In ancient Rome there were countless collegia, scholae, sodalitates, artes—associations of artisans, merchants, contractors, political clubs, secret fraternities, religious brotherhoods. Did any of these survive to beget the medieval guilds?

Two letters of Gregory I (590–604) refer to a corporation of soap makers at Naples, and to another of bakers at Otranto. In the law code of the Lombard King Rotharis (636–52) we read of magistri Comacini—apparently master masons from Como, who speak of one another as collegantes—colleagues of the same collegium80 Associations of transport workers are mentioned in seventh-century Rome and in tenth-century Worms.81 The ancient guilds continued in the Byzantine Empire. In Ravenna we find references to manyscholae or economic associations—in the sixth century to bakers, in the ninth to notaries and merchants, in the tenth to fishermen, in the eleventh to victualers. We hear of artisan ministeria in ninth-century Venice, and of a gardeners’ schola in eleventh-century Rome.82 Doubtless most of the ancient guilds in the West succumbed to the barbarian invasions, and the resulting reruralization and poverty; but some seem to have survived in Lombardy. When commerce and industry recovered in the eleventh century the conditions that had begotten the collegia regenerated the guilds.

Consequently these were strongest in Italy, where the old Roman institutions were best preserved. In Florence, in the twelfth century, we find arti—“arts,” craft unions—of notaries, clothiers, wool merchants, bankers, physicians and druggists, mercers or silk dealers, furriers, tanners, armorers, innkeepers….83 These guilds were apparently modeled on those of Constantinople.84 North of the Alps the destruction of the ancient collegia was presumably more complete than in Italy; yet we find them mentioned in the laws of Dagobert I (630), the capitularies of Charlemagne (779, 789), and the ordinances of Archbishop Hincmar of Reims (852). In the eleventh century the guilds reappear in France and Flanders, and multiply rapidly as charités, frairies (brotherhoods), orcompagnies. In Germany the guilds (hanse) stemmed from old Markgenossenschaften—local associations for mutual aid, religious observances, and holiday hilarity. By the twelfth century many of these had become trade or craft unions; and by the thirteenth century these were so strong that they contested political as well as economic authority with the municipal councils.85 The Hanseatic League was such a guild. The first mention of English guilds is in the laws of King Ine (688–726), which speak of gegildan—associates who helped one another to pay any wergild assessed against them. The Anglo-Saxon word gild (cf. the German Geld, the English gold and yield) meant a contribution to a common fund, and later the society that administered the fund. The oldest reference to English trade guilds is dated 1093.86 By the thirteenth century nearly every important town in England had one or more guilds, and a kind of municipal “guild socialism” held sway in England and Germany.

Nearly all the guilds of the eleventh century were merchant guilds: they included only independent merchants and master workmen; they excluded all persons dependent upon others. They were frankly institutions in restraint of trade. They usually persuaded their towns to keep out, by a high protective tariff or elsewise, goods competitive with their own; such alien goods, if allowed to enter the town, were sold at prices fixed by the affected guild. In many cases a merchant guild obtained from commune or king a local or national monopoly in its line or field. The Paris Company for the Transit of Merchandise by Water almost owned the Seine. By city ordinance or economic pressure the guild usually compelled craftsmen to work only for the guild or with its consent, and to sell its products only to or through the guild.

The greater guilds became powerful corporations; they dealt in a variety of goods, purchased raw materials wholesale, provided insurance against losses, organized the food supply and sewage disposals of their towns, paved streets, built roads and docks, deepened harbors, policed highways, supervised markets, regulated wages, hours, conditions of labor, terms of apprenticeship, methods of production and sale, prices of materials and wares.87 Four or five times a year they fixed a “just price” that in their judgment gave fair stimulus and reward to all parties concerned. They weighed, tested, counted all products bought or sold in their trade and area, and did their best to keep inferior or dishonest goods from the market.88 They banded together to resist robbers, feudal lords and tolls, refractory workmen, tax-levying governments. They took a leading part in politics, dominated many municipal councils, effectively supported the communes in their struggles against barons, bishops, and kings, and themselves evolved into an oppressive oligarchy of merchants and financiers.

Usually each guild had its own guild hall, which in the later Middle Ages might be architecturally ornate. It had a complex personnel of presiding aldermen, recorders, treasurers, bailiffs, sergeants…. It had its own courts to try its members, and required its members to submit their disputes to the guild court before resorting to state law. It obligated its members to help a fellow guildsman in sickness or distress, to rescue or ransom him if attacked or jailed.89 It supervised the morals, manners, and dress of its members, and fixed a penalty for coming to meeting stockingless. When two members of the Leicester Merchants’ Guild engaged in fisticuffs at Boston Fair, their fellows fined them a barrel of beer, to be co-operatively drunk by the guild.90 Each guild had an annual feast for its patron saint, when a brief prelude of prayer sanctioned a day of moist exuberance. It shared in financing and adorning the city’s churches or cathedral, and in preparing and performing those miracle plays which mothered the modern drama; and in municipal parades its dignitaries marched in gorgeous liveries, displaying the banners of their trade in colorful pageantry. It provided for its members insurance against fire, flood, theft, imprisonment, disability, and old age.91 It built hospitals, almshouses, orphanages and schools. It paid for the funerals of its dead, and for the Masses that would rescue their souls from purgatory. Its prosperous decedents seldom failed to remember it in their wills.

