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Daily Life in Medieval Towns

Development of the Craft Guilds

Dyer Market Towns and the Countryside in Late Medieval England

Early Regulations

Greif, et al.  Coordination, Commitment, and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild

Guilds, Commerce, and Urban Development

The Liberties of London (Fordham Univ.)

Medieval Guilds (encyclopedia article)

Medieval Guilds and Craft Production

Medieval Jobs

Medieval London: Crafts and Guilds

Medieval English Towns (Orb)

Monopolies and Crafts Guilds: A Tale of Two Theories

Richardson.  Guilds, laws, and markets for manufactured merchandise in late medieval England

Rosser.  Crafts, guilds and the negotiation of work in the medieval town.

Rosser.  Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England  (1994)

Sjoberg.  The Preindustrial City

Thomas Storck, The economic role of the medieval guilds: continuing the distributism discussion

Swanson.  The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns

Southampton Guild Association (14th Century)

A Timetraveler's Guide to Medieval Britain


Who's a Relative? Kinship terminology in the middle ages (Orb)

Specific Trades and Guilds


Hoffeld.  The Art of the Medieval Blacksmith

   See also Atkinson p 35ff Late Medieval Bloomery Sites: Settlement and Industry in the Scottish Highlands (archaeology centered, but good stuff on Blacksmiths and Armorers)


Regulations of the Weaver's Guild of Stendal, 1231

Regulations of the Garment Cutter's Guild of Stendal, 1231

Statutes of Merchants

Stained Glass Makers

Medieval medicine (Orb)

Bibliography (Munro's)

Outside Millersville: High Quality Reference Materials:
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Guilds and Skills

  The medieval guilds were an important part of city and town life.

  • Guilds were exclusive, regimented organizations. The tasks necessary for a complex society were of necessity specialized and complex themselves. On the right you can see the various tasks necessary simply to the making of cloth. they are shown as being done by a variety of social classes and levels of complexity and skill, from shearing a sheep and carding the wool to making the thread and turning that into cloth on a loom. Medieval society broke those tasks into specialist guilds, and it was a rare woman or farmer serf, let alone an urbanite,who did the majority of tasks him- or herself. It was, for example, more economical to bring your loaves to the communal baker to be cooked rather than to use a large amount of fuel to bake only 2-3 loaves for one household. Even buying cooked loaves could make good economic sense if the women of the household were busy working in the fields during planting and harvest, or had a craft such as lace making or weaving which kept everyone busy.
  • Guilds provided protection for craftspeople who often had invested a great deal in their craft, not only in outlay for physical plant, but also in terms of hard-earned skills. The guilds ensured that quality standards were maintained, young apprentices were trained, journeymen got a fair deal as they traveled and worked to build up both skills and a monetary stake which would make it possible to pass the master craftsman tests with a 'masterwork' (we still call wonderful works 'masterpieces'), and then open a shop an acquire the wherewithal to support a wife and family. Without the guilds, all of this would be far too risky, and the overall quality of goods would decline. That in turn would result in less trade for a city, lower taxes for the lords of the land, and lower quality of life overall.
  • Consider the logic of having skilled crafters:

    a. A farmer might grow wheat, barley, or other grain (they called grain 'corn'). That would go to a specialist with a water mill to be turned into flour. Then, the housewife would probably make bread and take that to a baker to be baked into bread in his ovens.

    b. That would mean that the peasant would not have to cut fuel, make an individual oven, and so forth. At each step along the way, the peasant would give over part of the product to the specialist...a bag of wheat, perhaps, to the miller or a loaf of bread to the baker.

  • Coinage. The economy was, for the most point, coinless. Similarly, a farmer would slaughter an animal, but then sell its hide to someone who would turn it into leather. Yet other specialists would turn that product into shoes, harness, saddles, vellum, or other goods. An economy of that type would mean that taxes were paid 'in kind', which comes from the word 'kine'...animals, but also of course whatever else the person produced. Coins were mostly used by merchants, who needed currency to transship goods from one town/port/country to another. Taxation tended also be to 'in kind': a peasant might owe the lord three chickens, a goat, and 16 bushels of barley. A death tax for a head of household was often the family's best ox, which might be their single most valuable possession aside from the house.

