Crafts in the Middle Ages has a different connotation than crafts today. Largely, Middle Ages crafts were not hobbies or artistic demonstrations, but trades that had been studied and mastered by craftsmen. Craftsmen joined forces and organized in craft guilds that allowed them the opportunity to gain prestige, power, and wealth through the practice of their trades.
Over time, guilds developed to represent every possible trade in town. Middle Ages crafts included masonry, carpentry, and painting, along with shoemaking, weaving and cloth-making, and candle making. The guild ensured fair representation and trade practices among all its members, and those who did not belong to the guild or worked against its regulations found themselves out of business and unable to practice their craft.
Learning a Craft
Crafts were typically learned by townsmen, those who were not peasants but not higher members of the nobility. The products of their crafts were purchased largely by other townsmen or those of higher class than themselves; for the most part, peasants made do with creating their own garments, repairing their own equipment, and practicing their own medicine.
Many craftsmen learned their trades from their fathers, while others worked as apprentices for masters during their youth. During an apprenticeship, a young man would learn the tools, standards, and methods of the craft and have the opportunity to observe his master, ask questions, and practice honing his craft. A successful apprenticeship would lead to an established career and the opportunity to eventually train others to carry on the work.
Types of Crafts
People needed clothing, shoes, medicine, cloth, and metalwork on a routine basis. Craftsmen specialized in one particular need, becoming masters of their trade and developing reputations for quality work and fair pricing. Their membership in their craft guild allowed them to remain competitive with others in their trade and advertise their services to the community as a whole in a way that assured there was enough room and work for everyone.
Tanners specialized in the treatment of animal skins to become leather. Leather could be used to create shoes, outer garments, gloves, and musical instruments. Leather could be purchased by tailors or shoemakers for their own creations, or sold directly to individuals who would use it for their own purposes.
Shoemakers, or cobblers, worked in the art of fashioning shoes. Individuals would need their feet measured, and cobblers would need supplies from other craftsmen, including tanners, cloth-makers, and blacksmiths in order to create their finished products.
Cloth-makers created cloth from fibers, usually using looms. The services of cloth-makers were necessary to provide materials to tailors and merchants alike. Tailors, in turn, crafted cloth into garments, blankets, and other cloth-based materials, based on the needs of their customers. Merchants could sell cloth directly to customers in bulk, for use in garment-making at home or for sheets or blankets.
Apothecaries specialized in medications to treat a wide range of illnesses. The predecessors of today’s pharmacists, apothecaries used assorted ingredients that had known effects on the human body to treat injuries, illnesses, and even psychological disturbances. Apothecaries were frequented by all members of the community at one time or another, whether for medication or advice about health concerns.
Craftsmen, on the whole, worked together in order to create finished products of the highest possible quality. By specializing in just one part of a multi-step process, such as creating a shirt, high standards and excellent quality could be achieved. In many different trades, craftsmen were dependent upon the services of other craftsmen, either to provide the raw materials they needed or to continue generating enough business to maintain a steady level of necessary raw materials.
Craft guilds provided extensive protection to their members while effectively eliminating the threat of outside competition. Guilds created monopolies within each craft, as membership to the craft guild was necessary in order to continue practicing, and the guild imposed strict regulations regarding trade and pricing for its members.
Membership in the guild was achieved by following a proscribed course of training that began with an apprenticeship. Apprentices spent five to nine years in the company of their Masters, training in all aspects of their craft. They were not paid for their labor, but they did receive food and lodging. Upon completion of their Apprenticeship, they were promoted to Journeyman status, during which time his ultimate success within the craft would be established.
Journeymen received pay for their labor as they continued to hone their skills. No longer under the constant tutelage of their Masters, they were free to pursue social opportunities, live independently, and marry during this period. Their aim, during this phase, was to create a masterpiece. The guild would judge the masterpiece based on the Journeyman’s skills, technique, and creativity to determine whether he should remain a Journeyman or become a Master Craftsman.
Journeymen needed to remain vigilant that they followed all rules and regulations of their guilds and remained in good standing with the other members. Only a promotion to Master would allow them the freedom and prestige of opening their own shops and beginning to train their own Apprentices. While guild were concerned with quality standards and sought to promote only the best within their crafts, social standing, respect, and image within the guild certainly contributed to the rapid promotion to Master or the stagnancy at Journeyman status.
Guild Regulations and Benefits
Middle Ages crafts guilds each established their own sets of guidelines and regulations. In general, these included the ban of unauthorized trading and fines for violations of pricing and trade guidelines. The bans and fines served to effectively eliminate all competition, allowing the guild members consistent job security.
Guilds also cared for their members in times of need. Guilds frequently paid for the burial of their deceased members and assisted widows during transitional phases. Guild membership was also vital during times of war or strife, as the guild-owned horses and wagons could be used by members to aid in travel when needed.
Guilds were able to exercise their power in numbers to become important members of the civic community. Those who rose in rank within the guild could enjoy a higher standard of living than those who did not, with the attendant rise in social status and wealth that accompanied their professional clout.