Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Guild System

by H. L. Haywood

IN some form or other the guild, like the poor, has been always with us - always, at least, since human society became somewhat more complex than it was when all men of a tribe were engaged in a single common pursuit, as in hunting or farming. Stripped to its essentials, a guild is an association entered into voluntarily by its members for mutual support and assistance in a particular enterprise or set of enterprises: In ordinary speech the guild is distinguished from the cult in that it is formed for utilitarian purposes, whereas the cult is intended to promote exercises of religion and worship. Yet there is no sharp line of cleavage between the two, since their objectives frequently shade into one another. Medieval Operative Masonry partook of both characteristics, so intertwined that it would be a hopeless task to undertake to separate them. This was not unusual or peculiar to Masonry, but was so frequent in the Middle Ages as to be regarded as commonplace.

In the simplest forms of society the principal tie between individuals is the bond of blood relationship. If a man is prosperous, he shares his prosperity with needy kinsmen; if he is in distress, they succor him; if he is slain, they avenge him; if he is subject to fine or pecuniary liability, they ransom him. But, as clans grow large and their interests multiply, individuals are necessarily thrown into new alignments. Some of them become hunters, some farmers, some soldiers, some fishers, some artisans, some merchants. Those engaged in a particular calling discover they have common interests which they alone can promote as against all the rest of the community. Unless they can unite and formulate certain principles for the conduct of their business, they will suffer from ruinous competition among themselves, to say nothing of that which may be offered by casual poachers upon premises they would like to regard as their own.

The economic thrust and pressure which draw them together in the first place continue afterwards to force them into closer association. The mere fact of their segregation in an especial unit serves to divide them further and further from other units. The bonds of consanguinity become weakened, but the guild bond becomes stronger and ever stronger until at last the guild itself has taken over most of the protective obligations which once belonged to the clan. Generally speaking, this process tends to become retarded in rural communities and accelerated in cities. The reasons .therefore are not far to seek. The relative simplicity and homogeneity of agricultural life naturally preserve the sense of family responsibility, but the complexity of urban and industrial life tends to break it down, thus forcing the individual to seek something else in its place. Guilds may be expected to become more numerous and more important in proportion as urban development assumes a larger place in the affairs of nation or people.

A characteristic phenomenon of European civilization in the Middle Ages was the development of the city. The feudal system which rose upon the ruins of the Roman empire was essentially rural. The land was parceled out among military chieftains, each of which established his castle where conditions served and then made it as impregnable to assault as he could. The land and all the people round about belonged to him. Tenants of the various holdings were his vassals, obliged to perform prescribed services for their tenures, to furnish him with fighting men, to enroll themselves under his banner when he sounded a call to arms. Over the common people he possessed the absolute power of life, torture and death. Serfs and villeins had to swink and sweat that he and his might possess whatever luxuries their fancies craved; they could be put to death for leaving their abodes without his permission. He in turn acknowledged allegiance to his king, performing homage for his holdings and rendering military service, except when, as often happened, he felt himself strong enough to resist the king on the field of battle.

The development of cities gave to this system its death blow. The basis of prosperity in the city was not tenure of the land but industry and commerce. Great aggregations of men became impatient of feudal restraints and constantly struggled for the right of local self-government. Originally under the government of dukes or bishops, they fought for and ultimately obtained their freedom, with government in the hands of their own Councils and Boards of Aldermen. Ambitious monarchs found in these free cities means for resisting the arrogance of rural barons. In return for successive grants of immunity they submitted to taxation, and, as they had more resources with which to meet levies of men and money, it paid the ruler to do business with them upon reasonably moderate terms. By a natural process of political evolution this everywhere gave rise to a sense of nationalism, which had been impossible under the narrow parochial restraints of the feudal system, and against that nationalism the feudal system pounded itself into destruction.

