Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 7: The Guilds

7. The Guilds.

WE traced in our last Outline how man's intercourse with man, through the development of trade, moved in an ever—widening circle; and how every part of the world has now come to be interdependent, thus providing the material conditions to which correspond ideas of internationalism. The prices and movements of foreign stocks and shares now occupy the financial columns of our newspapers, and the world is woven together with stronger ties than those of sentiment. There was not even a village shop in the feudal manor; now we can "shop by post" at international emporiums. The humblest worker may now fill his pipe with tobacco perhaps grown in other continents; and the 300 millions of pounds of tea, consumed in Britain, annually, are brought to us chiefly from India and China, thousands of miles away. Distance is nearly annihilated. A self—sufficient world has its particular districts for wheat and wool growing, cattle—raising, mining, and industrial production.

Man, from being "a jack of all trades," has become a specialist. His clothes are made and washed by specialists; his tools are made; his house is built; his food is cooked; his hair cut; and, in some cases the very windows of his house cleaned, by specialists. The details of all these ramifications in the work of modern society would be nearly endless, but this division of labour outside the workshop—not to be confused with the division inside—is all the direct result of the development of trade, the beginnings of which formed our last lesson.

The Feudal System, once a useful and necessary system of landholding in turbulent times, was gradually undermined and superseded by the rise of this new force— which had its centres in the towns. To paraphrase the words of Job: "Evolution giveth and evolution taketh away; blessed be the name of evolution." Industrial History testifies that "Economic development putteth the mighty—in this case the feudal barons—from their seat and exalteth them of low degree"—who in this Case were the early trading, servile serfs, subject at first to the exactions and control of the lord of the manor. The associations based upon the land, gave way to associations based upon trading interests and craft, thus preparing the way for the "cash nexus" of our own day. The organizations representative of trade and production are our present subject.

Kinds of Guilds.—— The word "guild" originally meant a sacrificial feast or festival, but in time it denoted the company of people who met at such a feast. There were four kinds of Guilds :—

(1) THE FRITH GUILD.—Probably the oldest, and, at first, a body of kinsfolk who bound themselves together for protection against dangers of any sort which might arise in warfare, legal matters, or sickness.

(2) THE RELIGIOUS GUILD.—A company of fellow—believers who celebrated religious feasts together; dispensed charity; paid the Church burial fees, and had masses recited for the dead.

(3) THE MERCHANT GUILD. An association of traders. These guilds existed in England prior to the conquest, as there is a reference in the Domesday Book to land being held by one of them. They were displaced in England in the 14th century.

(4) THE CRAFT GUILD.—A company of artisans all occupied in the same craft. As the two last—mentioned are the most important, they alone deserve our further attention.

The Merchant Guilds.— In the latter half of the 11th century these Guilds flourished, and there are records of the existence of 102 in England, 30 in Wales, and 38 in Ireland. No town of any size could have been without one.

It is only natural that the whole—time merchant, trading in several commodities, should evolve before the artisan, making, and dependent upon, one commodity only. Then again it is easy to see why woollen cloth and gold were early commodities, for unlike agricultural produce, produced for a local market and direct consumption—they possessed the necessary qualities of portability and comparative imperishability, and they were sure of a wide market, because they were in universal demand.

As pointed out previously, the merchants arose in spite of the exactions of the feudal lords. Other struggles took place between the home and "foreign" merchants for the right of trading in certain goods (the inhabitants of the different towns looked upon each other as foreigners). Then later in the 12th century, the Craft Guild fought, and finally beat, the Merchant Guild; and then, later still, the home craftsmen waxed indignant against the craftsmen introduced under royal patronage from abroad.

These struggles could not, of course, be carried on by individuals. Certain towns would become the centres of certain trades, and in many cases the town was— dominated by the Merchant Guild of that trade. The Guild purchased the collective liberty, and when they (the townsmen) had won, or purchased, their collective liberty, the Guild made itself responsible for the taxes and good government of the town. The merchants backed by his Guild gained strength; we have records— of Merchant Guilds suing each other in their corporate capacity for debts contracted by their members.

The Guildsmen elected their own Mayor and officials and fixed and regulated their own markets. In the strict trade regulations which they made, their policy was very exclusive and narrow, aiming to keep the trade in the hands of the burgesses of the town and keeping a very strict jealous watch upon, and placing at serious disadvantage, the stranger who was not a Guild member, and who did not pay his share toward the freedom of the town. Each town had its protective system against the others. The following quotation from Warner's Landmarks in English Industrial History will give the reader some idea of the regulations enforced to control trade and to keep the Guild exclusive :—

No one but a Guild member was to buy in order to sell again in the town; nor could he buy honey, salt herring, oil, millstones, leather or hides, nor sell wine, save on days of fair or market, or hold more than five quarters of corn to sell by retail...The fish and meat markets were to be supervised by officials; butchers were not to sell bad meat, nor to cast offal in the streets, nor to smoke pork before their houses or in the street; fish brought in a ship was not to be unloaded or sold without leave of bailiff; only he who had caught the fish could offer fresh fish for sale in the street, nor was fish to be bought save between sunrise and sunset. Regrating (buying in order to sell again in the same market) of kids, lambs, birds, ewes, capons, fowls; fresh cheese, butter and eggs, was forbidden until a certain hour, and until the townsmen had had time to buy their food. All these rules, and many others, were enforced by fines or, in some cases, imprisonment, and the "loss of the Guild" when it was a Guildsman who was at fault—a heavy penalty, for it reduced the offender to the rank of a stranger.