    That tendency to trade 'in kind' was one big reason why kings and other nobles traveled to their various properties as the year progressed, and also traveled to see their vassals. It was much more efficient to travel to the taxed materials, consuming them on site, than it was to trans-ship those items along the terrible roads to London or other centers. Bandits, bad weather, spoilage, and such meant that little of the original was left

    In order to manage their monopoly and maintain craft standards, group of skilled craftsmen in the same trade would form themselves into a guild. Membership in a guild was an honor as it was a sign that a member above apprentice status was a skilled worker who was held in some respect within the craft and the greater town society. Most guild management was local, so there was very little control over 'the mysteries' at the national or international level. We hear of those larger units today (the Masons, for example), but there was little of that large scale specialization for most guilds. Guilds in the highly skilled crafts such as masons, stained glass makers, and other guilds that worked on the great, long term projects such as cathedrals, castles, and other grand projects might work for decades, but would also need to build a reputation and skill set out beyond one job in one town, which is why some guilds of that type became more geographically encompassing (I can't use the terms national/international here, as there were no nations, only kingdoms, duchies, etc.

    Why bother with guilds? On the one hand, guilds ensured a kind of monopoly in which the enormous expense of training up members; assuring social stability for older members, widows, and injured workers; and maintaining craft secrets (mysteries) was balanced out by also ensuring quality products, fair dealings, and prompt payment of taxes and other government requirements. In addition, the connections that the guilds had with the church (in most towns each had its own chapel, religious celebration day with a patron saint, etc.) embedded the guild in the ongoing cultural/faith life of the community, making the group an ongoing civic presence in the towns. That made it less likely that the townspeople would turn the guild out, deciding they could do it more cheaply themselves.

    There were actually two kinds of guilds. We will look at them in greater detail later, but let's get the differences on the table now:
    1. Craft guilds were specialists making products of all sorts, from ale to lace, ground grain to swords and horseshoes. They trained up likely young people (apprentices), held quality standards for their general workers (journeymen), and insured stability, prevented too many businesses in one locality, and maintained price and quality controls at the master craftsman level.
    2. Merchant/money guilds, on the other hand, transshipped goods and moneys (today, we call these banks) from place to place. Chaucer's family, for example, didn't make wine. Rather, they imported it from countries such as France, Italy, and Spain. They would, then, sell it to everyone from noble houses such as Gaunt's to small establishments such as the Tabord Inn in Southwark across the river from London.
  • Guilds provided standardizing quality control in goods and services.
    A guild would make sure that anything made by a guild member was up to standard and was sold for a fair price. Some members of a guild were chosen to check that other members of the guild were working up to standard.

    Those guild members who were found to be cheating the public would be fined or made to do work again but at their own cost. The worst punishment was to be expelled from your guild as it meant that you could no longer trade in your town. A guild would look after you - as a member of it - if you were sick. It would help the families of dead guild members.
  • Guilds provided training, professional development, and social stability.
    As we have seen, members of the craft guilds were divided into Master, Journeyman, and Apprentice. Guilds perform social and religious functions within its ranks along with its chief purpose of economic control. They care for the widows and children of members who die and pay the costs of the funeral. Very often they run schools for the children of their members. Each guild also conducts religious ceremonies in honor of their patron saint. These religious functions are usually performed by a separate organization called a confrerie (with brothers'), but its members are the members of the guild. This religious influence can be seen in the construction of the Chartres cathedral, where each of the town's guilds donated a nave window.
    • Apprentices to a guild usually started at about twelve years old, though I have read of some starting at seven. They were taught a trade by a guild member, usually a master craftsman or merchant. He would expect to be paid for this by the parents of the child. An apprentice could live with his master for anything up to 14 years. The guild member had made a promise to teach the child well, supplying all the child's material needs in the meantime. An apprenticeship, then, served medieval children of the merchant and guild classes as public school does children today. Apprentices were not expected to get married during their apprenticeship. Going to the inn was usually banned as well, saving the community from disruptive teenage drunkenness, theft (to pay for the beer and such), fights, and such.
    • Journeymen. Once an apprenticeship was over, the young person now became a journeyman. By this time, he's generally between 14 and 21. As a journeyman staying with his master, he would be paid a wage and given the opportunity to make things on his own time and sell them along side the master's work in the shop (for less money, of course). Or, the journeyman would go on the road, working and selling his crafts at local markets, which explains the name itself.

