Guilds and Merchants

Medieval Merchant   these people take us back to the trade routes.  Some merchants would purchase from guilds and craftspeople.






Apprentice  The restrictionism of the guilds has also been seen in the system of apprenticeship, ostensibly a seven-year contractual period in which the secrets of the craft were transmitted from master to apprentice, and which then gave the apprentice access to the myst

Craft guilds: Traditionally, medieval craft guilds have been seen as groups of men, pursuing a specific craft, joined with their fellows in exclusive associations which were designed to protect their interests against competition as well as to provide mutual support and friendship.

the guilds as “first and foremost an industrial organization”, regulated by town councils as tools of economic policy.

Phythian-Adams, who has convincingly argued that “the craft system had nothing to do with industrial organization”. Phythian-Adams has emphasized instead the fraternal aspects of the guilds, in the regulation of industrial relations and in relating households to the community. Without denying the important social functions of the guild, the argument here focuses rather on their policing role as agents of the civic authorities.

Dobb’s argument is extended here, so that the oligarchs are seen not merely as disregarding craft regulations when it suited them, but as instituting and manipulating the guild system in order to implement these policies. The overwhelming impression gained from surviving records is that craft guilds in the later middle ages primarily served a political and administrative purpose, and were deliberately created to do so.

The volume of trade handled by Londoners meant that mercantile wealth was spread over a number of merchant guilds or companies in the later middle ages, companies which distinguished their elite by means of a livery. By the fifteenth century some of the lesser manufacturing companies came to adopt a similar distinction between the unliveried artisan and the liveryman who traded wholesale.

The differences between the London crafts and those of the provinces are most evident in the structure of urban government. In London access to the freedom was through sponsorship by fellow craftsmen; this system became increasingly formalized so that by the sixteenth century citizenship was dependent on membership of one of the livery companies.16 In provincial towns and cities, entry to the freedom was kept firmly in the hands of the municipal authorities, and in effect they sold this privilege to whomsoever it liked.

wollen-looms. The Norwich authorities specifically singled out the yarn-hawkers for criticism; they were accused of having “engrosed and boughte of the said worsted yarne, hauyng no cunnyng to deserne which is gode and which is defectyve” and had, it was said, grossly inflated the price.30 Dealing in wool itself was probably restricted mainly to merchants in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, though there is some evidence from early fourteenth-century York that artisans had a small part in this trade.

For most households, however, part-time involvement in the textile trade meant carding and spinning. Spinsters are obviously associated with single women, and poor ones at that, but inventories list wool or spinning-wheels in the houses cf a wide variety of craftsmen: Richard Appilgarth, armourer; John Tennand, founder; Mary Haggas, baker.32 William Coltman, a brewer who died in 1481, had a separate spinning-house, which implies a larger output for commercial consumption.

In considering the manufacture and sale of cloth it is difficult to distinguish where output from the artisan household unit merges into mercantile enterprise. The York bowmakers who are found exporting cloth clearly fall into the latter category.34 A good proportion of the internal trade might in contrast have been undertaken by those such as Alice, wife of one Yockes, butcher of Shrewsbury, who dealt in a small way in cloth.35 The exceptionally full aulnage account for York for 1394-5 includes the names of 180 women, most of whom aulnaged half-cloths or lengths numbered in ells; but without knowing the identity of these women and the occupations of any husbands they might have, their relative significance in the household economy cannot be judged.36 Victualling and textiles are of course traditionally associated with women, and the involvement of multi-occupational households in these activities is not surprising. There were a great many other tasks, often done at piece-rates, that could be undertaken as a sideline. The manufacture of cards for the preparation of wool, for example, was an extension of the work of a wiredrawer; so it is unsurprising to find that Matthew Roberd, wiredrawer of Bury St. Edmunds, bequeathed to his daughter “all my goods pertaining to the craft called cardmaking”

Individuals and family units did not therefore restrict themselves to one occupation. With this flexibility of occupational structure a guild system could not hope to establish craft monopolies. At best it could organize artisans into groups, based on their main or declared occupation. What therefore was the real function of the guilds? Late medieval craft guilds had two different aspects. First, there was the fraternity, which was concerned with the social and religious aspirations of its members. It was natural to find men and women of the same occupational group, living in proximity, gathering together for mutual support.

The fraternity provided for prayers and proper obsequies for dead brothers, for security in hard times, as far as it could be given, and for preferential employment of members. It was the fraternity which was of the greatest concern to the artisans, but craft regulations generally ignore it, the only exception among the York ordinances being those of the carpenters, which are so long and detailed that they highlight the omission of such clauses from the regulations of other crafts.44 Secondly, there was the mystery, the occupational aspect of craft organization, with which the civic authorities were almost entirely concerned, and on which they concentrated to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Quite clearly the council saw a system of craft guilds as the ideal way to police the work-force. The advantages were obvious: it was cheap and provided a vehicle for raising money. The effectiveness of the system was dependent on its acceptance by the leading members of the craft. They too were committed to the same hierarchical system as the civic authorities, so that the wishes of the master craftsmen and the council cannot have been completely polarized. Both after all sought to protect standards of manufacture most of the time; both were concerned to keep servants under control.


Guild Emblems 




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