1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gilds

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GILDS, or Guilds. Medieval gilds were voluntary associations formed for the mutual aid and protection of their members. Among the gildsmen there was a strong spirit of fraternal co-operation or Christian brotherhood, with a mixture of worldly and religious ideals—the support of the body and the salvation of the soul. Early meanings of the root gild or geld were expiation, penalty, sacrifice or worship, feast or banquet, and contribution or payment; it is difficult to determine which is the earliest meaning, and we are not certain whether the gildsmen were originally those who contributed to a common fund or those who worshipped or feasted together. Their fraternities or societies may be divided into three classes: religious or benevolent, merchant and craft gilds. The last two categories, which do not become prominent anywhere in Europe until the 12th century, had, like all gilds, a religious tinge, but their aims were primarily worldly, and their functions were mainly of an economic character.

1. Origin.—Various theories have been advanced concerning the origin of gilds. Some writers regard them as a continuation of the Roman collegia and sodalitates, but there is little evidence to prove the unbroken continuity of existence of the Roman and Germanic fraternities. A more widely accepted theory derives gilds wholly or in part from the early Germanic or Scandinavian sacrificial banquets. Much influence is ascribed to this heathen element by Lujo Brentano, Karl Hegel, W. E. Wilda and other writers. This view does not seem to be tenable, for the old sacrificial carousals lack two of the essential elements of the gilds, namely corporative solidarity or permanent association and the spirit of Christian brotherhood. Dr Max Pappenheim has ascribed the origin of Germanic gilds to the northern “foster-brotherhood” or “sworn-brotherhood,” which was an artificial bond of union between two or more persons. After intermingling their blood in the earth and performing other peculiar ceremonies, the two contracting parties with grasped hands swore to avenge any injury done to either of them. The objections to this theory are fully stated by Hegel (Städte und Gilden, i. 250-253). The foster-brotherhood seems to have been unknown to the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, the nations in which medieval gilds first appear; and hence Dr Pappenheim’s conclusions, if tenable at all, apply only to Denmark or Scandinavia.

No theory on this subject can be satisfactory which wholly ignores the influence of the Christian church. Imbued with the idea of the brotherhood of man, the church naturally fostered the early growth of gilds and tried to make them displace the old heathen banquets. The work of the church was, however, directive rather than creative. Gilds were a natural manifestation of the associative spirit which is inherent in mankind. The same needs produce in different ages associations which have striking resemblances, but those of each age have peculiarities which indicate a spontaneous growth. It is not necessary to seek the germ of gilds in any antecedent age or institution. When the old kin-bond or maegth was beginning to weaken or dissolve, and the state did not yet afford adequate protection to its citizens, individuals naturally united for mutual help.

Gilds are first mentioned in the Carolingian capitularies of 779 and 789, and in the enactments made by the synod of Nantes early in the 9th century, the text of which has been preserved in the ecclesiastical ordinances of Hincmar of Rheims (A.D. 852). The capitularies of 805 and 821 also contain vague references to sworn unions of some sort, and a capitulary of 884 prohibits villeins from forming associations “vulgarly called gilds” against those who have despoiled them. The Carolingians evidently regarded such “conjurations” as “conspirations” dangerous to the state. The gilds of Norway, Denmark and Sweden are first mentioned in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries respectively; those of France and the Netherlands in the 11th.

Many writers believe that the earliest references to gilds come from England. The laws of Ine speak of gegildan who help each other pay the wergeld, but it is not entirely certain that they were members of gild fraternities in the later sense. These are more clearly referred to in England in the second half of the 9th century, though we have little information concerning them before the 11th century. To the first half of that century belong the statutes of the fraternities of Cambridge, Abbotsbury and Exeter. They are important because they form the oldest body of gild ordinances extant in Europe. The thanes’ gild at Cambridge afforded help in blood-feuds, and provided for the payment of the wergeld in case a member killed any one. The religious element was more prominent in Orcy’s gild at Abbotsbury and in the fraternity at Exeter; their ordinances exhibit much solicitude for the salvation of the brethren’s souls. The Exeter gild also gave assistance when property was destroyed by fire. Prayers for the dead, attendance at funerals of gildsmen, periodical banquets, the solemn entrance oath, fines for neglect of duty and for improper conduct, contributions to a common purse, mutual assistance in distress, periodical meetings in the gildhall,—in short, all the characteristic features of the later gilds already appear in the statutes of these Anglo-Saxon fraternities. Some continental writers, in dealing with the origin of municipal government throughout western Europe, have, however, ascribed too much importance to the Anglo-Saxon gilds, exaggerating their prevalence and contending that they form the germ of medieval municipal government. This view rests almost entirely on conjecture; there is no good evidence to show that there was any organic connexion between gilds and municipal government in England before the coming of the Normans. It should also be noted that there is no trace of the existence of either craft or merchant gilds in England before the Norman Conquest. Commerce and industry were not yet sufficiently developed to call for the creation of such associations.

