Medieval Guilds

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A “guild” (also spelled “gild”) was, in medieval times, an association of craftsmen or merchants, formed for mutual aid and protection and to further their own professional interests. The medieval guilds were of two types, the merchant guilds and the craft guilds.

Merchant guilds were associations of all (or most) of the merchants in a particular town or city, be they local or long-distance traders, wholesale or retail sellers, for instance. A modern-day analogy might be a Chamber of Commerce. By the 13th century, the merchant guilds of western Europe were officially recognized by many town governments, comprising, as they did, the wealthiest and most influential citizens in many towns and cities. In the larger towns, a Guildhall would often be provided by the merchants’ guilds. They became intimately involved in regulating and protecting their members’ interests, both in long-distance trade and local town business. Guilds came to control the distribution and sale of food, cloth, and other staple goods, and so often gained a powerful monopoly.

The medieval craft guilds, the main focus of this article, were associations of all the artisans and craftsmen in a particular branch of industry or commerce. For example, there were guilds of weavers, bookbinders, masons and architects in the building trade, painters, metalworkers (the “Hammermen”) bakers, dyers, embroiderers, leatherworkers, etc. Although its roots were earlier, the medieval craft guilds system became widespread in the 11th century in Europe, as towns and cities started to develop after the Dark Ages period. The word “craft” comes from the old English word “craeft”, meaning “skill”.

Edinburgh Hammerman

Edinburgh Hammerman
Ritual Costume
1555 [*]

The skilled craftsmen in a town usually consisted of a number of family workshops in the same neighbourhood, with the masters or owners of such workshops related to each other, often sharing apprentices between them. These craftsmen would agree, as a group, to regulate competition among themselves, thus promoting their own and the town’s prosperity. The craftsmen would agree on some basic policies governing their trade, setting quality standards, and so on. So, from local beginnings, the early guilds developed into larger, sophisticated associations of craftsmen.

Members of the craft guilds were divided into Master, Journeyman, and Apprentice. The master was a very accomplished craftsman who took on apprentices. Usually, these were boys in their teens who were provided food, clothing, shelter, and an education by the master, in return for working for them for free as an apprentice, often for a fixed term of service from about five to nine years. After this, an apprentice became a journeyman, who was allowed to work for one or another master and was paid with wages for his labour. Once a journeyman could provide proof of his technical and artistic skills, by showing his “masterpiece”, he might rise in the guild and become a master. He could then set up his own workshop, and hire and train apprentices. However, to become a master was difficult, as masters in any particular craft guild tended to be a select inner circle, who possessed not only technical competence, but also proof of their wealth and social position. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these guilds in trade and commerce prior to the industrial revolution.

But what does all of this have to do with the western mystery traditions? Briefly, the secrets of the various crafts were jealously guarded by the Guild Masters, who also recorded every member’s name and individual mark. In many surviving medieval (and other) buildings in parts of Europe today, the original Mason’s marks can still be seen, for example, and other guilds also had their unique marks and symbols. Perhaps a contemporary example might be the individual mark or stamp of the customs or Assay office, as in modern-day Britain, to indicate quality and approval of worksmanship. In addition to marks or symbols, the guilds had other ways of communicating their more specialized concepts and religious traditions – especially after the decline of the guilds, much of the hidden knowledge was carried on by travelling musicians, troubadours, meistersingers, and so on.

Many of the medieval guilds became famous for their Guild ‘miracle plays’ which they performed in public, often around Old and New Testament biblical themes. For instance, the Goldsmiths favoured “the Adoration of the Magi”, and the Shipwrights “Noah’s Ark”. Often, both God and the Devil would appear on stage together. One particular character, the Abbot of Unreason, became a figure of satire and, in later times, a distinct irritant to the church authorities. Even into later times, at Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, for example, it is known that the Sinclair family allowed the play “Robin Hood and Little John” to be performed in the glen in May and June, which is particularily interesting given that this very play had previously been banned. The Scottish Parliament, on 20 June 1555, had decreed that “no one should act as Robin Hood, Little John, Abbot of Unreason or Queen of May.” Although these plays were very popular with the public at the time, the church felt that theatre was immoral or, at least, very dangerous. In England, Cromwell’s Puritans would also ban “all theatre as immoral” a century later – Scotland did so earlier, due to the severe Calvinist Protestantism, led by John Knox, prevalent at the time. Sir William Sinclair was Scotland’s Chief Justice, but “strolling players” regularly performed this play in the glen by his home at Rosslyn Castle after the play had been banned by law.

In medieval times, such plays and their biblical themes were appreciated, along with elements that were then tolerated in a spirit of fun, such as the Abbot of Unreason, Maid Marion, and Friar Tuck. In medieval York, the miracle plays performed by the guilds became well known, as did those of Chester, Wakefield, and other centres of these early pageants, and many have survived or revived in some form today. In medieval times, the whole community came to see these plays; many performances would be done at various points around a town, on large wagons or platforms, and the crowds would move from one point to another, similar to going from one station of the cross to another in a church. The symbolism inherent in many of these pageants is interesting to study, and more in-depth research is currently being conducted in these areas by myself and other researchers. Meanwhile, it seems, the spirit of Robin Hood and the Queen of May lives on…..

Dr Karen Ralls


On Guilds and related themes…

  • Billington, S., A Social History of the Fool, Harvester Press: Sussex, and St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1984
  • Holt, J.C., Robin Hood, Thames & Hudson: London, 1982; rev. ed., 1989

For a detailed, more comprehensive listing of many bibliographic sources – both academic and general sources – on Medieval Guilds and related topics, including books, journal articles, and periodicals, please see the extensive bibliographies, Reading Lists and Appendices in Medieval Mysteries,  Ibis Press/RedWheelWeiser, Lake Worth, FL, 2014,  Gothic Cathedrals: History, Art, Places and Symbolism,  Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, Lake Worth, FL, 2015, and  The Knights Templar Encyclopedia,  The Career Press, NJ, 2007,  all titles by Dr Karen Ralls.

Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.

Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.

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