Monday, March 21, 2016

A Bit About Guilds

Guilds, companies of folk who follow the same occupation, are associated with the Middle Ages. They actually existed in the Roman Empire. Called collegia, they were authorized by the government, who used the structure to impose taxes on their professions. When Rome fell, collegia disappeared for six centuries, reappearing in Western Europe as guilds. (In the Eastern Empire, collegia survived the Fall of Rome; they were also a structure for the government to produce revenue by taxing craftsmen.)

Medieval Guild of Tailors [source]
The medieval guilds seem to have developed independently, rather than being an import from Byzantium. The development of towns around 1000—with their concentrations of population, coalescing of workers with similar skills, and need for local government—enabled merchants to evolve from traveling peddlers to stationary shopkeepers.

By banding together, members of a guild could support each other socially and financially against outsiders. A guild could set prices, and prevent foreigners from conducting business in their locale. Guild members joining town councils gained even more power for their colleagues.

To ensure quality, guilds created a system of apprenticeship. A master, an established and accomplished craftsman, would accept apprentices who lived with him and learned his trade in exchange for bed and board. A family might pay a lot of money to a master to have a son become his apprentice. After several years, a suitably trained apprentice would find another master with which to intern, finally getting paid for his work. At this stage he was called a journeyman. After proving his mastery of the craft, he could become a master himself, and could set up his own shop and accept apprentices of his own.

Guilds also gave back to society. All professions had some patron saint, and guilds would often fund a chapel dedicated to their patron saint.

After the Reformation, the rise of strong national governments removed some of the local autonomy that allowed guilds to control so much of their towns. Also, merchants began to develop international connections, mega-corporations that overshadowed the effect of a local guild.

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