Fantasy, History

How Medieval Guilds Worked

Guilds are a staple feature of fantasy fiction, especially video games. Players enjoy rising through the ranks by doing missions for the guild, eventually becoming guildmaster. But how did they work in real life?
St George’s Guildhall, King’s Lynn, built around 1428.

Funnily enough, fantasy gets some stuff right here. They usually use the terms apprentice, journeyman and master to describe the ranks in the guild, and those were terms actually used by medieval guilds. And theoretically, someone who joined a guild could, no matter their station, rise through the ranks to become its leader. But that’s where the comparisons end.

Unlike in fantasy video games, real guilds were usually much less interesting. There were no guilds of fighters, for instance, but there were many guilds of bakers, blacksmiths, roofers, masons, and so on. And the way someone progressed through a guild was much slower – and often very costly.

Origins of Guilds

To understand guilds, we have to look at why they emerged. While unions of craftsmen and merchants existed as far back as Roman times (they were called collegia) and were well-organised, regulated bodies by 900 in Byzantium (medieval Roman Greece), the guilds of western Europe seem to have developed separately.

In the early medieval period, merchants were often nothing more than goods sellers who moved from town to town buying and selling wares – there wasn’t much wider organisation or wealth. But as the medieval world developed and more urban centres emerged, the economy grew more complex, and merchants and craftsmen began grouping together to control the trade in their area. Over time, most craftsmen joined a guild: they provided benefits to members, such as free labour through apprentices, charity when they needed it, and a ‘badge of approval’ that made customers more likely to trust them.

How They Worked

Essentially, guilds were small monopolies. By the time the guild system was properly entrenched, to practise a particular trade in a town, you had to be part of that town’s guild for that profession – for example, to legally trade as a baker, you’d have to be part of your town’s guild of bakers. Guilds set rules for minimum standards of quality for goods – which attracted customers, because they knew guild-made goods would meet a certain standard. Guilds hired people to routinely inspect their members to make sure they were meeting standards, and many guilds even had their own courts that customers could bring cases to if they felt they’d received poor quality service.

Guilds also set the prices of particular goods, which is how they formed monopolies. This placed a restriction on a member’s trade, but guilds also provided them with benefits – they supported them and their family through times of illness or hardship, they funded schools, charities and infrastructure in their town, and they provided a communal chapel and guildhall for members’ use. Oftentimes the leaders of guilds were also members of the local town government, so they had a great deal of influence over the town itself – government and guild was often blurred together.

A person entered a guild as an apprentice usually between the ages of 9 and 14, and served as an apprentice for between 5 to 9 years. During this time they lived in the master’s house and ate and slept with his family, while helping the master run his business – for no pay. In return the master would train him in the skills of his craft, as well as guild matters, and when the apprenticeship finished they became a journeyman, able to work for a master and receive pay. A journeyman could apply to become a master by submitting a request to the guild’s superiors and a ‘masterpiece’ – an example of their technical competence. A master was allowed to set up their own shop.

This made for a regulated but ultimately inflexible system. When times were hard, it wasn’t in the masters’ best interests to encourage more people to join their trade (and increase competition), so often journeymen couldn’t advance despite their skills. Many apprenticeships were ludicrously expensive and often given to the children or friends of current masters, so many crafts were shut off to people who weren’t already in them.

Fall of Guilds

When state governments became more powerful at the end of the medieval era, the need for guilds slowly disappeared. It was important to have someone to enforce common standards when nobody else could, but as states grew capable of creating and enforcing these laws, guilds began to fade away; they were rigid, monopolistic, and – at the end – mostly closed groups, and newer tradesmen and merchants began to work around them. The growth of capital, investment, entrepreneurship and the formation of independent companies between groups of merchants created a system that eclipsed the guilds, though they still continued in the peripheries until the 1700s across much of Europe, and the old merchant guilds of London still exist to this day.

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