Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
GUILDS. Several causes have of late years awakened interest in the mediæval guilds. The rise and growing importance of trades-unions and the differences between labor and capital, have led economists, especially in Germany, to investigate the points of analogy between these ancient and modern associations. The enormous wealth of some of the surviving London trade companies has led to inquiries into their origin and history. Dr. Luigi Brentano's works have contributed much to attract attention to the whole subject. This eminent writer, however, has allowed certain views respecting the modern trades-union to bias and color his account of the mediæval guild, the importance of which he has exaggerated; while he has also been led to misconceive in some degree its constitution and its position as a factor in mediæval economy, by overlooking two other factors of greater power and yet higher antiquity, the town or civic commune and the state. Without a clear apprehension of the parts filled by these two factors and of the relation in which they stood to the guild, it is impossible to understand the true place and functions of the last institution, or the real course of its development and history.
—The guild, according to Dr. Brentano, was the germ of the constitution of the mediæval town. The organization and polity of the town had in fact a more archaic source. Could a full history of the early English towns be recovered, it would exhibit many varieties of development under diverse conditions of origin, situation, physical geography, tenure and local surroundings. But however different their career and fortunes, their growth and structure had in ordinary and typical cases some broad features in common. Their rise and growth were not in accordance with what seemed to the economic philosophy of the last century the natural order of things. The original germ was not a concourse of individuals attracted together by the pursuit of gain, but an organized community bound together by ties of kinship. Broad as the contrast is to modern thought between the city and the rural village, the fact which throws most light on the essential features of mediæval urban economy, is the evolution of the city in normal cases from the old village community, vicus or township, or an aggregation of such communities; the members of which were kinsmen or fellow-clansmen, with exclusive rights over the village territory and all advantages to be derived from it, equal lots in the arable land and common enjoyment of the pasture and forest. No stranger could settle within the mark without the permission of the community, or share in their rights without formal adoption. Every member of the little body must farm as the village assembly thought fit, or according to common usage. If any special crafts or trades had grown up, or had been admitted from without, they were subject to control and regulation, and the craftsmen were bound to accept customary remuneration, or such as seemed reasonable to the community and its governing body. Every one within its borders was either a kinsman by blood or adoption and a copartner, and therefore bound by fellowship and unity to conform to its customs and rules, or a servant or stranger on sufferance, and, as such, bound to obedience. In all cases there was a subordination of the individual to the community. The village assembly controlled the rotation of fallow and crop, the use of the forest or waste, the processes of trade, the payment for labor, and the prices of such commodities as were sold within the township. It was not a mere agricultural community. The townsmen had co-ownership of their territory not only for the purpose of husbandry, but in relation to every means of subsistence and profit to be derived from it, whether by means of hunting, fishing, pasture or the practice of handicrafts or trade. Where local conditions favored the growth of commerce, a mediæval guild might spring up for its protection and regulation, but the powers which such a body exercised, unless conferred in later times by the crown, must be regarded as originally derived from, if not expressly granted by, the town community or its governing body. In like manner when industrial progress and the extension of the market led to the formation of special craft guilds or trade fraternities, these must be considered as owing their powers, jurisdiction and exclusive rights to the town, and as exercising them subject to its control. The state or national government, or the king as its head, might override local authority and confer special privileges on a particular trade fraternity or body of craftsmen, but otherwise the guild drew its rights and privileges from the civic body, and was regarded as possessing them not for its own subsistence or profit only, but for the good of the whole town and its burghers. Hence, too, the civic authorities, following the usage of the primitive township, regulated wages and prices.
—But, as already said, to understand the economy of the mediæval town and the position of the guild, we must take account of another factor in the constitution of early Teutonic society, the state or central government, acting as the representative of the whole nation. Beyond assigning to the clan or body of kinsmen settling down in a vicus or township their mark or common territory, the central government originally did not intervene in the affairs of the local community, unless to compel its members to perform military or public duties, but the right to control them in all matters, if not involved in the fundamental relation between the two bodies from the first, was at least subsequently evolved from it. And in proportion as the state grew stronger and better organized on the one hand and industrial development advanced on the other, the intervention of the state began to extend to trade internal and foreign. This function of the state or the king was not regarded as essentially different from that of the administration of justice. As to enforce just weights, measures and money was not considered fundamentally distinct from the maintenance of just dealing between man and man in relation to property and the observance of contracts, so to secure good and genuine commodities at reasonable, moderate and equitable prices, as opposed to exorbitant and extortionate charges, partook of the nature of the maintenance of justice; though in later times the growth of the maxim caveat emptor removed this branch of jurisdiction from the tribunals. The king's court not only intervened, on complaint before it, to compel the strict observance of royal charters to guilds, but enforced on the trades generally both special ordinances of the king and principles of the common law relating to the quantity, quality and price of wares. The guild system never reached so great a development in England as in Germany or even in France; the earlier centralization of government and establishment of royal authority diminishing the power of both town-governing bodies and guilds in England, as the inferiority of its civic architecture still indicates. No such splendid town halls and guild halls rose in the English cities as were to be seen on the continent of Europe. As the governing body of the mediæval town represented the civic community evolved from the township or aggregation of townships, so the state represented the larger community of the nation evolved from the tribe or aggregation of tribes. And ancient ideas of the relationship of the members of the tribe and the duties they owed to one another, underlay in altered forms the whole industrial and commercial structure of mediæval society. The trader was regarded as trading for the advantage of the public, not for his own gain, in respect of which he was held entitled only to a fair livelihood and to such profit as secured it.