      Once he had built up enough skill (and saved enough money), the journeyman would present a 'masterwork' to the local guildmasters to be judged. If it was deemed good enough, he could start up a business of his own and take on apprentices and journeymen.
    • Master Craftsmen. The master was a very accomplished craftsman who took on the training of apprentices. Parents would pay him (or her) for the privilege of having their child live and train with the master, who undertook the child's training, supplying room, board, cloathing and shoes, and training for years. To become a master was difficult, as masters in any particular craft guild tended to be a select inner circle, possessing not only technical competence, but also proof of their wealth and social position. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these guilds in trade and commerce prior to the industrial revolution.

      Briefly, the secrets (mysteries) of the various crafts were jealously guarded by the Guild Masters, who also recorded every member's name and individual mark. In many surviving medieval (and other) buildings in parts of Europe today, the original Mason's marks can still be seen, for example, and other guilds also had their unique marks and symbols. Perhaps a contemporary example might be the individual mark or stamp of the customs or Assay office, as in modern-day Britain, to indicate quality and approval of workmanship. In addition to marks or symbols, the guilds had other ways of communicating their more specialized concepts and religious traditions - especially after the decline of the guilds, much of the hidden knowledge was carried on by traveling musicians, troubadours, meistersingers, and so on.

      Some areas were known for specialties because of local raw materials. So, glass was a big guild in Italy because of their good sand as well as the ability to ship the delicate product. High quality metals, fabrics, and such could travel long, long distances for the wealthy patrons interested in a luxury product such as Flemish woven goods, Toledo Steel, Damascas fabric (damask), French lace, etc. England was fairly low grade in this respect, mostly exporting wool to the Low Countries to be woven into fabric.
  • Guilds were created in part to preserve the rights and privileges of their members. Only members of a guild could sell within a town. This was meant to keep up quality. However, on market days anybody could sell their goods in the market whether they were skilled or not. An annual fair would attract people from far and wide…….including those a town or city would not want.
  • Guilds were separate and distinct from the civic governments, but since the functions and purposes of guild and civic government overlapped, it was not always easy to tell them apart, especially since many well-to-do guildsmen were prominent in civic government.

Two kinds of guilds were especially important to civic life--merchant guilds and craft guilds.

Merchant Guilds

The merchant guilds were probably the first to appear and constituted the nucleus for civic organization. Merchant guilds were associations of all (or most) of the merchants in a particular town or city, be they local or long-distance traders, wholesale or retail sellers, for instance. A modern-day analogy might be a Chamber of Commerce. By the 13th century, the merchant guilds of western Europe were officially recognized by many town governments, comprising, as they did, the wealthiest and most influential citizens in many towns and cities. In the larger towns, a guildhall would often be provided by the merchants' guilds. They became intimately involved in regulating and protecting their members' interests, both in long-distance trade and local town business. Guilds came to control the manipulation, distribution, and sale of food, cloth, and other staple goods, and so often gained a powerful monopoly.

  • As early as the 10th c. merchants formed organizations for mutual protection of their horses, wagons, and goods when traveling.
  • Often a merchant guild would found a town by obtaining a charter.

Craft Guilds

The craft guilds came about by increased specialization of industry. The medieval craft guilds, the main focus of this article, were associations of all the artisans and craftsmen in a particular branch of industry or commerce. For example, there were guilds of weavers, bookbinders, masons and architects in the building trade, painters, metalworkers (the "Hammermen") bakers, dyers, embroiderers, leather workers, etc. Although its roots were earlier, the medieval craft guilds system became widespread in the 11th century in Europe, as towns and cities started to develop after the Dark Ages period. The word "craft" comes from the old English word "craft", meaning "skill".

The skilled craftsmen in a town usually consisted of a number of family workshops in the same neighborhood, with the masters or owners of such workshops related to each other, often sharing apprentices between them. These craftsmen would agree, as a group, to regulate competition among themselves, thus promoting their own and the town's prosperity. The craftsmen would agree on some basic policies governing their trade, setting quality standards, and so on. So, from local beginnings, the early guilds developed into larger, sophisticated associations of craftsmen.

