Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

Merchant Gilds and Craft Gilds

In the Middle Ages there were gilds, or societies, for all purposes. There were gilds to mend the walls and bridges of their home cities and gilds to keep certain roads in good condition. There were gilds of minstrels and gilds of ringers of church bells. Indeed, there were so many varieties of gild that one almost wonders how a man ventured to light his fire in the morning without belonging to a gild for the kindling of hearth fires.


a druggist

In the towns, as has been said before, almost every citizen had something to do with manufactures and with trade. Perhaps his manufacturing was only making candles in his own home and selling them from his first floor; but even then it was an important matter for him to get his wax as cheaply as the other candlemakers of the town. He was interested, too, in having his prices and those of the others of his trade nearly the same; and he did not wish foreigners or even people from other towns to come in and spoil his sales. It was for these reasons that the merchant gilds were formed. Probably in earlier times all or nearly all of the citizens of a town belonged to its merchant gild. The gildsmen called one another brethren, and their rules bound them to work together and help one another as much as possible. The first business, then, of the gild in a town was to look out for the interests of its merchants and tradesmen. It prevented strangers from coming into the town to sell any goods unless they paid tolls; and even then they were allowed to sell only certain things whose sale would not interfere with the interests of the gildsmen. In many places, no foreign merchant was allowed to remain more than forty days, and during this time he must dispose of all his goods. If a gildsman became poor or sick, his gild helped him; if in time of peace he was thrown into prison, his gild came to his aid; at his death, the gild attended his funeral and in many cases paid for masses for the repose of his soul. The member owed various duties to the gild. He must pay his dues and fines; and in case of a disagreement between him and another member, he must submit to the decision of the gild. He must permit the officers of the gild to examine his goods; and if they found fault with their quality or weight or measure, he must obey the gild's orders and mend his ways.

These merchant gilds often became very wealthy and powerful. They were able to loan large sums of money; and, oddly enough, they sometimes loaned it to themselves. This came about because, although the gildsmen and the citizens were nearly the same people, they were, nevertheless, entirely separate bodies; and when a town wanted to borrow money, it would naturally appeal to the gild first of all. In many cases, a gild even made bargains with the king. It would pay the king the round sum that he demanded from the city in taxation, and then it was entirely free from him in money matters and could collect the amount just as the members thought best.


an armorer

The merchant gild was of aid to men in manufacturing goods, as has been said; but there were many matters of importance to the manufacturers, or craftsmen, which the merchant gilds did not touch. To begin with, what the plasterers, for instance, wanted was quite different from what the shoemakers wanted, and in a town where many trades were represented, of course no one gild could care for the interests of all. The natural thing, then, was for the men of each craft to form a gild of their own. This was not only a natural, but also an easy and convenient thing to do; for those who practiced the same craft generally lived on the same street, or at any rate, in the same quarter of the town. These newer gilds had two special objects. The first was to see that every member had work. This was brought about by limiting the number of apprentices who were permitted to learn any one trade. The second object was to make sure that every member's work was good. Each craftsman was obliged to allow the gild officers to examine his materials and his work both in the making and after it was finished. No one was allowed to labor on Saturday afternoons, Sundays, or holy days. Working in the night was strictly forbidden. The chief reason probably was that it was difficult to inspect night work, and that with the poor lights then used, few articles could be well made. But there were often other reasons given for refusing to allow it. For instance, in the town of Lincoln, England, the spurriers' gild forbade its members to work longer than from daylight to curfew, "by reason that no man can work so neatly by night as by day." But the decree went on to say furthermore that if the spurriers were allowed to work at night, they would idle about all day and get "drunk and frantic." Then, when night had come, they would blow up their fires and seize their tools; although the fires were a peril to the houses and the noise was a great annoyance to the sick, and so became the cause of many quarrels.


a spurrier

The craft gilds looked out for the interests of their members in much the same ways as the merchant gilds; that is, they cared for them in illness, attended their funeral services, paid for masses for the repose of their souls, and helped their widows and orphans. It was the business of the gild to settle, if possible, any disputes that might arise between members. Sometimes there there disputes between gilds. The work of each craft was strictly marked off. A man who made shoes must not mend them; and a man whose business it was to mend shoes was not allowed to make them. A man who made hats for his trade was forbidden to make caps. If one craft did any work that another craft claimed as its own, then there was trouble. For instance, a disagreement of this sort arose between the farriers and the blacksmiths of York in England. For many years "ayther craft trubled other." At length, the mayor persuaded them to allow the matter to be settled by four men whom he would appoint from other crafts.

