I recently took some time to listen to an extensive podcast on medieval guilds which featured the economic historian Gary Richards and it was utterly illuminating concerning the functions & roles of guilds in medieval Europe. The full podcast, of course, can be listened to via player.fm.
Of course, there are countless sociological and historical reasons as to why our ancestors functioned the way that they did… You know, in a more civilized and socially conscious fashion than anyone does today. It is also clear that the idea of getting anyone to behave with the manner & neighborliness of a medieval person is a long shot, but let us pine for the old days together for a moment.
First off, throw the image that you have of guilds out of your head; it isn’t solely an organization of pre-modern businessmen trying to fix prices and pull one over on the consumer. The word guild has a far broader reach. Any organization at all could be called a guild.
In medieval England, nearly every village had at least one registered ‘guild.’ These can be referred to as ‘societies’ as well, and some of these village guilds were nothing more than a prayer society. During the podcast Richardson stated that he believed nearly every adult in England probably was involved in some guild or another. But, of course, many of these were more so village social organizations, and not necessarily within the scope of our interest as we talk about former business practices.
The guilds that did exist that were associations of, say, pewter makers, blacksmiths, tanners, etc. formed very naturally and lived very interconnected lives. Remember that villages would be organized in a logical fashion — tanners and butchers deal with a lot of carcasses and do all manner of processes to make leather; you’d want them congregated in one area near the outside of town. Blacksmiths were involved in extremely loud work that likewise had a lot of fire and produced a lot of smoke and waste — again, you’d want them in one neighborhood.Thus, these guilds were also on some level neighborhood associations. They encompassed the entire section of town where all of the people of a single occupation lived.
It is also important to note that in the highly religious medieval times the craftsmen were devoted to their patron saints. Believing in purgatory as well as Heaven, the guildsmen would gather and pray not just for one another and their families, but also deceased guildsmen who may be stuck in purgatory. A very strong religious zeal existed within them — and in medieval England the primary threat that came with cheating your guild and being estranged from it was one of no longer receiving the prayers and blessings of the group you are with.
But guilds certainly weren’t just prayer warriors… Guilds offered mutual insurance to one another. If a guild member were to have died early, it is fully known that basic sustenance would be provided for his family and even dowries would commonly be furnished by his fellow guildsmen. There was a distinct sense of great social responsibility within the guild…
Guilds would compete to see who provided the best services to their communities and gave the most mutual assurance. They wished to be prestigious and have a measurable positive impact on the community. it was well documented that on the day of their patron Saints, they would have lively festivals and parades. This would include paying for lavish public performances of plays often depicting the life and good deeds of their Saints. The guildsmen would wear special liveries or badges indicating their membership in the guild — for it was a sign of distinct pride to have such an association with organizations that provided for the community.
Of course, guilds were dedicated to their economic work as well. Their trades were closely held secrets, but what was also important was providing quality products. It was common to put a symbol, emblem or ‘signature’ of sorts upon their products because the markings would have reputations attached to them. Thus, one of the other functions of a guild was to look into the work of their registered craftsmen and insure that nobody was doing things to make their products worst (like putting too much lead into their pewter, for instance).
Of course, this was a very different epoch in human history but as a fan of history I always hope to learn something from it. In this case what is clearly worthy of our attention was how, while the time was not as technologically advanced nor had the comforts of modern times, it does appear that they did their best to take care of one another, and a great point of pride was their ability to Give.
All of these elements stand out in stark contrast to the nature of how our business is done, and it is certainly harder to think of us as being the perpetual superior to these medieval peoples.