  • A group of artisans engaged in the same occupation, e.g., bakers, cobblers, stone masons, carpenters, etc. would associate themselves together for protection and mutual aid.
  • As these craft associations became more important than the older merchant guilds, their leaders began to demand a share in civic leadership.
  • Soon no one within a town could practice a craft without belonging to the appropriate guild associations.
  • The purpose of the guilds was to maintain a monopoly of a particular craft especially against outsiders. For example, the harness makers would get together and figure out what the owners of business needed from that trade then allow as many masters to set up shop as the business could support.

Consumer and Worker Protection

In protecting its own members, the guilds protected the consumer as well.

  • Many craft regulations prevented poor workmanship. Each article had to be examined by a board of the guild and stamped as approved.
  • Because of lack of artificial light, work at night was prohibited.
  • In Florence the number of dyers was specified by the guild. In one place it was forbidden to see pigs fattened by a barber-surgeon lest the pig had been fattened on rich peoples' blood.
  • Metalware plating was tantamount to fraud and, therefore, was forbidden.
  • To regulate competition between members the guild forbade advertising.
  • All prices were regulated
  • Craftsmen could take work outside where it could be seen.
  • Price cutting was strictly forbidden.
  • To preserve its monopoly a guild forbade the sale of foreign artisans' work within a city.
  • The most important processes used in manufacturing were guarded. In Florence a worker who possessed any essential trade secrets and for some reason fled to a foreign territory must be tracked down and killed lest he divulge the information.
  • Monopoly existed within individual guilds through the limitation of the number of masters.
  • No member was ever allowed to corner the market by purchasing a large supply of a product or commodity so as to be able to fix the price.

Services Performed by Guilds
Guilds performed other services for their members as well. They

  • provided funeral expenses for poorer members and aid to survivors;
  • provided dowries for poor girls;
  • covered members with a type of health insurance and provisions for care of the sick;
  • built chapels;
  • donated windows to local churches or cathedrals;
  • frequently helped in the actual construction of the churches;
  • watched over the morals of the members who indulged in gambling and usury; and
  • were important for their contribution to emergence of Western lay education. In earlier times, the only schools in existence had been the monastic or cathedral schools.

Guilds and Community Interrelationships

The members of the guild were called confraternities, brothers helping one another. From the political viewpoint, the guild was neither sovereign nor unrelated to society outside the guild and town organization. As a collective unit, the guild might be a vassal to a bishop, lord or king, as in Paris. The extent of vassalage depended on the degree of independence of the town where it was located. There was a close connection between the guild and the city authorities:

  • The City Council could intervene in event of trouble between guilds.
  • Council could establish the hours of work, fix prices, establish weights and measures
  • Guild officials were frequently appointed to serve in civic government because guilds usually voted as a unit, raised troops for the civic militia, and paid taxes as a group.

Each guild was required to perform public services. They:

  • took turns policing the streets and
  • constructed public buildings and walls to defend the town or city.

A perceived higher social status could be achieved through guild membership. The guilds men of The Canterbury Tales had wives who liked to be called "Ma Dame" by their inferiors.

By the 13th c. to become a guild man one had to go through 3 stages:

  • lowest was apprentice,
  • next was journeyman, and
  • top-ranking stage was master.

The same structure is present in labor unions and colleges today.

Apprentices: These were usually male teenagers, though there were female guild members, and some guilds were mostly female. The youngsters went to live with a master and his family, just as young nobles became pages in noble households and, in a later generation, kids went away to boarding school. Their parents paid the master craftsperson to have the youngsters taken on. The kids probably occupied the attic of the master's 3 story home:

  1. The shop where he would learn his trade was located on the ground floor.
  2. The second story was the masters' living area.
  3. The third story housed the journeyman or -woman who was there to learn also.

The apprentice was subject to the master. During his apprenticeship he was not allowed to marry. This learning period might vary from 2-7 years depending on the complexity of the craft. His training included the rudiments of the trade. The apprentice then progressed to journeyman or -woman.

