Copyright Dr. L.
Kip Wheeler 1998-2016. Permission is granted for non-profit,
educational, and student reproduction. Last updated August 15th, 2016. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Please
e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this
site. Click here
for credits, thanks,
and additional copyright information.
 Guilds are medieval organizations
combining the qualities of a modern union, a vocational school,
a trading corporation, and a product regulations committee.
It was an organization for the skilled bourgeoisie
(middle class) rather than the nobility, the clergy, or the
peasant workers. These associations of merchants, artisans,
and craftsmen rose in power and numbers toward the late medieval
period. In the early medieval period, they were initially
loose associations of skilled workers. They later became highly
specialized and rigidly organized in the major cities. For
example, by the fourteenth century, silversmiths, goldsmiths,
and jewelers might each have separate guilds from each other,
though in earlier centuries they would be part of one guild.
Likewise, the ironmongers, the blacksmiths, tinkers, horseshoe-makers,
armorers, and weaponsmiths might have separate guilds as well,
even though they made or sold similar metal products and were
part of a single guild in earlier centuries. According to
G. G. Coulton in Chaucer's England, the traditional
occupations became so specialized by the fourteenth century
that the woodcutters' guild of London was kept rigidly separate
from the wood stackers' guild! These guilds were fiercely
territorial about their own sphere of influence, and a woodcutter
caught arranging his own wood into stacks, rather than hiring
a wood stacker to do it for him, might be brought up on criminal
charges in a guild-court. The same holds true for a blacksmith
in the nailer's guild caught making horseshoes, a task which
should fall to a blacksmith in the shoers' guild, while the
task of actually shoeing the horse fell to another worker,
and so on.
 Members of guilds were
called guildsmen, and they did their business
in guildhalls in metropolitan areas. Most guildsmen
were traditionally male, but in the medieval world, the ale-tasters'
guilds, the ale-brewing guilds, the picklers' guild, the webbers'
or weavers' guild, and the dyers' guild were traditionally female
in most parts of Europe. These were some of the rare economic
arenas where bourgeois women could become independently
wealthy, as witnessed by Margery Kempe's desire to become an
ale-brewer before her religious experiences in The Book
of Margery Kempe.
 The guilds
were responsible for the vocational education of many townschildren.
At an early age, parents might decide their youngster should
take up a particular occupation, and sometime between the ages
of seven and thirteen, the child would be sent as an apprentice
to live with a craftsman of the appropriate guild. There, for
the next seven to nine years or so, the child would do drudge
work or menial labor for the craftsman. In return for this labor,
the craftsman would teach the child the skills necessary to
succeed in the craft--perhaps the craft of pottery, cordwaining
or cobbling, masonry, walling, limning, carpentry, stonecutting,
glass-making, or other types of skilled labor. Apprentices were
notorious for getting into trouble--after all, they were the
equivalent of young teenagers and preteens away from their parents.
(Witness the character of Perkin Revelour in Chaucer's "Cook's
Tale.") The master overseeing the apprentice might be expected
to discipline the apprentice by beating him, withholding food,
assigning unpleasant tasks, or administering any other necessary
punishments to correct inappropriate behavior.
 When the craftsman thought
the apprentice was ready, typically after seven to nine years
of training and unpaid labor, the apprentice would be designated
a journeyman in the guild. This status implied
the worker was sufficiently competent in his craft, mature in
his character, and diligent in his occupation to deserve wages.
The journeyman could then travel as a worker-for-hire, go into
partnership with another journeyman or his old master, or even
set up his own independent shop. The journeyman was considered
a guild member in full standing for the rest of his life, and
the guild would testify to his qualifications. To advance in
position or hold higher wages, the journeyman might several
years later seek the status of master. To achieve
this status, the worker must submit his best piece of craftsmanship
to the guildhouse where the other guildmasters would determine
if it were of sufficient quality to qualify its maker as a master.
(This custom is where the modern phrase "masterwork"
comes from. The terminology also entered medieval universities,
where we get terms like a "master's degree.")
Craftsmen might spend more than a year crafting and decorating
a single elaborate sword, shaping and painting a fantastic piece
of pottery, or weaving and sewing an elaborate nobleman's garb
as evidence of his masterwork skill. This masterwork item would
be accepted as a gift by the guildhouse, and would not typically
be returned regardless of whether or not the guild awarded the
applicant master status.
 The status of master
benefited the guildsman. First, the craftsman could take on
his own apprentices. Each apprentice was a source of grunt labor
for several years--completely free labor except for the costs
of food and lodging. Second, the guildmaster often gained a
degree of political power, as he could now vote in guild meetings,
and serve as a shareholder in the guild's business ventures.
Third, he could sit as a judge in various guild courts, and
help set standardized prices on the products his guild produced.
Finally, an equally important but intangible benefit would be
in reputation, since a master blacksmith would be known as especially
skillful in comparison with a journeyman blacksmith, for instance.
 This status also came
with duties. Like modern trade unions, the guilds were responsible
for representing the collective interests of its workers when
bargaining with outsiders. They were also responsible for arbitrating
disputes between individual guildmembers, and hearing complaints
concerning misbehaving apprentices or negligent teachers. The
guilds also worked as assessors to weed out suboptimal products
and spot forgeries and fakes of inferior quality in the marketplace.
Just as the medieval church had its own courts, and the king
had his own courts, the guilds developed their own regional
courts for dealing with business concerns such as fraud, price-cutting,
and labor issues.
 Many guilds also competed
with each other. They sought to gain prestige by engaging in
public works to demonstrate the guild's generosity, political
puissance, or civic goodwill. This competition might take the
form of donating labor to the construction of cathedrals and
courthouses, making financial donations to orphanages, building
public works like toll-free bridges, or sending members of the
guild out to work as volunteer watchmen in the bad parts of
town. This competition was particularly important in terms of
dramatic literature and the growth of medieval drama, where
guilds provided the funding and man-power for performing religious
plays called mystery
 The increasing power
and wealth of guilds caused consternation and envy among medieval
nobility, leading to sumptuary
laws and other restrictions. Chaucer also includes
a depiction of guildsmen traveling together along with a hired
cook in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales.