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New Worlds: One Guild to Rule Them All

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon!

Given the historic strikes pending or going on right now in a variety of organizations, my patrons have given me permission to temporarily delay our usual topic poll results and talk about certain labor practices instead.

We’ll get to unions next week, but first I want to talk about their older cousin — a cousin who survives today in some contexts — which is the guild.

Distinguishing a guild from other types of professional organization can be murky and the terminology varies, so I’m not going to worry too much about definitional boundaries here. Generally speaking, a guild is an older concept, focused on a particular craft or type of trade — in the merchant sense of the word — or sometimes a field of entertainment. (There are other types as well, like religious guilds, but craft and trade are our main concerns here.) Guilds of those types are formal associations with governmental recognition and approval; said approval might be handled at a country-wide level, but especially in the past, often it was local to a city instead.

Regardless of the scale, quite a bit of politicking can go into which professions achieve guild status and which ones don’t. The divisions between them can become quite granular, too: you might have a guild of ironworkers, or you might instead have separate guilds for ironworkers who make nails, horseshoes, chains, locks, knives, and more. Sometimes the structure reflects the stages of production, with one guild weaving wool, another fulling it, and yet another dying it before a fourth guild sells it. In other cases, the structure separates those who create new material from those merely repair what already exists. And woe betide the crafter who steps beyond their allotted bounds . . .

There are lot of reasons to organize guilds. They serve as a form of accreditation and quality control, especially in societies where there’s no governmental oversight or regulatory body to police such things. The guild usually has a monopoly on selling its product within its jurisdiction, so it can impose requirements of training and standards of product: if you want to sell e.g. beer inside city bounds, then you have to be apprenticed to a master brewer and achieve a certain degree of experience or rank before you’re allowed to hawk your own wares. And if you’re caught selling adulterated beer — which at a minimum is false advertising, and at worst could make people sick — the guild can fine you, strip you of guild membership (and therefore your right to do business), or impose various other punishments.

Guilds also protect their members. They often set prices for their products, which keeps one craftsman from trying to drive another out of business by significantly undercutting his competitor. And when higher powers (like the government) try to waltz in and demand bargain rates, the guild has a chance to resist that pressure in a way an individual crafter on their own could never hope to do. This can apply to labor as well as the product itself; shipbuilders might have their daily wages set by their guild, which is going to matter a lot more to them than the total price placed on the ship itself.

Of course, it’s possible to describe these same activities in a more negative light. If a guild has a monopoly on their trade within their jurisdiction, then they have the ability to close out anyone they don’t want to let in: foreigners, women, members of disfavored religions. They can block the development and deployment of new techniques, regardless of whether those techniques are detrimental or beneficial to quality. And rate controls and the like hamper the kind of competition that modern capitalism thrives on; when that happens today, we tend to call it “price fixing” and sue the people responsible.

Historically, guilds could sometimes exercise a degree of power that’s difficult to imagine today. Their members were almost definitionally not the elite of society — the aristocracy, whatever form that took in a given place and time — because they were either artisans or merchants (or sometimes entertainers), all of whom, as we’ve discussed before, tend not to be at the top of the hierarchical ladder. If they were at the top, they wouldn’t need guilds to give them power, would they?

But occasionally their products or their trade goods were important enough, and brought in enough money, for a group of such people to punch well above their individual weight class. Our minds tend to go to groups dealing in obviously valuable goods, like the goldsmiths or the spicers, but in an area where e.g. the wool trade is a major industry, guilds involved in the steps of that trade might exert a huge amount of influence. I mentioned above that guilds are often organized and licensed on a local level; the result of this is that the city mayor and councilmen might very well all be members of various important guilds. In the City of London (different from the broader city called London), the guilds — there termed “livery companies” — basically are the local government: only liverymen may vote for offices like the Lord Mayor, and the seat of government is called the Guildhall.

It’s interesting to see which guilds survive in the modern day, and what role they’re fulfilling. Some still offer training or have regulatory oversight, while others have evolved largely into charitable organizations. Though that latter function isn’t new: even centuries ago, guilds assisted members in financial or legal distress, or the widows and orphans of members who’d passed away. That links them to the broader subject of fraternities, clubs, benefit societies, and other communal organizations that exist to help their members . . . and also to provide a social outlet. Make no mistake, that can be a significant part of guild life, too: group dinners, annual balls, the guildhall as a place to hang out and drink with your colleagues. Depending on the guild, you might even have a body of members who are there by right of inheritance or purchased access, with no active connection to the guild’s ostensible reason for existence — they just want the social connections that come with membership.

As I said before, guilds aren’t gone today. The livery companies of London even include some new entrants, like the Honourable Company of Air Pilots or the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants. But guilds of the old sort aren’t the dominant form of organization anymore; as the current news shows, nowadays we’re more likely to be talking about unions and other types of professional association (some of which use “guild” in their name). Next week we’ll talk about what those look like!