—No records of the beginnings of the earliest trade guilds exist, but when they first come before us in history, they bear all the marks of having been modeled and organized on the type of the archaic joint family. The principle natura non facit saltum is as applicable to the social as to the physical world. In Dr. Johnson's time, as we know from Boswell's accounts of his tour in the Hebrides, various crafts were still hereditary in the highlands of Scotland, as they are still in the east, and as there is reason to believe they once were in English townships and manors. And when the village community grew into a town in which the demand was sufficient to employ a number of persons, several branches of the same family might follow the same craft, dwelling side by side, and organized like a joint family. There is no foundation for Dr. Brentano's supposition that England was "the birthplace of guilds." Trade guilds, doubtless of higher antiquity than any purely English institution, existed in India in the middle ages; and the Indian caste is in one of its aspects simply a wider development than the guild of a joint family following hereditarily a particular occupation. A few of the mediæval trade corporations in France may have descended from the Roman Colleqia. Some certainly are traceable to the organization, by the Frank conquerors, of their serfs into industrial bodies. The laws of the barbarians show that the German lords maintained great establishments of serfs skilled in various industrial arts; and it is well established that in many towns on the continent of Europe during the middle ages, there were organizations of bonds-men in crafts. But the original and typical trade guild, there is strong reason to believe, grew out of a joint family of freemen pursuing an hereditary employment. We find, then, three great original factors in mediæval urban economy, the town commune, the state and the guild; and without reference to all three it is impossible to understand the position and founding of the third. The constitutions and regulations of the guild did not flow simply from its character as a brotherhood or joint family. It stood within and subordinate to the town-governing body on the one hand, and the state on the other hand. The industrial and commercial organization of the towns in relation to prices, profits and wages, the processes of manufacture, the quality of commodities, the regulation of commerce internal and foreign, resulted from the action of the three factors—the legislature or the king, acting ostensibly on behalf of the public at large or the nation; the town authorities, representing the civic community; and the guild, looking to the interests of the particular trade and the fraternity which practiced it. Dr. Ochenkowski has justly criticised Dr. Brentano's description of the organization, discipline and regulations of the guilds, as overlooking their subordination to the state, the king, the law and the tribunals; and as ascribing to the parental character of the guild in respect of its own members on the one hand, and its regard for the public good on the other, much that was the result simply of compulsory obedience to the supreme government and the law of the land. The fundamental principles of the ordinances of the guilds, Dr. von Ochenkowski urges, rested on the common laws of the realm; where a guild organization was granted it was with the proviso, implied if not expressed, that the rules must be in accordance with law; and the rights and duties of the guild members attached to them as citizens and subjects, so much so that in many cases where the crafts-men of a particular place had no organization, they were required to prepare the proper regulations. Dr. von Ochenkowski himself, however, overlooks the relation in which the town commune stood to all trades practiced and all bodies practicing them within its jurisdiction. All rights of trade within the town territory had originally belonged to the communal body. Just as the township had originally regulated the modes of husbandry, the rotation of crops, the times of sowing, plowing and reaping, the size of each man's lot in the arable land, the rights of common over the waste, and the number of animals that could be put on the common pasture, so it had original jurisdiction over all crafts and commerce within its boundaries. The ordinances of the London guilds were by consequence made under supervision and subject to the approval of the town council or the court of mayor and aldermen. The articles of the bowyers and fletchers approved in the 45th year of Edward III., afford an illustration. As Mr Riley, in his "Memorials of London and London Life," cites them from the records of the city, a petition to the court of mayor and aldermen of "the good folks of the trades of bowyers and fletchers," showed that it was "finally ordained and agreed between the said persons of the one trade and of the other, four men only excepted, for the profit and advantage of all the community, that no man of the one trade should meddle with the other. And counsel having been held between the mayor and aldermen upon the matter, it was agreed and granted by them that the articles in the said petition should in future be observed for the common profit of all the people. Afterward, at a hustings of common pleas of law, the aforesaid four persons came before the mayor and aldermen and said that they had divers things of each of those trades which they were working upon and not completed, and that some of them had apprentices in both trades and many bows and arrows finished for sale; and they wished for some respite, and for leave to complete the things aforesaid that were not completed, and that they might expose the same for sale, etc., so that they might be able in the meantime to decide which of the said trades they should elect to adopt and follow from henceforth. And the same was granted unto them."
