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!