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15 thoughts on “New Worlds: One Guild to Rule Them All”

  1. Going back to 1215, the Magna Carta has clauses regulating the wool guild so that all woven fabric will be of no less than a good 2 London els in width. That’s when an el was the measurment of the king’s forearm from finger tip to elbow. What happened when King John’s 9 year old son succeeded him is not mentioned. Conceivably the measurements could change with every succession or, heaven forbid, every year as the boy king grew.

    Before that, if you bought your wool in Lincoln or York or someplace else, your Guild approved 2 els wide cloth was probably short by several inches and might not be enough to make a garment.

    Similar actions regarding the volume of a butt of wine are also mentioned.

    1. I’d assume that, somewhere, in tradition or paperwork or something, there was a note saying it was the length of a mature king’s forearm. (mayyybe the regent’s, if the king was too young?)

      1. Measurements in France were never standardized until the Revolution, which swept all the old ones aside and imposed the brand new standardized metric system.

  2. I suppose I thought that a religious guild was one set up to do something similarly economic…like the monks who made beer to sell to people in the towns.

    Regardless of if thats true, bravo and thank you for another informative essay.

  3. This kind of continues the thought above: does anyone know whether or not the abbeys, convents and monasteries that participated so largely in the local economies as they did in that of the Church — did they have to belong to the wool, weaver, merchant and brewery guilds too? I’m particularly curious as to how the Great Mortality affected some of the guilds, particularly those of brewers for instance — when whole communities were wiped out, and perhaps newcomers stepped in, prior to Law & Order being reimposed in the most depopulated regions, and the Labor Ordinances imposed in England. So many had beer making skills who wouldn’t be part of the guilds. Housewives brewed ale, for instance.

    1. I suspect, but can’t tell you for sure, that religious foundations weren’t part of the guilds. After all, the guilds were often local to particular towns or cities, and monasteries tended not to be in those settlements — nearby, maybe, but not in — plus in general they were treated as their own self-governing bodies, so my instinct is to say they weren’t under guild authority, either.

      As for the housewives and their ale, at least in England, I’m 95% sure there was a legal distinction between beer and ale. (Nowadays we often treat the words as synonyms, but they were differentiated on the basis of using hops vs. not.) The latter was largely a matter of home production, the former was made outside the house by dedicated brewers.

      1. Thank you.

        Plus, a town’s drinking/eating establishment at least until the 19th C and better roads and the big breweries (all after the guild eras), brewed their own beer and ale, often it was the tavern keeper’s wife who did it. That much I know. But I don’t know whether that was winked at, or a dispensation/license was required, or anything else.

        Though it does seem that the Great Mortality had a great effect on weakening the guild system and its powers.

        1. O! by the way, today (August 4th) is International Beer Day (established 2008) — so crack a good and cold one to have with dinner’s chile rellenos — I am doing that right now. Ha!

  4. Deborah Burros

    Isn’t “Brewster” a female brewer? And didn’t guilds sometimes allow a member’s widow to continue her husband’s business?
    I agree about being unable to drink beer–I smell the beer’s odor and my lips clamp shut and won’t let me even try a sip! I can drink and enjoy Root Beer, though.

    1. Jennifer Stevenson

      According to Judith M. Bennett, author of ALE, BEER, AND BREWSTERS IN ENGLAND: Women’s Work in a Changing World 1300-1600, all brewsters were women up until the 17th century. They owned their businesses outright; they did their own bookkeeping; they bequeathed their businesses exactly where they chose, always to another woman, not necessarily a member of their family. (Oxford University Press, 1996) Then the men took over. As they took over so many areas where women were independent and even carried authority.

      The more I read about the Renaissance the more I think it was not a rebirth but the beginning of a death – of women’s rights in every sphere. Historians may have called it a rebirth because they were crushing half the earth’s population for the benefit of the other half.

  5. I recently learned of the English difference between cordwainers (new shoes out of new leather) and cobblers (repairs, shoes out of old leather). I think I also read that white and brown bread were different guilds of bakers.

    A difference with modern labor unions is that those tend to be wage laborers, vs. a guild being (AFAIK) a league of independent craftsmen and merchants. Though someone like a cathedral architect or mason might blur that.

    The AMA is not quite a guild of American doctors, but kind of. Ditto for dentists and lawyers (ADA, ABA).

    India’s ‘jati’, part of the caste system, kind of seem like very developed and endogamous guilds, though I’m not clear if it’s more “a tribe adopted one occupation” or “occupation guild became a tribe”.

  6. Thank you all for the comments. Once again it is revealed how very little I know about life and civilization’s basics, how much I need to learn. And I do consider shoes, wine, weaving, bread-and-cheese, olives and beer all basics of civilization, though I do understand beer doesn’t appeal to all. Just as I can’t stand hard liquor of any sort, or the smell of coffee grounds. 🙂

  7. Guilds can often be truly appalling in how they deal with “competition.” The guilds of surgeons and barbers, of apothecaries, and of healing arts not only beat each other up, but went after (a) folk healers who sometimes had better treatments (e.g., willowbark tea –> salicylic acid –> with further refinement from yet another “guild,” acetylsalicylate = aspirin)… and (b) don’t even think about the harassment the guilds poured on early advocates of germ theory.

    Then there’s the intersection with a recent topic: Law enforcement.

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