2. Religious Gilds after the Norman Conquest.—Though we have not much information concerning the religious gilds in the 12th century, they doubtless flourished under the Anglo-Norman kings, and we know that they were numerous, especially in the boroughs, from the 13th century onward. In 1388 parliament ordered that every sheriff in England should call upon the masters and wardens of all gilds and brotherhoods to send to the king’s council in Chancery, before the 2nd of February 1389, full returns regarding their foundation, ordinances and property. Many of these returns were edited by J. Toulmin Smith (1816–1869), and they throw much light on the functions of the gilds. Their ordinances are similar to those of the above-mentioned Anglo-Saxon fraternities. Each member took an oath of admission, paid an entrance-fee, and made a small annual contribution to the common fund. The brethren were aided in old age, sickness and poverty, often also in cases of loss by robbery, shipwreck and conflagration; for example, any member of the gild of St Catherine, Aldersgate, was to be assisted if he “fall into poverty or be injured through age, or through fire or water, thieves or sickness.” Alms were often given even to non-gildsmen; lights were supported at certain altars; feasts and processions were held periodically; the funerals of brethren were attended; and masses for the dead were provided from the common purse or from special contributions made by the gildsmen. Some of the religious gilds supported schools, or helped to maintain roads, bridges and town-walls, or even came, in course of time, to be closely connected with the government of the borough; but, as a rule, they were simply private societies with a limited sphere of activity. They are important because they played a prominent rôle in the social life of England, especially as eleemosynary institutions, down to the time of their suppression in 1547. Religious gilds, closely resembling those of England, also flourished on the continent during the middle ages.

3. The Gild Merchant.—The merchant and craft fraternities are particularly interesting to students of economic and municipal history. The gild merchant came into existence in England soon after the Norman Conquest, as a result of the increasing importance of trade, and it may have been transplanted from Normandy. Until clearer evidence of foreign influence is found, it may, however, be safer to regard it simply as a new application of the old gild principle, though this new application may have been stimulated by continental example. The evidence seems to indicate the pre-existence of the gild merchant in Normandy, but it is not mentioned anywhere on the continent before the 11th century. It spread rapidly in England, and from the reign of John onward we have evidence of its existence in many English boroughs. But in some prominent towns, notably London, Colchester, Norwich and the Cinque Ports, it seems never to have been adopted. In fact it played a more conspicuous rôle in the small boroughs than in the large ones. It was regarded by the townsmen as one of their most important privileges. Its chief function was to regulate the trade monopoly conveyed to the borough by the royal grant of gilda mercatoria. A grant of this sort implied that the gildsmen had the right to trade freely in the town, and to impose payments and restrictions upon others who desired to exercise that privilege. The ordinances of a gild merchant thus aim to protect the brethren from the commercial competition of strangers or non-gildsmen. More freedom of trade was allowed at all times in the selling of wares by wholesale, and also in retail dealings during the time of markets and fairs. The ordinances were enforced by an alderman with the assistance of two or more deputies, or by one or two masters, wardens or keepers. The Morwenspeches were periodical meetings at which the brethren feasted, revised their ordinances, admitted new members, elected officers and transacted other business.