In the upbuilding of those cities, the guild system played a leading part, and continued to play it until, by its own arrogance and prosperity, it in turn became a brake upon progress and had to be cast aside. Its own beginnings were humble - so humble, in fact, that it is now impossible to trace them with exactitude. It is not even possible to determine the exact origin of the word, guild, itself. Blackstone in his Commentaries said that a gild - the alternative spelling frequently used and perhaps etymologically more correct than the modern form - signified among the Anglo-Saxons a fraternity which derived its name from a verb meaning "to pay," since every member was expected to pay his share of the common expense. Others derive it from a Scandinavian word, gilde, a festival in honor of the god, Odin; others from the Breton word gouil, meaning a holiday or feast; others from the Welsh word gmylad, also meaning a festival.

By whatever name it was called, whether guild, company, corporation or mystery in England, gild in North Germany, metier in France or arte in Italy, it was an association of persons engaged in the same art, trade or commercial pursuit. There are those who believe it first appeared in Italy as a logical successor to the Roman collegium. This hypothesis is not implausible, yet it ought not to be trusted too far, since such societies are a wholly spontaneous development springing from economic, social or political necessity. The guild in all human probability arose simultaneously in more than one country. The Lombard cities of Northern Italy offered a highly favorable opportunity and in them guilds undoubtedly did enjoy greater prosperity than in any other part of the Europe of that day. But they were common in France at the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century; they had appeared in England in the seventh, something of the kind was known in Scandinavia in the sixth century and by the time of the Norman conquest of Britain they were scattered over all of Northern and Western Europe.

The first allusion to them in England is found in the laws of Ine, a West Saxon monarch who died in the year 726. From the context it is apparent that they were then developments of the frith - from an AngloSaxon word meaning peace - guild previously established by the Vikings as organizations to suppress piracy. English frith guilds were associations of neighboring householders who gave security to one another for the preservation of the peace. That is, they were voluntary alliances formed by responsible citizens, for mutual support and protection in a country which was wild and lawless, much as Vigilance Committees were later formed in the American Far West. Indeed the famous Texas Rangers of our own Southwest came into being in much the same manner and for much the same purpose.

All that has ever been necessary in order to form a society of this kind has been the existence of a general need and the presence of a few like-minded persons. For that matter, the need may be in itself negligible. Human beings are naturally imitative. In modern times, if a merchant hits upon a novel means of advertising, his wares, almost instantly a dozen variants and adaptations of the idea will appear. If a song writer attains popular success with a ditty about blackbirds, there will a deluge of songs about redbirds, blue-birds, and birds of every other hue and description. A secret society like Freemasonry, once it becomes generally admired, presages the formation of innumerable societies modeled on the same general plan.

So it was with the guilds of the medieval period. The only test required of such a system was that it work. Once convinced of that, men could be expected form themselves into all sorts of similar societies land for every conceivable purpose. Such was in fact the case. There were guilds of masons, of carpenters, of tailors, of weavers; guilds of householders, of merchants, of mechanics, of priests; there were political guilds, professional guilds, religious guilds, convivial guilds, burial guilds, guilds for social, ethical, moral, religious, and philosophical instruction.

Most important of all, in their influence upon the history of their times, were the merchant guilds. These organizations became in time not only the bulwarks of trade in their respective communities but also the common carriers, the bankers, the promoters of industry and commerce for all of Europe. In a time of general unrest and turbulence, they exercised a steadying influence, and in their portage of articles of luxury as well as of necessity they became useful agents in the development of culture and civilization.

It should be remembered that in the towns sharp social distinctions were drawn between bondsmen and freemen. None was admitted to these guilds who was not free. For convenience, men in the same branch of trade had their places of business - and usually their homes - in the same quarter of the city. It was necessary that they have some voice in the government of that section. They had a common meeting place, usually called a guildhall, to which they repaired for social relaxation as well as for business. They watched strictly over the conduct of their workmen and apprentices.

