The Development of Craft Guilds

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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 remains the dominant guild with other guilds subordinate to it and the rules stipulate that no one can belong to an occupational guild who is not a member of the town guild. However, this is the exception and not the norm which is for the guilds to break off and form a complete separation from the town guild. This leaves 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 is represented by a guild. There are butchers', bakers', sword makers', goldsmiths', tanners', leather workers', booksellers' and parchment-makers' guild. Even the prostitutes have a guild in some French cities, notably Paris and Toulouse. As a rule the members of a guild tend 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) can vote. The great guilds include the wealthiest and most powerful men of the city and are comprised of:

The fourteen lesser guilds include smaller businessmen and craftsmen. These lesser guilds are often called the craft guilds and are 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 are many other crafts than are identified here, and they form their own organizations but belong to the same larger guild.

These 21 guilds comprise only a small percentage of the population and yet held all the power. In order to hold political office, a Florentine has to belong to one of the guilds. The guild-member citizens assemble in the public square to pass major laws.

Gentlemen are involved with one of the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, music, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry or astronomy).

Below these twenty-one guilds are seventy-two unions of voteless working men. Below these are thousands of day laborers forbidden to organize and living in poverty. At the bottom of the ladder are 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.


Picture courtesy of Stewart Quinsolve at website William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon: Brief History, Times and References


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Created for the Fermilab LInC program sponsored by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Education Office, Friends of Fermilab, United States Department of Energy, Illinois State Board of Education, and North Central Regional Technology in Education Consortium which is operated by North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).
Authors: Bonnie Panagakis, Chris Marszalek, Linda Mazanek
School: Twin Groves Junior High School, Buffalo Grove, Illinois 60089
Created: November 25, 1997 - Updated: