Guilds were an important (and powerful) aspect of life in the Middle Ages. A guild was a group of men or women that banded together in order to protect their interests and either their commerce or craft. A guild would establish the guidelines for trade and the standards for skill, pay, pricing and all the other aspects that dealt with their commerce or trade.
Guilds could grow to be very powerful and a good example of this is the English wool guild in the middle of the 14th century. In one year they sold abroad 30,000 sacks of wool and 8 million sheep fleeces.
- There were basically two different types of guilds: The Merchant Guilds and the Crafts Guilds
Merchant Guilds: These were typically guilds of traders who were involved in the various aspects of trading items (commerce). They would typically purchase rights to trade from the king and would establish monopolies. they would set tolls and taxes on outsiders. Wool was one of the most vibrant types of merchant and a Merchant Wool Guild of a city or town would make rules that prevented outsiders from trading in wool. Some of the tasks of a merchant guild of this type would be to set the standards for weight of wool and the standards for price.
Craft Guilds: This type of guild is more well known in modern times and it is what we think of when we think of guilds. Craftsmen banded together to set prices and standards for their craft. They could be stone masons, blacksmiths, cooper or any of a wide variety of crafts where things were made.
Getting a job in a Guild
Getting a job in a particular craft meant joining a guild and following the rules for craftsmanship and pricing. A young person could be given a job as an apprentice with a master craftsman. This wasn't a paid job however. It was often the case that the young persons family actually paid the master craftsman to take on the apprentice. After a period of time as an apprentice the young person could possibly be promoted to the position of journeyman. As a journeyman, he would now become an assistant to the master and get paid. He would learn the craft more fully. And eventually, if he had acquired the necessary skills, and had the money to pay his guild dues he could in turn become a master craftsman. This application to become a master craftsman often had some kind of a test where the journeyman would make something that showed he had fully mastered all aspects of the craft. This object was called a "Masterwork".
Punishment in a Guild
One important role of a guild was the enforcement of standards upon its own members. There are lots of documented stories about craftsmen using trickery or deception in order to improve their profits. Some examples of this could be putting sand or dirt in bags of wheat or flower to make them heavier (thus selling for a higher price). Bakers could bake stones or weights into their loaves to make them heavier. Ale sellers would put false bottoms in their containers. There were all sorts of tricks that craftsmen could use and it was the job of the guild to minimize and punish this trickery.
And they would often employ some type of punishment which could be a fine. Public disgrace was also an oft used tool and a baker who had baked weights in his bread, if caught, could possibly be punished by having to walk through the town with a loaf tied around his neck. This gave his customers the opportunity to throw garbage at him! A seller of bad wine could be made to drink some of the bad wine and have the rest poured over his head as punishment.
Some Famous Real Guilds of the Middle Ages
Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe Epstein takes a fresh look at the organization of labor in medieval towns and emphasizes the predominance of a wage system within them. He offers illuminating comment on a wide range of subjects-on guilds and guild organization, on women and Jews in the work force, on the value given labor, and on the sources of disaffection. His book presents a feast of themes in medieval social history.