The principal merchant guilds developed somewhat after the fashion of what in modern times is called a "vertical trust." That is, they enjoyed a monopoly of trade in their local territories and this carried with it the control of all its incidental branches, from the production of raw material to the sale or exchange of the finished product. They could say how much of a given commodity could be thrown upon the market, how much must be withheld; they supervised importations and exportations, not infrequently using their own ships. They established standards of quality, arbitrarily fixed prices and wages, and strictly controlled trade practices. They might even say what kind of clothing it was suitable for the various grades of employees to wear and, if necessary, procure legislation to enforce such sumptuary decrees. The members enjoyed peculiar privileges and immunities; the societies had their respective coats of arms and appropriate places

in the official life of the municipality. In time they ceased to become known as guilds and were called corporations and companies. It is not unjustifiably extravagant to say that these associations and their successors, the great trading companies of England, laid the foundation upon which the commercial supremacy of the British Empire was erected; that to their influence more than to any other was due that zeal in exploration and adventure which ultimately enabled Britain to boast of being Mistress of the Seas and which certainly made her mistress of colonies and plantations in every continent and upon a thousand islands.

In itself, however, the vertical trust arrangement had fatal weaknesses and was not destined to perpetuation. The merchant guild, in its quest of monopoly, proceeded upon the theory that a whole industry should be brought under single control. Weavers, dyers, tinkers shipwrights smiths in gold and silver, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and workers at numerous other crafts soon found their own interests seriously compromised by such a scheme. Now these workmen had their own guilds, some of them older than those of the merchants; where they did not, they hastened to create them. The concern of each little society was not an industry but the immediate sub-division of that industry which constituted its own industrial province. The tendency of the merchant guild was toward unification; that of the craft guild was divisive. The merchant guild might, for instance, look upon the leather trade as one business, but the workers became specialists as they increased in skill, tanners, harness makers, saddle makers, bridle makers, shoemakers, boot makers, and each of these separate branches supplied justification for the organization of a separate society.

Economic conflict between these two organizational systems was natural and inevitable. No person well read in English history could have much doubt which of the two would ultimately triumph. The Briton is naturally jealous for his personal rights and is remarkably obstinate and persistent in his defense of them. His home is his castle, his private affairs are nobody else's concern, and his business is his own, to be administered by himself or the agents he may appoint. To this day British industry has resisted that tendency to centralization which is so distinctive of American industrial development, and remains divided up among relatively small manufacturing establishments which in the United States ordinarily would be amalgamated into unified concerns.

By uniting themselves into small groups, the workers were able to preserve craft identity. They exercised the sharpest supervision over the admission of new members, taking care that accessions of competent workmen should not be so numerous as to lessen the chances of remunerative employment for those already belonging. By limiting the number of apprentices a master workman could engage, they not only insured a somewhat fixed membership, proportionally based upon the available work, but they also guaranteed to the apprentice himself closer personal attention than he could hope to receive if there were too many beginners to share the master's time. His term of service was a long one - usually running for about seven years. During that time he was fed, bedded and clothed at the master's expense and often in the master's household. In his private conduct he was subject to the master's discipline, and this sometimes extended even to chastening with the rod. In return, the master undertook to teach him his trade so that, at the expiration of his apprenticeship, he would be able as a journeyman to earn his livelihood. If he then continued to improve in skill, he might hope to become a master workman, with the right to take contracts, hire journeymen and enroll his own apprentices.

This system brought about the closest imaginable relations among members of the same craft guild. The guild was itself a kind of family affair - so much so, indeed, that in many societies only the sons of men engaged in the craft could become apprentices. Its members dwelt in proximity to one another; in their social enjoyments they played together and ate together in a close and exclusive intercourse. They not infrequently dressed alike, at least to the extent of wearing some peculiar and distinctive article of apparel by which they could be identified. They were pledged to assist one another in sickness or distress an to succor one another in danger. Some of the guilds maintained schools for the instruction of the children of the members; remnants of such schools exist in England to this very day, Corpus Christi at Cambridge being a conspicuous example. They thus stood separate and apart from the rest of the community.

