merchants' ally, and later formed an alliance with Edward III of England. This effect of the revolt of the Flemish weavers was the exception rather than the rule, however, the serious uprisings in other towns usually terminated in an arrangement whereby the craft guilds shared in the town government.
Although the guild system had many obvious advantages such as providing a large measure of social and economic security for its members and supplying the means for guild members to co-operate for social, economic, and political activities, it had a great weakness. This weakness was its inability to adjust itself to technological progress. A guild member could not use a new method of manufacture until it had been accepted by the guild and provided for in the regulations. In practice, this acceptance of new methods was next to impossible. This meant that any innovators were forced to work outside the jurisdiction and protection of the guilds. An example is the wool industry. During the twelfth century the regular method of fulling cloth was to put it in water and stamp on it or beat it with paddles. It occurred to someone late in the century that water power could perform this task more effectively. Fulling mills began to sprout up but the guilds refused to have anything to do with them. Therefore, the fulling mills were built outside the towns away from the jurisdiction of the guilds. By building their mills on land of a powerful Nobel, the millers insured that the guilds dare not refuse to accept the product of their mills. As a result, much of the wool industry of late medieval England grew up in the countryside to avoid the guilds. This scenario repeated itself during the Renaissance period as other technological improvements were developed.
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