Guilds in the Medieval European Towns
The typical feature of the medieval society was feudalism, which gradually spread over Europe with the decay of the Roman Empire. The feudal system presupposed that knights, barons, and other noble land owners would heavily tax their peasants and serfs. With the increase in trade, it became practically impossible to pay excessive taxes and rents; consequently, people decided to unite and revolt against the amount and rate of tax that landlords demanded, i.e. revolt against the tyrannical feudalistic system. On these grounds, workers hit upon the idea of creating guilds, which became essential social-political structures in the medieval society. Therefore, guilds in the medieval European towns were of immense importance since they: 1) protected both workers/guild members and consumers; 2) offered guild members considerable advantages; 3) were involved in civic and religious affairs.
The primary purpose of guilds was the protection of their guild members, who, in the first place, were protected against excessive rents and taxes, which were so often imposed by knights, lords, and barons. Secondly, in order to diminish existing competition between guild members (craftsmen and merchants), fixed pricing policies were introduced and price cutting as well as advertising was banned. Furthermore, guild members were not allowed to trade with craftsmen and merchants who did not belong to any guild, since such trade was considered illegal. Besides, trade secrets were closely guarded so that members of guilds would not reveal it. Apart from guild members, consumers also benefited from the existence of guilds because they could enjoy fair prices (which were regulated and controlled by guilds) and receive goods of high quality (since apprenticeships were rather long, which ensured masterful pursuance of one’s duties, and goods/services were carefully examined). It follows from this that medieval guilds cared not only about their own interests but provided quality services and benefits for customers as well.
It was rather prestigious to be a member of a guild since its members had numerous advantages like protection against sickness, protection of one’s property (horses, goods, etc.) during a journey, regulated working hours and conditions, and even a higher social status. As Georges Renard (2000) puts it, “to the masters of which it guild was composed it ensured at least a modern and honest livelihood, the just remuneration of labor; assured a refuge against misery and distress, the certainty of assistance in times of trouble, illness, old age or misfortune”.The fishermen of Arles, for instance, had to refuge each other in turbulent weather; in Paris, one goldsmith’s shop “was open every Sunday,” and the earned money was given to poor people, widows, and sick members of guilds. Moreover, the guild would sometimes even provide travelling workmen, who were looking for another job, with financial help; guild members would also enjoy “a good position in public processions and ceremonies when state dress was worn or even at the melancholy solemnities of the public execution”.It should be mentioned, however, that even with all these significant advantages, neighboring guilds would often quarrel and display hostility towards workers who were not guild members, which proves that there existed a great deal of collective egoism within guilds.
The third vital function of guilds was their active participation in religious and social life of the medieval society, which manifested itself in the following civic and religious duties. First of all, guild members were supposed to help protect the city/town in which the guild was situated; thus, guild members had to construct walls and buildings that could protect towns and villages, to provide a militia to ensure the protection against foreign invaders, and to police the streets to restrain the increase in crimes. Secondly, guilds were believed to be highly moral in essence, as a result of which one of their main tasks was to preserve and propagate high moral values so that adulteration, usury or any other fraud would be eliminated. Next, guilds usually helped poor people to cover funeral expenses and took care of disabled people as well as orphans; likewise, a desire for education was also encouraged by guilds since exactly the latter funded and created the first medieval non-religious schools. Finally, in the sphere of religion, which was crucial to the medieval life, guilds also had certain duties: they had to fund and take part in the building of churches as well as they were expected to perform “miracle plays”. These plays on biblical themes were highly appreciated by the medieval society, and the audience would follow actors throughout the whole town.
All things considered, the importance of guilds in the medieval European towns cannot be overestimated since they fulfilled a number of crucial functions, namely protected workers against excessive rents and taxes and provided consumers with quality goods; favored guild members’ well-being and social security; cared about social development of the town. Guilds should be praised for the establishment of fixed fair prices, ban against advertising and price cutting as well as keeping trade secrets. Being a guild member meant to be protected against illnesses, old age, misfortune, unfair working conditions; it even gave a possibility to attain a higher social status. To top it all, guilds were responsible for the social security of the town and propagation of high moral values; they encouraged and made people’s striving for education possible and entertained the audience by performing plays on biblical themes.