Normally excluded from these merchant guilds, and yet subject to their economic regulations and political power, the craftsmen in each industry began in the twelfth century to form in each town their own craft guilds. In 1099 we find guilds of weavers in London, Lincoln, and Oxford, and, soon afterward, of fullers, tanners, butchers, goldsmiths…. Under the names of arti, Zunfte, métiers, “companies,” “mysteries,” they spread throughout Europe in the thirteenth century; Venice had fifty-eight, Genoa thirty-three, Florence twenty-one, Cologne twenty-six, Paris one hundred. About 1254 Étienne Boileau, “provost of merchants”—secretary of commerce—under Louis IX, issued an official Livre des Métiers, or Book of Trades, giving the rules and regulations of 101 Paris guilds. The division of labor in this list is astonishing: in the leather industry, for example, there were separate unions for skinners, tanners, cobblers, harness makers, saddlers, and makers of fine leather goods; in carpentry there were distinct unions of chest makers, cabinetmakers, boatbuilders, wheelwrights, coopers, twiners. Each guild jealously guarded its craft secrets, fenced in its field of work against outsiders, and engaged in lively jurisdictional disputes.92

In the spirit of the times the craft guild took a religious form and a patron saint, and aspired to monopoly. Ordinarily no one might follow a craft unless he belonged to its guild.93 The guild leaders were annually elected by full assemblies of their craft, but were often chosen by seniority and wealth. Guild regulations determined—as far as merchant guilds, municipal ordinances, and economic law would allow—the conditions under which the members worked, the wages they received, the prices they charged. Guild rules limited the number of masters in an area, and of apprentices to a master; forbade the industrial employment of women except the master’s wife, or of men after six P.M.; and punished members for unjust charges, dishonest dealing, and shoddy goods. In many cases the guild proudly stamped its products with its “trademark” or “[guild]hallmark,” certifying their quality;94 the cloth guild of Bruges expelled from the city a member who had forged the Bruges hallmark on inferior goods.95 Competition among masters in quantity of production or price of product was discouraged, lest the cleverest or hardest masters become too rich at the expense of the rest; but competition in quality of product was encouraged among both masters and towns. Craft, like merchant, guilds, built hospitals and schools, provided diverse insurance, succored poor members, dowered their daughters, buried the dead, cared for widows, gave labor as well as funds to building cathedrals and churches, and pictured their craft operations and insignia in cathedral glass.

The fraternal spirit among the masters did not prevent a sharp gradation of membership and powers in the craft guilds. At the bottom was the apprentice, ten to twelve years old, bound by his parents, for a period of from three to twelve years, to live with a master workman, and serve him in shop and home. In return he received food, clothing, shelter, and instruction in the trade; in the later years of his service, wages and tools; at the end of his term, a gift of money to start him on his own. If he ran away he was to be returned to his master and punished; if he continued to abscond he was forever debarred from the craft. On completing his service he became a journeyman (serviteur, garçon, compagnon, varlet), passing from one master to another as a day (journée) laborer. After two or three years the journeyman, if he had enough capital to open his own shop, was examined for technical ability by a board of his guild; if he passed he was made a master. Sometimes—but only in the later Middle Ages—the candidate was required to submit to the governors of the guild a “masterpiece”—a satisfactory sample of his craft.

The graduate craftsman, or master, owned his tools, and usually produced goods directly on order of the consumer, who in some cases provided the materials, and might at any time come in and watch the work. The middleman, in this system, did not control the avenues between the maker and the user of goods. The scale of the craftsman’s operations was limited by the market for which he produced, which was usually his town; but he was not dependent upon the fluctuations of a general market, or the mood of distant investors or purchasers; he did not know the economic paranoia of alternating exaltations and depressions. His hours were long—eight to thirteen hours a day; but he chose them himself, worked in a wisely leisurely way, and enjoyed many a religious holiday. He ate nourishing food, bought sturdy furniture, wore simple but durable clothing, and had at least as wide a cultural life as the master workman of today. He did not read much, and was spared much stupefying trash; but he shared actively in the song and dance, the drama and ritual, of his community.

Throughout the thirteenth century the craft guilds waxed in number and power, and provided a democratic check on the oligarchic merchant guilds. But the craft guilds in turn became an aristocracy of labor. They tended to restrict mastership to masters’ sons; they underpaid their journeymen, who in the fourteenth century weakened them with repeated revolt; and they raised ever higher barriers against entry into their membership or their towns.96 They were excellent organizations for an industrial age when difficulties of transportation often narrowed the market to local buyers, and capital accumulations were not yet sufficiently rich and fluid to finance large-scale undertakings. When such funds appeared the guilds—merchant or craft —lost control of the market, and therefore of the conditions of work. The Industrial Revolution destroyed them in England by the slow fatality of economic change; and the French Revolution abruptly disbanded them as hostile to that freedom and dignity of work that for a bright moment they had once sustained.

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