It has often been asserted that the gild merchant and the borough were identical, and that the former was the basis of the whole municipal constitution. But recent research has discredited this theory both in England and on the continent. Much evidence has been produced to show that gild and borough, gildsmen and burgesses, were originally distinct conceptions, and that they continued to be discriminated in most towns throughout the middle ages. Admission to the gild was not restricted to burgesses; nor did the brethren form an aristocratic body having control over the whole municipal polity. No good evidence has, moreover, been advanced to prove that this or any other kind of gild was the germ of the municipal constitution. On the other hand, the gild merchant was certainly an official organ or department of the borough administration, and it exerted considerable influence upon the economic and corporative growth of the English municipalities.

Historians have expressed divergent views regarding the early relations of the craftsmen and their fraternities to the gild merchant. One of the main questions in dispute is whether artisans were excluded from the gild merchant. Many of them seem to have been admitted to membership. They were regarded as merchants, for they bought raw material and sold the manufactured commodity; no sharp line of demarcation was drawn between the two classes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Separate societies of craftsmen were formed in England soon after the gild merchant came into existence; but at first they were few in number. The gild merchant did not give birth to craft fraternities or have anything to do with their origin; nor did it delegate its authority to them. In fact, there seems to have been little or no organic connexion between the two classes of gilds. As has already been intimated, however, many artisans probably belonged both to their own craft fraternity and to the gild merchant, and the latter, owing to its great power in the town, may have exercised some sort of supervision over the craftsmen and their societies. When the king bestowed upon the tanners or weavers or any other body of artisans the right to have a gild, they secured the monopoly of working and trading in their branch of industry. Thus with every creation of a craft fraternity the gild merchant was weakened and its sphere of activity was diminished, though the new bodies were subsidiary to the older and larger fraternity. The greater the commercial and industrial prosperity of a town, the more rapid was the multiplication of craft gilds, which was a natural result of the ever-increasing division of labour. The old gild merchant remained longest intact and powerful in the smaller boroughs, in which, owing to the predominance of agriculture, few or no craft gilds were formed. In some of the larger towns the crafts were prominent already in the 13th century, but they became much more prominent in the first half of the 14th century. Their increase in number and power was particularly rapid in the time of Edward III., whose reign marks an era of industrial progress. Many master craftsmen now became wealthy employers of labour, dealing extensively in the wares which they produced. The class of dealers or merchants, as distinguished from trading artisans, also greatly increased and established separate fraternities. When these various unions of dealers and of craftsmen embraced all the trades and branches of production in the town, little or no vitality remained in the old gild merchant; it ceased to have an independent sphere of activity. The tendency was for the single organization, with a general monopoly of trade, to be replaced by a number of separate organizations representing the various trades and handicrafts. In short, the function of guarding and supervising the trade monopoly split up into various fragments, the aggregate of the crafts superseding the old general gild merchant. This transference of the authority of the latter to a number of distinct bodies and the consequent disintegration of the old organization was a gradual spontaneous movement,—a process of slow displacement, or natural growth and decay, due to the play of economic forces,—which, generally speaking, may be assigned to the 14th and 15th centuries, the very period in which the craft gilds attained the zenith of their power. While in most towns the name and the old organization of the gild merchant thus disappeared and the institution was displaced by the aggregate of the crafts towards the close of the middle ages, in some places it survived long after the 15th century either as a religious fraternity, shorn of its old functions, or as a periodical feast, or as a vague term applied to the whole municipal corporation.

On the continent of Europe the medieval gild merchant played a less important rôle than in England. In Germany, France and the Netherlands it occupies a less prominent place in the town charters and in the municipal polity, and often corresponds to the later fraternities of English dealers established either to carry on foreign commerce or to regulate a particular part of the local trade monopoly.

4. Craft Gilds.—A craft gild usually comprised all the artisans in a single branch of industry in a particular town. Such a fraternity was commonly called a “mistery” or “company” in the 15th and 16th centuries, though the old term “gild” was not yet obsolete. “Gild” was also a common designation in north Germany, while the corresponding term in south Germany was Zunft, and in France métier. These societies are not clearly visible in England or on the continent before the early part of the 12th century. With the expansion of trade and industry the number of artisans increased, and they banded together for mutual protection. Some German writers have maintained that these craft organizations emanated from manorial groups of workmen, but strong arguments have been advanced against the validity of this theory (notably by F. Keutgen). It is unnecessary to elaborate any profound theory regarding the origin of the craft gilds. The union of men of the same occupation was a natural tendency of the age. In the 13th century the trade of England continued to expand and the number of craft gilds increased. In the 14th century they were fully developed and in a flourishing condition; by that time each branch of industry in every large town had its gild. The development of these societies was even more rapid on the continent than in England.