—Rules limiting the number of apprentices a craftsman might keep, or the hours which he might work, might be secretly designed by the members of a craft guild to limit competition and production and to keep up prices, but they were submitted to the town authorities and sanctioned by them as tending to secure efficient work and good articles; and as, for that end, prohibiting craftsmen from taking more apprentices than they could efficiently teach, or from working at night by insufficient light and at the risk of fires in the city. The theory of the organization, discipline and regulations of the guilds was that the good of the community, not the gain of the members of the craft, was the paramount object, and that the craftsmen owed obedience to the town authorities who had granted to them their privileges and powers. There is no trace in the history of the English towns of any general struggle, such at Dr. Brentano has assumed, between patrician members of a great mediæval guild and plebeian members of craft guilds. But the governing body of the town, as exercising the ancient rights of jurisdiction of the civic community, regarded with natural jealousy attempts on the part of a particular craft to set aside its control and to exercise unauthorized jurisdiction over its own members and those of cognate trades, as the London weavers attempted to do. The contest between the weavers and the city in London (where it is uncertain if there was any primitive merchant guild) was not one between patricians and plebeians, but between the legitimate government of the citizens and a trade fraternity which aimed at complete independence on the ground of a special royal charter, the powers conferred by which it was ultimately convicted before the king's judges of exceeding.
—The three great factors in mediæval urban economy, the town government, the state and the guild, were sometimes in unison, sometimes at variance. But all three were essentially adverse to the idea that the gain of the individual trader was to be his paramount object. The welfare of its citizens was the object of the town; the state aimed professedly at the general good of the public, though often really consulting chiefly the interest of the governing classes; and the guild, while ostensibly seeking the benefit of the community at large of consumers, made the advantage and credit of the trade and the fraternity practicing it its dominant object. The notion that every man had a right to settle where he liked, to carry on any occupation he thought fit and in whatever manner he chose, to demand the highest price he could get, or, on the contrary, to offer lower terms than any one else, to make the largest profit possible and to compete with other traders without restraint, was absolutely contrary to the whole structure and spirit of mediæval economy.
—Much misconception exists with respect to the policy and effect of the enactments of Edward III.'s 37th parliament, which ordained that every craftsman should choose his occupation, and abide by it thenceforth without following any other, and that merchants should deal in only one kind of merchandise. Some have regarded these statutes as creating a division of labor. The first of the two in fact only recognized a separation of occupations which had naturally taken place, as in the case of the bowyers and fletchers already referred to. Though the legislature could not have sought to initiate the separation of trade, of making bows from that of making arrows, and would never have conceived the idea of such a separation had it not spontaneously arisen. Nor could it have entered into the minds of legislators to subdivide the business of making knives into three distinct trades of bladesmiths, sheathers and cutters. The division of labor was no discovery of Adam Smith's, neither was it a discovery of Edward III. and his parliament, who simply acted on a well-understood principle that it tended to secure good and cheap articles for consumers; while at the same time it prevented quarrels between trades people about what they might sell, such as often occurred. The act of the 37th of Edward III. c. 6, did indeed attempt to intro duce a novel division of labor by compelling every merchant to deal in only one kind of merchandise. It was speedily found that the enactment tended to defeat its real object, which was by no means what Dr. Brentano has supposed. This eminent writer speaks of the act as "a legal recognition of the principle of the trade policy of the craft guilds, namely, that provision should be made to enable every one with a small capital and his labor to earn his daily bread in his trade freely and independently, in opposition to the principle of the rich, freedom of trade." The real policy of the measure was to keep down prices in the interest of the governing classes. The idea of the legislature at the moment was, as the petition on which the act was grounded expresses it, "that great mischiefs had newly arisen, as well to the king as to the great men and commons, from the merchants called grossers, who engrossed all manner of merchandise vendible, and who suddenly raised the prices of such merchandise within the realm." It was immediately found that so absurd an interference with commerce would not tend to the advantage of rich consumers, and the enactment was repealed in the next parliament. But its policy was the same as that of the statutes of labor of the same period: the regulation of prices ostensibly for the good of the public, but really of the governing orders.
—The middle ages were profoundly hypocritical, and the state, the town and the guild alike frequently professed to study the welfare of the public, when the real object was the advantage or gain of a particular class, or local community, or body of traders. There was a principle of exclusiveness, monopoly and self-seeking at the root of every early association, whether the tribe, the village community, or the family. All these—and mediæval economy was based on these original principles of organization—were exclusive bodies and occupied a position of antagonism toward strangers and the world without. They combined, it is true, with the principle of exclusion that also of adoption; putting the one or the other into practice according as their own interests at the moment suggested. The mediæval guilds became ultimately such grasping and extortionate bodies as well to merit Bacon's condemnation of them as "fraternities of evil." Yet their later career was not simply degeneracy as Dr. Brentano describes it; it was a development of the principle of exclusiveness inherent in the spirit and constitution of every early form of human association.
T. E. CLIFFE LESLIE.
Return to top