Journeyman or day worker -- entitled to earn a salary. Few actually journeyed, though that could happen. For example, tinkers, knife sharpeners, players (actors, singers, jugglers, and such), and others might travel the town fairs and weekly markets, stopping along the way at little villages to ply their trades. As they gained money and skill, they might then settle down in a town and become masters with their own stable shop space.

The next hurdle for a journeyman was to produce a masterpiece that would satisfy the master of the guild so that he could assume the title of master craftsmen and would thus get membership in the guild. This was not easy to accomplish because:

  • The journeyman had to work on his own time to produce this masterpiece -- Sunday was the only day he did not work sun-up to sun-down.
  • He must use his own tools and raw materials which required a capital outlay that he might not have been able to accomplish as a wage earner.
  • Then if he did produce the required work, the state of the economy guided the vote of acceptance -- it was not desirable to have too many masters in a guild and when the economy was tight. The masters would not admit anyone to their ranks to strain the economy.

Mystery Plays: Many of the medieval guilds became famous for their Guild 'miracle plays' which they performed in public, often around Old and New Testament biblical themes. For instance, the Goldsmiths favored"the Adoration of the Magi", and the Shipwrights "Noah's Ark". Often, both God and the Devil would appear on stage together. One particular character, the Abbot of Unreason, became a figure of satire and, in later times, a distinct irritant to the church authorities. Even into later times, at Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, for example, it is known that the Sinclair family allowed the play "Robin Hood and Little John" to be performed in the glen in May and June, which is particularly interesting given that this very play had previously been banned.

The Scottish Parliament, on 20 June 1555, had decreed that "no one should act as Robin Hood, Little John, Abbot of Unreason or Queen of May." Although these plays were very popular with the public at the time, the church felt that theatre was immoral or, at least, very dangerous. In England, Cromwell's Puritans would also ban "all theatre as immoral" a century later - Scotland did so earlier, due to the severe Calvinist Protestantism, led by John Knox, prevalent at the time. Sir William Sinclair was Scotland's Chief Justice, but "strolling players" regularly performed this play in the glen by his home at Rosslyn Castle after the play had been banned by law. In medieval times, such plays and their biblical themes were appreciated, along with elements that were then tolerated in a spirit of fun, such as the Abbot of Unreason, Maid Marion, and Friar Tuck.

In medieval York, the miracle plays performed by the guilds became well known, as did those of Chester, Wakefield, and other centers of these early pageants, and many have survived or revived in some form today. In medieval times, the whole community came to see these plays; many performances would be done at various points around a town, on large wagons or platforms, and the crowds would move from one point to another, similar to going from one station of the cross to another in a church. The symbolism inherent in many of these pageants is interesting to study, and more in-depth research is currently being conducted in these areas by myself and other researchers. Meanwhile, it seems, the spirit of Robin Hood and the Queen of May lives on.

See also:

Edlund, Lena &Evelyn Korn. "A Theory of Prostitution." Journal of Political Economy, 2002, vol. 110, no. 1; 181-214/


Greif, Avner; Paul Milgrom & Barry Weingast. "Coordination, Commitment, and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild." The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 102, No. 4. (Aug., 1994), pp. 745-776.

Hoffeld, Jeffrey. "The Art of the Medieval Blacksmith." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 4. (Dec., 1969), pp. 161-173.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. "The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England." Signs, Vol. 14, No. 2, Working Together in the Middle Ages: Perspectives on Women's
(Winter, 1989), pp. 399-433.

Merges, Robert. "From Medieval Guilds to Open Source Software: Informal Norms, Appropriability Institutions, and Innovation." Paper read at Conference on the Legal History of Intellectual Property, Madison, Wisconsin, November 13, 2004 .

Richardson, Gary. "Craft Guilds and Christianity in Late Medieval Englland: A Rational-ChoiceAnalysis." Rationality and Society, Vol. 17(2): 139–189.

Richardson, Gary. "A Tale of Two Theories: Monopolies and Craft Guilds in Medieval England in Modern Imagination." Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Volume 23, Number 2, 2001, 217-242.

2002; Last revised 1 December 2015
Dr. Bonnie Duncan
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English Department
Millersville University

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