In a very real sense, the craft guild came to stand as custodian of the personal welfare of its members. It is a mistake not infrequently made to confuse these bodies with the trade unions of today. For one thing, the trade union is an organization of employees formed to enable them to bargain collectively with their employers and to resist employer encroachments upon employee rights and privileges. The craft guild included both employers and employees. It was frequently governed not by the employees but by the master workmen who were also, and incidentally, employers. These were known commonly as wardens and there were usually two and sometimes four of them. In some cases they were selected at annual assemblies of the craft to serve for a year. In others they were appointed by the municipal authorities. It was their business to approve or reject work turned out by the members, to see that labor was honestly and satisfactorily performed, that the craftsmen received their proper pay and that the personal conduct of the members did not violate that salutary discipline which was intended to maintain the craft in good repute with the world at large.

Methods of formal induction into membership varied greatly. In some cases it was by oath administered in some form of ceremonial initiation. In others it was merely by placing the name on the society's rolls. Some of the guilds possessed secret and semi-religious rites; almost all of them were religious in so far as they acknowledged allegiance to Church, adopted particular saints as their patrons, and made a practice of attending divine services on designated days. Some of them admitted women and some did not. Although there were distinctions of apprentices from journeymen, or fellows of the craft, and distinctions of fellows from masters, these as a rule applied only to the personal consequence of each individual among his brethren.

Among the mason guilds there actually were but two classes - on the one side apprentices and on the other Fellows and Masters - since a Fellow might at any time become a Master by the simple process of taking a contract to perform a given work and hiring other Fellows to help him perform it. He might take apprentices provided he could furnish sufficient employment for a required number of enrolled workmen. In voting at assemblies, the ballot of the Fellow ordinarily counted for as much as did that of the Master. In general it may be said that an apprentice might become a Fellow upon the completion of his indentured term of service and upon proper evidence of his skill as a workman, presented to the wardens of the guild and by them accepted as satisfactory. In trades requiring a high degree of manual dexterity, as in carving, painting, or engraving, he might be required to submit a masterpiece. In France and Germany it was often required of an apprentice that, after his freedom from indentures, he spend a year or more traveling among the guilds of communities remote from his home, earning a living by his art and improving in knowledge and experience.

In addition to the merchant and craft guilds there were innumerable religious and social guilds of all kinds. Some were powerful institutions in their own right and some were mere auxiliary bodies. Nearly every large church of the Middle Ages had many such auxiliaries, each dedicated to the service of a particular saint and consecrated to the performance of some special task. Some of these were purely mystical and devoted to exercises of meditation and prayer; others were practical and looked after the management of parish houses and schools, the support of indigent priests, the maintenance of church property, the collection of funds for charitable and missionary purposes. Some became separate and semi-ecclesiastical entities, with their own chapels and chaplains, colleges, asylums. A few became identified with the production of religious dramas and mystery plays. The mystery play, of course, had nothing to do with a "mystery" in the modern sense. The word mystery as thus used was derived from the Middle English word misterie, meaning a trade or employment, which in turn was derived through the French from the Latin word ministerium. A mystery play was therefore a play which illustrated some practice or doctrine of a given trade. Many medieval guilds performed them and it is not at all improbable that the Drama of the Third Degree of modern Freemasonry is a survival of this custom.

It is evident that with so many societies flourishing thus side by side the guilds must have been profoundly, influenced by contact with one another. Although; each might preserve its separate identity, a considerable cross pollination of ideas must have taken place. Indeed this is not a matter of mere inference. There are records of great pageants in England which were managed much after the fashion of the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, the Veiled Prophet parade in St. Louis, the Priests of Pallas parade in Kansas City and kindred affairs in modern America. Places in the line of march were assigned to various important craft guilds. Each prepared a tableau which was staged upon a cart or "float" and which usually represented some episode from Biblical literature. This arrangement in itself discloses a degree of common understanding and purpose. Moreover it shows that the craft guild and the strictly religious guild sometimes overlapped in their functions, a matter of no little significance.

