Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Biggest Guild

A 1568 German woodcut showing a shoe shop
Which guilds were the biggest? Not the most powerful, but those with the most members? Let's look at a sampling. The tax lists for Paris in 1292 list the numbers of members of 130 guilds. Here are some of the largest:

21 - woodcarvers
21 - glove makers
22 - hay merchants
24 - harness makers
24 - rugmakers
24 - sculptors
24 - innkeepers
26 - rope makers
27 - locksmiths
29 - doctors
34 - blacksmiths
35 - spice merchants
37 - beer sellers
41 - fish merchants
42 - meat butchers
43 - laundresses
51 - chicken butchers
54 - hat makers
56 - wine sellers
58 - scabbard makers
62 - bakers
70 - coopers
70 - mercers
86 - weavers
95 - carpenters
104 - masons
106 - pastry cooks
121 - old clothes dealers
130 - restaurateurs
131 - jewelers
151 - barbers
197 - tailors
214 - furriers
...and the guild with the largest number of tradesmen in it:
366 - shoemakers
Why so many shoemakers? These days, we think of shoes as something with sturdy rubber soles, sealed to canvas or nylon or leather. What we have today is considered very durable; when they wear out, we dash to a store where the shelves are lined floor to ceiling with clearly marked lengths and widths of mass-produced footwear. Not so in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, and the centuries before, footwear was "bespoke"; that is, designed specifically for the foot it was supposed to enclose. A shoemaker would take your measurement, discuss materials and binding, and then set to work crafting shoes that would fit your feet, and not the feet of your neighbor or family member.

These shoes were not necessarily fitted with hard soles, either; in many cases, they are essentially slippers made of leather, and with every step they would scuff thinner and thinner. The leather used had to be soft and supple to fit snugly around your feet; it was mostly from goatskin or sheepskin, as opposed to the tougher cow leather used for saddlery, for instance. In fact, one term for a shoemaker, cordwainer, comes from Cordovan, because Cordoba in southern Spain was a source of goatskin commonly used for shoes.

Another note on terminology: These were not cobblers, but shoemakers. A cobbler did not make shoes: he repaired them.

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