Their organization and aims were in general the same throughout western Europe. Officers, commonly called wardens in England, were elected by the members, and their chief function was to supervise the quality of the wares produced, so as to secure good and honest workmanship. Therefore, ordinances were made regulating the hours of labour and the terms of admission to the gild, including apprenticeship. Other ordinances required members to make periodical payments to a common fund, and to participate in certain common religious observances, festivities and pageants. But the regulation of industry was always paramount to social and religious aims; the chief object of the craft gild was to supervise the processes of manufacture and to control the monopoly of working and dealing in a particular branch of industry.

We have already called attention to the gradual displacement of the gild merchant by the craft organizations. The relations of the former to the latter must now be considered more in detail. There was at no time a general struggle in England between the gild merchant and the craft gilds, though in a few towns there seems to have been some friction between merchants and artisans. There is no exact parallel in England to the conflict between these two classes in Scotland in the 16th century, or to the great continental revolution of the 13th and 14th centuries, by which the crafts threw off the yoke of patrician government and secured more independence in the management of their own affairs and more participation in the civic administration. The main causes of these conflicts on the continent were the monopoly of power by the patricians, acts of violence committed by them, their bad management of the finances and their partisan administration of justice. In some towns the victory of the artisans in the 14th century was so complete that the whole civic constitution was remodelled with the craft fraternities as a basis. A widespread movement of this sort would scarcely be found in England, where trade and industry were less developed than on the continent, and where the motives of a class conflict between merchants and craftsmen were less potent. Moreover, borough government in England seems to have been mainly democratic until the 14th or 15th century; there was no oligarchy to be depressed or suppressed. Even if there had been motives for uprisings of artisans such as took place in Germany and the Netherlands, the English kings would probably have intervened. True, there were popular uprisings in England, but they were usually conflicts between the poor and the rich; the crafts as such seldom took part in these tumults. While many continental municipalities were becoming more democratic in the 14th century, those of England were drifting towards oligarchy, towards government by a close “select body.” As a rule the craft gilds secured no dominant influence in the boroughs of England, but remained subordinate to the town government. Whatever power they did secure, whether as potent subsidiary organs of the municipal polity for the regulation of trade, or as the chief or sole medium for the acquisition of citizenship, or as integral parts of the common council, was, generally speaking, the logical sequence of a gradual economic development, and not the outgrowth of a revolutionary movement by which oppressed craftsmen endeavoured to throw off the yoke of an arrogant patrician gild merchant.

Two new kinds of craft fraternities appear in the 14th century and become more prominent In the 15th, namely, the merchants’ and the journeymen’s companies. The misteries or companies of merchants traded in one or more kinds of wares. They were pre-eminently dealers, who sold what others produced. Hence they should not be confused with the old gild merchant, which originally comprised both merchants and artisans, and had the whole monopoly of the trade of the town. In most cases, the company of merchants was merely one of the craft organizations which superseded the gild merchant.

In the 14th century the journeymen or yeomen began to set up fraternities in defence of their rights. The formation of these societies marks a cleft within the ranks of some particular class of artisans—a conflict between employers, or master artisans, and workmen. The journeymen combined to protect their special interests, notably as regards hours of work and rates of wages, and they fought with the masters over the labour question in all its aspects. The resulting struggle of organized bodies of masters and journeymen was widespread throughout western Europe, but it was more prominent in Germany than in France or England. This conflict was indeed one of the main features of German industrial life in the 15th century. In England the fraternities of journeymen, after struggling a while for complete independence, seem to have fallen under the supervision and control of the masters’ gilds; in other words, they became subsidiary or affiliated organs of the older craft fraternities.

An interesting phenomenon in connexion with the organization of crafts is their tendency to amalgamate, which is occasionally visible in England in the 15th century, and more frequently in the 16th and 17th. A similar tendency is visible in the Netherlands and in some other parts of the continent already in the 14th century. Several fraternities—old gilds or new companies, with their respective cognate or heterogeneous branches of industry and trade—were fused into one body. In some towns all the crafts were thus consolidated into a single fraternity; in this case a body was reproduced which regulated the whole trade monopoly of the borough, and hence bore some resemblance to the old gild merchant.

