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[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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 plays.

[8] 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.




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