Leaving the student to read up further details for himself, we notice that in time crafts became possible; the craftsmen separated themselves from the merchants and tried to destroy these "middlemen."

The Craft Guild.— — The Craft Guild arose a hundred years later than the Merchant Guild, and is first heard of in 1130. Early examples of the Craft Guild in England were the Weaver's Guild and the Goldsmith's Guild; these crafts, as pointed out previously, dealing in commodities which were among the earliest produced.

The rise to power of the Crafts Guild displaced the Merchant Guild. On the Continent the struggle was fierce, but in England the Craft Guild soon overcame its rival. Originally the craftsman may have held land or been also a member of the Merchant Guild; but now the workers in each craft drew together in powerful guilds for the management of their craft.

Both the Merchant and Craft Guild enjoyed religious patronage, trying to maintain a shrewd eye to their own advantage in both worlds. The Craft Guilds successfully controlled production until the 16th century, when we see the rise of new towns built away from the old in order to escape the regulations and restrictions of the Craft Guilds. In these new towns the workers were assembled in manufactories; a division of labour inside the workshop was made; a merchant class, with very different ideas from the Merchant Guild, intervened and helped to circulate factory products, and, encouraged and aided by the throne, they helped to develop national markets. The Crafts in the old towns soon became picturesque relics of a superseded method of production. In future Outlines this decay will be more fully dealt with: let us examine the Craft Guilds in their prime.

Just as the Merchant Guild tried hard to preserve trade monopolies, so the Craft Guild tried hard to keep a monopolistic hold upon production. They closely preserved "the mysteries" of their craft. Long apprenticeship and the production of a certain standard of work preceded admittance. Gibbins, p. 29, writes:—

The Guild tried to secure good work on the part of its members, and attempted to suppress the production of wares by irresponsible persons who were not members o the craft. Their fundamental principle was, that a member should work not only for his own private advantage, but for the reputation and good of his trade: hence bad work was punished and it is curious to note that nightwork was prohibited as leading to poor work.

The Guild also supported its members in case of sickness and death, and every craftsman behaved himself in order to keep unstained the name and reputation of his Guild. Competition was entirely eliminated. Prices were determined, not by "supply and demand," but by usage and regulation. The maxims: "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work" and "A fair price for a good article" were then practical, and adhered to. Production was not "anticipatory" as to—day; the person needing a suit of clothes would order the cloth from the Weaver's Guild, and then take it to the Tailor's Guild and get it made up. There were thus no fluctuations; of overwork and unemployment. The number of journeymen to be employed was fixed, and thus no guildsman could increase his capital at will. But in time this rigid exclusiveness, which had once been beneficial in standardising and guaranteeing the quality of the products, became a fetter upon production. The textile industry was again a pioneer in developing new methods; and foreign craftsmen, e.g., the Flemings, brought new ideas and methods and simple machines which the old Craft Guilds would not adopt. Again, by high entrance fees and the creation of hereditary privileges, the Guilds became more exclusive and narrow. Tracing out other internal divisions leads us on to our next heading.

The Guild Worker. —In the early days of the Craft Guild the apprentice could look forward with reasonable certainty to becoming a master himself. The tools used were small and inexpensive. As one writer has remarked, "It is easier to own a hand than a steam hammer." And we might add that it is easier to own a bucket and windlass than the shaft haulage equipment of a modern colliery; or to own a man—drill than an electric coal—cutter. Then, too, the personal relation between master and man had not been broken by the present unbridgable chasm. The possibility of the journeyman becoming master grew less as the master craftsmen developed into a plutocratic oligarchy, carrying on the Guild, not for the good of the craft but of themselves. They restricted apprentices, and endeavonred to prevent journeymen becoming masters and to make them wear a special livery. Thereupon journeymen's associations sprang up, despite the bitter complainings of the master craftsmen; who accused them of meeting professedly for social and friendly benefits but under this disguise conspiring to secure higher Wages. These associations contain the germ of the modern trade unions.

There are some differences, however, between Guilds and Trade Unions, which completely spoil the parallels made by some writers between them. The Guild regulated production; and protected and sold the products of labour. It centred round the commodity market. The Trade Union protects and advances the interests of those who have at present no regulation or control over production, and who have but one commodity in their possession, i.e., their labour—power. It centres round the labour market. One owned the means of production; the other is completely divorced from them. Subsequent lessons will help us to understand how this divorce occurred and all its resulting effects.

BOOKS.—Gibbins, Period III. Warner, Chaps. III. and VII. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Book I., Chap I., would help the student to appreciate the advantages of a division of labour inside the workshop, and prepare him for future lessons. Marx's Capital, Vol. I., Chap. XIV, contains an even more able exposition of the same subject.