Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Learn a Trade with a Medieval Guild

Shoemakers (1558) Jost Amman Paul Lacroix ;  published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

We have spoken much in this blog about weapons, or tools, architecture etc in the middle/renaissance period; but who were the people that made these items?  Then answer is probably a member of a guild.
Although the guilds were trade unions (teaching new members, and maintaining work for established members) they were much more. The guild was a major social, economic and political power during the middle ages, and the renaissance. 
Early guilds were communities, who worked for the common good of their society. The word guild itself is referenced to the gold which was deposited into the member’s common funds.
The trade guilds were first formed as a formation of merchants. This occurred after the Norman Conquest in England.  Specific merchants were given exclusive rights to do business in certain towns or cities.
The guilds soon expanded to include craftsmen and artists. The guilds began to flourish throughout Europe. It was the purpose of the guild to pass on their trade to younger apprentices; as a result of this task, the Universities at Bologna, and Oxford were established to teach the trades used in guilds.
The guilds also controlled the supplies needed to complete their crafts. This included transportation of these supplies to their home countries. This meant they needed royal influence on establishing treaties with other kingdoms and nations.  The guilds were very responsible for establishing trade lines between countries.
The guilds soon became more than teachers of a craft; they became overlords of it, controlling every aspect of it.  They made sure that the techniques of a craft or trade, were done by ONLY one of their members.  The knowledge on how to do a specific task, became well-guarded secret known only to their members. In keeping this knowledge secret, the members had to perform an oath (this is the basis of some secret societies making oaths to the group).  This oath taking did make the guilds at odds against the Catholic Church who opposed these practices. This ownership of skills or trade was the precursor to today’s patent rights.
Laws were established that established the guilds dominion over their specific trades. Example a simple carpenter was unable to use a type of plane. The use of that plane had to be completed by the member of a specific guild.
The guilds were given power, separate from the government to enforce their rules. Some of these dealt with finances, such as collecting of fees, or distributing funds back to the members.  The guilds were also given enforcement of laws of its members. Members that violated the internal rules of a guild could expect retribution from that guild, including jail sentences.
The guilds also provided a community service to its members. Funds would be set aside to help the members that were injured, or to their widows or orphans.
The guilds also gave consumers some protection and rights. The members were only allowed to charge a pre-set amount for their service, this guaranteed a set rate throughout the country.  Also, the work completed had to meet certain standards; the reputation of the guild was based on each individual’s ability.
Hiring a member of a guild or a credited craftsman, was the norm for Europe.  In America, this was a different situation.  Americans, for the most part, were not valued citizens of a country.  We had forced immigration, thrown out, or left from almost every country in the world.
Because of this, tradesmen with a specific skill were not common in the Americas. We did have craftsmen such at silversmiths, but they were not as frequent as their counterparts in Europe. We however, had jack of all trades, people who were blacksmiths could work with all metals not just specific ones. Carpenters had to develop the skills needed to repair not just furniture but also barns. In some places in the Americas there were not even skilled craftsman; immigrants and settlers had to learn the basics of them all.  This lack of specific tradesman may be one of the contributing factors in America’s independence and self-reliance attitude.
The attitude and acceptance of the guilds soon changed. Trying to protect its members, they were against some technology and also free trade. After a long period of decline, the way the guilds operated were soon over. The remnants of the guilds soon turned into more of a trade union, consisting of training apprentices and assigning work.
The time for the guild passed, but their remnants are still with us today.  The fraternal group the Freemasons deriving from the Masons or Stonemasons guild. There are many acting guilds, which control how, and who acts, in movies and televisions. In many countries, groups controlling the licensing of medical personnel or the legal profession are still referred to as a guild.

Next Time: Back to some illustrations for a novel.
W.A.Rusho is an author, historian and professional wrestler. You can contact him by visiting his website, or email him.


  1. I have heard much about the Freemasons. Interesting they are linked to the work of the guilds.

  2. William, in addition to the zillion other things you do, ever thought of teaching an adult ed class on this stuff in your community? Gosh, you sure know a lot! The guilds sound like unions out of control.

    1. This blog is my teaching, I reach a larger audience. The reason I know so much about this is basically my research for writing my medieval novel. Too bad it wasn't a novel based in a hospital, I would be a doctor by now.

  3. William -- I always find your posts about Medieval history so interesting. We still have union rules in the U.S. where a member of one union in a workplace is not allowed to even pick up something that was dropped by another union member. Unfortunately, these rigid rules prompted companies to do everything in their power to prevent their companies from being unionized.

  4. Interesting to learn about the medieval craft guilds, William. As a professional writer, I have always belonged to several different writers' associations. I think it is necessary and important for us to gravitate where like-minded people are so that we can help and learn from one another.

  5. Guild definitely have their pros and cons. Like Doreen, I belong to a handful of writers' assocation. By and large, they are beneficial, but truly taking advantage of all the benefits offered is time consuming.

  6. You are an interesting information source for us when it comes to info from the medieval period :D

  7. Very interesting William. Like others, I've heard of Freemasons but mostly through movies and a couple of books, hardly reliable sources. And I too have belonged to associations in the past, but personally never found them to be worth the investment. Thanks for this fascinating read!

  8. Those craftmen had wonderful skills and it's such a shame that some of the youths of today haven't mastered such skills.

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