In England the guild system reached its peak in the reign of Edward III, or toward the close of the fourteenth century, when some 40,000 religious and trade societies were listed. They ranged in size from a handful of men to the 15,000 members of the Corpus Christi guild at York. But the system contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Trade and merchant guilds came first into conflict with one another and then with the economic changes which ushered in the modern era of trade and commerce. Religious guilds came into conflict with modern theories of government. But the principal trouble with the guild system was that it could not stand prosperity. Originally poor and humble and with ideals of service, it became rich and arrogant and lustful of power. Then it awoke one morning to find it had outlived its usefulness; awoke as the spoiled favorite of an Eastern potentate sometimes awakes, to find one standing at her bedside with a bowstring.

How the system and municipal government complemented each other has already been indicated. The more important guilds were corporations with definite privileges, prerogatives and responsibilities. They contained the germ of the municipal borough of more modern times, but care should be taken to differentiate between their constitution as private societies and the public functions which those societies occasionally performed. Theoretically, at least, the function of the guild in public affairs was to represent the interests of its particular trade or set of trades. In return for this privilege it agreed that the management of its business should be conducted in the public interest. If the municipality might not infringe upon the prerogatives of the guild, neither might the guild or its members use those prerogatives to the disadvantage of the public at large. Since the society represented its trade, it had a right to say what individuals might belong to that trade; individuals who belonged to no trade therefore had no representation and were likely to find themselves without citizenship. Not least important of the guild's privileges was a local monopoly of its peculiar business; membership in it was obligatory upon all persons who would practice that business in that community. Since it had the right of saying who should be admitted, excluding all others, its power was tremendous. Sometimes it did not hesitate to admit persons who were not in the trade at all - honorary members they might be called. This custom of "accepting" outsiders for their general standing in the community brought into the guilds some of the outstanding persons of medieval English history, including King Edward III, King Henry IV, King Henry VI and King Henry VIII, but it also introduced an element of discontent, as practical workers observed the waxing power of these illustrious patrons. It was probably in accordance with this custom that the operative masons first began to "accept" non-masons.

As the larger societies gained in wealth and prestige, they steadily usurped authority. They had helped to break down the feudal system and strengthen the monarchy, but in time they resisted and even challenged the authority of the monarch himself. In so doing they were but bringing their destruction nearer. Meanwhile their power was being steadily undermined at home. In their increasing arrogance they tended to break down the old democratic relationship which bound all members, from apprentice to master, into one society of friends and brothers. The masters developed into an employing class and the fellows into a class of workers by the day. As the gulf widened, the masters used the machinery at hand for their own aggrandizement. To resist them, the journeymen, forced into a new class consciousness, began organizing guilds of their own. This was bitterly opposed by the masters, who invoked the civil law to stop the practice, but without effect. On the one hand there was constant effort to encroach upon the rights of the individual worker; on the other determined resistance to the tyrannical methods of the employer. The struggle endured for centuries, but the guild system, thus disunited, gradually broke up and disappeared.

Long before this came to pass, however, a royal sword had been unsheathed against the great religious guilds of England. These bodies had become immensely rich and powerful in the time of the Crusades and they possessed many of the most desirable holdings. In the long and bitter struggle between Henry VIII and the papacy, they were almost unanimously on the side of the Church. Convinced that he could not carry on his work of reformation until this opposition had been destroyed, Henry struck with characteristic vigor and effectiveness. He despoiled the religious guilds of their temporal property, which he declared forfeit to the Crown. He forbade other guilds to make gifts of money to churches and finally, in 1547, the religious societies were formally suppressed.

A system so extensive could not be wholly eradicated. It was bound to leave many survivors which, under other names and in other forms, continued to function. The religious guild in modified guise has continued to the present day in both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches. The merchant guild left its influence upon the later trading companies of England. It is possible that trade unions and friendly societies of the present owe something to the craft guilds, although this possibility is more easily exaggerated than demonstrated. But there is one conspicuous survival out of the guild system, and that one is the institution of modern Freemasonry.

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