William Morris. Commonweal 1890

Development of Modern Society (Part 3)

Source: “Development of Modern Society” Commonweal, Volume 6, Number 238, 2 August, p. 244; the third of five parts.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofing and HTML: Graham Seaman

IN these country districts, both in England and elsewhere, they held for a long time to many of their old tribal customs; the jury of neighbours; frank-pledge, or the responsibility of the district for the conduct of its dwellers; the oath of compurgation; the courts in the open-air; the folk-motes of all the freemen meeting directly (not by delegates) and armed in token of their freedom. Over all this, which still existed in the beginning of feudalism, and never quite disappeared until its wane, the regular feudal system was super-imposed. Serfdom took the place of thralldom; the King and his house-carles, or private body-guard, gave way to the King the head of the conquering tribe, who was the vicegerent of God, and granted the holding of lands to his tribesmen on condition of service from them, many of whom in their turn granted lands to others on similar terms; the performance of certain duties or service in return for the undisturbed holding of land, and having in consequence a definite recognised position, being the essence of mediaeval society. I may remark in passing that the theory of property is quite different from that of our own days, in which the holding of property has been changed into a definite ownership which has no duties attached to it.

Now, I ask you to understand that the attainment of position or status, was the one aspiration of those who were in an inferior position during the Middle Ages. Even the serfs, many of whom at first were not very distinguishable from mere chattel-slaves, gained status by becoming adscripti glebae, men attached to the manor on which they lived, and under the protection of its lord, to whom they had to render certain definite services in return; and there was a tendency from quite early days for these serfs to raise their position by becoming tenants of the lord of the manor, and also by their individually getting themselves received into a free town, and so emancipating themselves from individual service. The mention of this last incident calls my attention to the other members of the mediaeval hierarchy, the Free Towns and the Guilds, who lay between the two poles of the landed nobility and their serfs. And you must remember that though the development of these took place somewhat late in the Middle Ages, they were both of them in existence from its very first days, when the tribes first reconstituted society after the break-up of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the growth of the free towns resembled in many respects the growth of Rome in her first days. The germs of them were always the agricultural district, inhabited by such and such a clan or tribe, whose members in early days were, or professed to be, akin to each other by blood, and held at least their land in common. Now in such and such a case this clan of freemen would gather to some more convenient part of their hundred, or district, and would fence it to protect their houses and crafts, and so population would grow thicker there; and they would hold a market there, and attract to them traders and men who needed protection for their handicrafts, though these would mostly be people outside the clan, unfree men, taking no part in the administration of the place.

Thus there grew up gradually classes of privileged and unprivileged within the towns, the former being the corporations of them, who, as the feudal system grew, got their status recognised by the king or over-lord, and who little by little freed themselves from the services, tolls, and restrictions which the neighbouring military chief had managed to enmesh them in as they passed out of their tribal freedom into the feudal power. This freedom they principally bought from their feudal lord, for their production was always expanding, since they were in the main communities of workers; whereas the revenue of the lord could not expand much, as it depended on the services of his serfs, which were limited by the customs of his manors. Remember once for all, that capitalism was unknown in those days, and the nobles could not live by rack-rent and interest, which in these days procure them such enormous incomes. So the towns, as their production expanded, bought their privileges with money down, and began to grow wealthy and powerful, and therewithal the ruling bodies in them, the corporations, who now represented the freemen of the clan, began to be corrupt and oppressive. They were no longer workmen, but were grown into a municipal aristocracy, very exclusive and mainly hereditary. But at this point these were met by the other associations I have named, the Guilds, which had been growing up under them all this while.

I have said that the guilds existed from the earliest period of the Middle Ages. I might have gone further, and pointed out their analogy to the free towns in this respect that they were not unknown to classical antiquity. In the early days of Rome, and before the labour of the free artisan was swamped by the enormous flood of slave-labour, it flourished in that city. In fact, it seems to me that these guilds are an answer to the imperative claim for useful association which human nature makes; as one form of society which once served its purpose duly fails men, they are forced to form others, even while the old form exists and has become mere authority and an instrument of oppression. The old kinship clan certainly grew together for mutual protection and help of a band of equals; as that degenerated into a mere privileged caste of nobles, and became worse than useless for its original purpose, men formed other associations that had no bond of kindred, but a bond of mutual interest amidst the disorder of a rough period of transition. And once more we come across the guilds in quite early days of the new European society, and it is remarkable how much the purposes of these early guilds answer to those of the primitive kindred clan. To a great extent they were what we should now call benefit societies: they engaged to redeem their members from captivity; to set them up in business again if they were ruined; to pay their fines if they came into the clutch of the law. They were also clubs for good fellowship, and also (which again makes their analogy to the old clans the closer) drew their members together by the bond of religion, providing the sacrificial feast while our fore-fathers were still heathen, and paying for masses for the souls of their members when Christianity had become the popular religion; and there are instances of the chief work being defence by the strong hand, as in the case of protection against the Norse pirates in the tenth century. In short, it may well be said that from the first the history of the guilds is the true history of the Middle Ages. And we will remember, too, that they were in their early days in direct opposition to the authority of the period, which saw in them, as it was well warranted in doing, a threat of rebellious progress against the robbery of the poor and industrious by the rich and idle. In the Middle Ages, apart from those old Roman guilds, which were of handicraftsmen, this was the first character which the guilds took; leagues of the individually powerless freemen against the accidents of oppression, legal and illegal, held together by a religious bond according to the custom of the times.


( To be continued.)