In dealing briefly with the modern history of craft gilds, we may confine our attention to England. In the Tudor period the policy of the crown was to bring them under public or national control. Laws were passed, for example in 1503, requiring that new ordinances of “fellowships of crafts or misteries” should be approved by the royal justices or by other crown officers; and the authority of the companies to fix the price of wares was thus restricted. The statute of 5 Elizabeth, c. 4, also curtailed their jurisdiction over journeymen and apprentices (see Apprenticeship).

The craft fraternities were not suppressed by the statute of 1547 (1 Edward VI.). They were indeed expressly exempted from its general operation. Such portions of their revenues as were devoted to definite religious observances were, however, appropriated by the crown. The revenues confiscated were those used for “the finding, maintaining or sustentation of any priest or of any anniversary, or obit, lamp, light or other such things.” This has been aptly called “the disendowment of the religion of the misteries.” Edward VI.’s statute marks no break of continuity in the life of the craft organizations. Even before the Reformation, however, signs of decay had already begun to appear, and these multiplied in the 16th and 17th centuries. The old gild system was breaking down under the action of new economic forces. Its dissolution was due especially to the introduction of new industries, organized on a more modern basis, and to the extension of the domestic system of manufacture. Thus the companies gradually lost control over the regulation of industry, though they still retained their old monopoly in the 17th century, and in many cases even in the 18th. In fact, many craft fraternities still survived in the second half of the 18th century, but their usefulness had disappeared. The medieval form of association was incompatible with the new ideas of individual liberty and free competition, with the greater separation of capital and industry, employers and workmen, and with the introduction of the factory system. Intent only on promoting their own interests and disregarding the welfare of the community, the old companies had become an unmitigated evil. Attempts have been made to find in them the progenitors of the trades unions, but there seems to be no immediate connexion between the latter and the craft gilds. The privileges of the old fraternities were not formally abolished until 1835; and the substantial remains or spectral forms of some are still visible in other towns besides London.

Bibliography.—W. E. Wilda, Das Gildenwesen im Mittelalter (Halle, 1831); E. Levasseur; Histoire des classes ouvrières en France (2 vols., Paris, 1859, new ed. 1900); Gustav von Schönberg, “Zur wirtschaftlichen Bedeutung des deutschen Zunftwesens im Mittelalter,” in Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, ed. B. Hildebrand, vol. ix. pp. 1-72, 97-169 (Jena, 1867); Joshua Toulmin Smith, English Gilds, with Lujo Brentano’s introductory essay on the History and Development of Gilds (London, 1870); Max Pappenheim, Die altdänischen Schutzgilden (Breslau, 1885); W. J. Ashley, Introduction to English Economic History (2 vols., London, 1888–1893; 3rd ed. of vol. i., 1894); C. Gross, The Gild Merchant (2 vols., Oxford, 1890); Karl Hegel, Städte und Gilden der germanischen Völker (2 vols., Leipzig, 1891); J. Malet Lambert, Two Thousand Years of Gild Life (Hull, 1891); Alfred Doren, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Kaufmannsgilden (Leipzig, 1893); H. Vander Linden, Les Gildes marchandes dans les Pays-Bas au moyen âge (Ghent, 1896); E. Martin Saint-Léon, Histoire des corporations de métiers (Paris, 1897); C. Nyrop, Danmarks Gilde- og Lavsskraaer fra middelalderen (2 vols., Copenhagen, 1899–1904); F. Keutgen, Ämter und Zünfte (Jena, 1903); George Unwin, Industrial Organization in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Oxford, 1904). For bibliographies of gilds, see H. Blanc, Bibliographie des corporations ouvrières (Paris, 1885); G. Gonetta, Bibliografia delle corporazioni d’ arti e mestieri (Rome, 1891); C. Gross, Bibliography of British Municipal History, including Gilds (New York, 1897); W. Stieda, in Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, ed. J. Conrad (2nd ed., Jena, 1901, under “Zunftwesen”).  (C. Gr.)