By Hammer And Hand All Arts Do Stand: The Medieval Guild

CULTURE | December 4, 2019

A smith at work. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Labor and trade during the European Middle Ages were regulated by guilds. This system of labor was in many ways the medieval equivalent of a monopoly. They reached the peak of their influence between the 11th and 16th centuries and influenced the art, architecture, economy, and society of the Middle Ages.

A medieval market. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

 Prior to the guild system, merchants lived isolated, itinerant lives, conducting their own transactions and moving from village to village. In the 10th century, towns, which had been greatly reduced during the Early Middle, or Dark Ages, began to flourish again. Merchants then were able to start to ban together finding that in aggregate they had more influence than as individuals. This gave rise to merchant guilds

Guilds developed in the 10th century after the early, disruptive period of the Early Middle Ages when towns began to flourish again. A guild’s goal was to control all the commerce connected to craft or trade in a town or region. Merchant guilds were one type in which associations controlled long-distance trade. Membership in these types of guilds was comprised of usually the richest in a locality.

Shoemakers. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Craft guilds followed the example of merchant guilds and monopolized specific trades within a town. When tradesmen saw the success of this model, it quickly spread so that almost every skilled trade had its own separate guild, such as shoemaking, butchers, grocers, tailors, armorers, blacksmiths, and more. No person could take part in a craft unless he was a member of the guild.

While this was certainly monopolistic, guilds of all types had a vested interest in keeping the system honest, such as by using standardized weights and measures, regulating prices, and ensuring quality. Those craftsmen who charged less or more than what was considered to be the “just price,” or put out inferior goods, or cheated in some way were punished since the medieval guild was in effect a legal monopoly. To enforce this, guilds used people called searchers who were in effect inspectors. They ranged from shop to shop to inspect goods for quality and standards. One 13th century English manuscript shows an unscrupulous baker drawn through the streets of London by horses with a loaf of bread tied about his neck. In another instance, a vinter John Penrose was convicted of selling unwholesome red wine that was apparently dangerous to drink. The punishment was that “...John Penrose shall drink a draught of the same wine that he sold to the common people and the remainder of such wine shall then be poured on the head of said John, and that he shall forswear the calling of vintner forever, unless he can obtain the favor of our lord, the king, as to the same.”

Medieval butchers. Source: (Photo by: Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There were several advantages to being in a guild. In a society without healthcare or any social safety net, the guilds looked after their sick members and took care of the widows and orphans of deceased members. Then, of course, there was the obvious monetary advantage of guaranteeing business for your trade when you were in a guild.

Joining a guild was a long, heavily regulated process since it took years to develop the skill necessary to become a master of a trade. When a child (usually a boy) was between the ages of 10 and 12 and they expressed interest in a trade, the boy’s parents would make a contract with a master of that craft. The boy then became an apprentice and would learn the secrets of the trade for seven years. The apprentice received no wages but was lodged and fed at his master’s house. Most crafts allowed for only one apprentice at a time to a master, but there were exceptions such as butchers and bakers. Sons of a master were generally allowed to act as a second apprentice.

A medieval baker and his apprentice. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The apprentice was not only a pupil in a trade but also acted as a servant, errand boy, and helper both in the shop and in the master’s house. His hours were long and his quarters typically in an attic or even under a shop counter. Misbehavior was punishable by the master, but if the master mistreated the apprentice or failed to teach him the craft, then the master was punished by the guild.

If all went well, at the end of seven years the apprenticed was examined by guild members and made into a journeyman. The “journey” in journeyman is literal. The young man could travel from place to place and work for wages wherever he could find it and wherever the guild held sway. The ultimate ambition was to become a master. To achieve this rank, which would allow one to set up shop with his own apprentices and journeymen, wardens of the guild would task him to create a masterpiece. The masterpiece needed to be created solely by the candidate and inspected by the guild usually in a guild office under the searching eye of the guild officers. The masterpiece was often highly technical in nature allowing a craftsman to show their mastery. Barbers needed to forge and polish lancets. Weavers built the various tools that they used. If this was satisfactory, as well as his character, then he was made a master in his guild. Typically, an oath was sworn at that time to the guild and to pay his fees to the guild. He then was allowed to set up his own shop. There were instances of corruption. Sometimes nobles or high clergy had the right to appoint a master who may not have produced a masterpiece.

Various guild devices from a town in the Czech Republic. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

As guilds grew in influence and wealth the more important ones operated out of ornate guildhalls. They also developed unique traditions. Guilds each had their own patron saints. They had their own uniform called a livery which members wore upon occasions such as feasts, weddings, holidays, and other ceremonies. They had their own heraldic symbols often associated with their craft. They also had mottos, such as the hammermen of a town: "By hammer and hand all arts do stand.”  

Carpenter and blacksmith, miniature from De universo by Rabano Mauro, manuscript, Italy 11th Century. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Guilds flourished until the 15th century. They began to decline and ultimately disappeared as trade and craft became more international. A guild’s grip on an individual town became less useful and they were ultimately given up in favor of the labor structure that exists today.

Tags: The Medieval Guild

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.