Guilds in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Guilds were important socio-political structures of the society of Middle Ages as they were considered an essential part of life at that time. People were encouraged by the feudal system to be a member of a guild and their membership could help them to attain higher social status. A number of advantages were given to every guild members.
Each guild was either a type of a merchant guild or it was a type of crafts guild. The term guild was derived from Saxon word ‘gilden’ which literary meant ‘to pay.’ Guild was a form of monetary subscription which was paid by the members to their respective guilds.
Reason behind making of medieval guilds
After the collapse of Roman Empire, feudalism gradually grasped the whole of Europe. Barons, knights and other members of nobility used to take rents and taxes from serfs and peasants of their jurisdiction. In order to avoid excessive taxation and to oppose extreme tyrannical situations, it was necessary for common men to gather and raise their voices in unison as no single person was strong enough to stand against the feudalistic system.
Purpose of Middle Ages guilds
Common men of Middle Ages preferred to be a member of guilds because of various advantaged offered to them by this specific kind of social grouping. These guilds of medieval times were used by their members as a protection system against excessive taxes and rents that could be imposed by the barons, lords and knights.
These guilds also worked as a communistic system and worked along price fixing method and banning of advertisements and price cut to avoid excessive competition in between craftsmen and merchants respectively. While these guilds actively worked for the protection and safety of merchants and craftsmen, they also ensured proper protection of consumers by committing to fair pricing. The guild members were also responsible for ascertaining the quality of goods and products offered to consumer.
Apart from members of guilds, trading with other merchants and craftsmen was considered to be illicit and it was banned. These guilds also worked as insurance against sickness of guild members while these guilds of Middle Ages also offered the service of property protection during travelling along with other benefits. They also worked as the union of workers as they worked for improvement of working conditions and working hours of guild members.
In order to increase their social importance, guilds were used to help poor people with funeral expenses; they were also responsible for taking care of orphans and disabled people. Some of the guilds also encouraged people to have access to education. As a matter of fact, the very first non-religious schools of education in Middle Ages were supported and created by guilds.
Thus, guilds were initiated with a major purpose of protection of craftsmen and merchants against fiefdom and excessive taxation, however, these guilds also worked for the protection and profits of the common consumers and they also helped in developing living conditions in the medieval period.
Civic Duties of Middle Ages guilds
Along with helping the sick members and taking care of orphans and disabled people, guilds were also responsible for certain civic duties such as, construction of buildings and walls for the protection of villages and towns, providing military power to ascertain security against invaders, and policing the towns and streets to curb criminal activities. Guilds were regarded highly moral in nature and they were responsible for avoiding any fraud or usury.
Merchants Guilds of The Middle Ages
Each merchant guild had its own charter. Any merchant member who violated that charter was considered to be dishonest and a fine was imposed on him. These merchant guilds considered any trading with a non-guild member merchant as illegal. Apart from general safety and monetary help during sickness, these merchant guilds also offered travelling protection for merchants as it was dangerous to travel during the medieval period.
The leading members of merchant guilds attained very high positions in the society and often they were elected as mayor of the town while they also played the role of the leader and spokesperson of all guild members. Merchants’ guilds often created their own hierarchy and gradually, the number of members of merchant guilds started to soar. While merchant guilds were obviously wealthier and more powerful than the crafts guild, the increasing number of members of merchant guilds caused problems within merchant guilds.
With the increasing power of merchant guilds, the members of merchant guilds started imposing such regulations over individual craftsmen and traders that were beneficial for merchants alone. As merchant guilds started to impose their own ruling and price fixing over craftsmen, traders and consumers, it became necessary for craftsmen to create their own guilds to protect their own rights.
Craft Guilds of Middle Ages
Craft guilds of medieval ages were created to protect the craftsmen and traders against the increasing influence of merchant guilds while these craft guilds also worked to protect serfs and craftsmen against excessive taxation and extortion by knights, barons and other members of nobility. Craft guilds were created for every craft or trade which was practiced during the Middle Ages. There were baker guilds, mason guilds, painter guilds, carpenter guilds, tanner guilds, cloth maker guilds, cobbler guilds, candle makers guilds and apothecary guilds. In order to maintain law and order and to spread knowledge and information, people of Middle Ages also supported creation of teacher guilds.
Hierarchy of Middle Ages guilds
As a consequence of the increasing number of their members, guilds started to create their own hierarchy. The new members of the guild were known as apprentice as they were still in phase of learning the skills of business and crafts. During this period of apprenticeship, each member was provided food, shelter and proper training so that he may improve his skills in the craft. With success, an apprentice of a guild could achieve the level of journeyman. All such journeymen were paid a small amount of money while better living conditions and food were also provided to them.
The next step for a journeyman was to become the master of his craft and guild. This could be done by submitting a masterpiece of his work craft. The masters of his guild were considered as the judge who had the responsibility to examine the skills of the journeymen and to judge their masterpieces. If the masters of a guild approved the work of a journeyman, he was given the right to own his own shop and become a master himself while the masters of the guilds were considered at the top position of the guild.