Everything was done to induce the members of a gild to treat the other members like brothers, and if any one tried to get the better of the rest in buying material, especially for things necessary to life, like bread, before the others could have the same chance, or by purchasing all that was for sale and then charging a higher price, he was likely to get into trouble with his gild officers.


a shoemaker

Every gild had its feast day once a year or oftener; and every gild had also its patron saint. On the day sacred to him all the members put on the gild livery, or uniform, and marched from their gild hall to the church for services. Another religious duty of the craft gilds was the acting of plays, mystery or miracle plays, as they were called. Long before the Middle Ages, the priests in various countries often acted stories from the Bible, such as that of the birth of Christ, in order to impress them upon the minds of the people. These were acted in the church, then on platforms in the church-yard. But so many came to see them that the graves were trampled upon, and it was decreed that they should be acted on other ground.


a blacksmith

These plays did not always follow the Bible narrative strictly, but added old legends or any incidents that it was thought would interest the people. For instance, in one of the plays of The Garden of Eden, when Adam took the apple, he apparently tried to swallow it whole, the play says that it stuck in his throat, causing the "Adam's apple." In the play of The Slaughter of the Innocents, an old tradition is brought in that by mistake Herod's own baby son was slain. In the play of The Shepherds, the honest men talk together about how to care for their sheep. They sit down and eat their supper—bread, butter, pudding, "onyans, garlicke, and leickes," green cheese, and a sheep's head soused in oil—"a noble supper," as one of them calls it. After supper, masters and boys are wrestling together when a bright star blazes out. They kneel down and pray to God to tell them why it is sent. Then the angel Gabriel appears to them and sings, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." This is sung in Latin of course, for it would not have seemed to a writer of the Middle Ages at all respectful to represent an angel as singing in English. The shepherds have a rather hard time with the Latin; but they make out some of the words. They talk about the singing. One of them says of the angel, "He hade a moche better voyce than I have." Then they sing together "a merye songe." The angel appears again and tells them that Christ is born in Bethlehem. After they have gone to find him, the three shepherd boys set out to follow their masters. They wish that they had something to carry to the Child, but they have only the few things that they use themselves. One, therefore, gives the Child his water bottle, which he says is good, only it needs a stopper. The second takes off his own hood for a gift, and the third presents him with a nuthook "to pull down aples, peares, and plumes."

In almost all of these plays there was considerable fun-making and "horse-play." Just as the good folk of the Middle Ages saw no harm in making a pilgrimage a merry and entertaining little journey, so in the mystery plays they demanded to be amused as well as instructed. In the play of The Flood, Noah's wife is indignant that her husband has worked on the ark so many years without telling her. She declares that she will not enter it, and she finally has to be dragged in by Noah and his sons. Herod struts about the stage. He boasts how mighty a king he is and how easily he can destroy the Child who has been born in Bethlehem. Then there must have been loud guffaws of laughter from the audience when the Devil rushed in and carried him off. Satan was the clown, the fun-maker; and whenever he appeared, the people watched eagerly to see him fooled and cheated by some good spirit. He always wore a dress of leather, ending in claws at the fingers and toes. The souls of the good were dazzling in their white coats, while the wicked were robed in black and yellow with sometimes a touch of crimson. Then Satan and his evil spirits made their appearance, they came by way of "hell mouth." This was a great pair of gaping jaws made of painted linen and worked by two men. A fire was lighted to look as if hell mouth were full of flame. Some of the items on the old expense accounts are amusing reading. "For the mending of hell mouth," for "keeping up the fire at hell mouth," sound rather alarming. One item was for a barrel to make an earthquake, another was for a beard for Saint Peter, and yet another for a quart of wine to pay for hiring a gown for the wife of Herod.



Long before the plays became so elaborate as to demand so many "properties," they passed into the hands of the craft gilds. In the early part of the thirteenth century, most of the gilds fixed upon Corpus Christi day for their chief celebration. They marched in procession, carrying sacred pictures and images of the saints. Often members of the gild took the parts of Bible characters, and at length whole Bible stories were acted. These were played in pageants, or great lumbering wagons two or three stories high. The lower part was covered by a curtain, and here the actors dressed. The second floor was the stage upon which the acting took place. The third floor, if there was one, represented heaven. An attempt was made to have each scene as realistic as possible; for instance, the stage directions for the play of The Creation  ordered that as many animals as could be obtained should be suddenly let loose.

Each gild had its own special play. One would play The Three Kings, another The Crucifixion, another The Murder of Abel, and so on. In England they were so arranged that the main stories of the Bible were played in the Bible order, beginning with The Creation  and ending with The Last Judgment. Early in the morning, the ponderous pageants were dragged out to the different streets of the town. Sometimes men of means paid a good price to have them stop in front of their houses. As soon as a play had been acted, each one moved on and acted the same play in another place. This was usually continued through three days, and a person who remained in one place could see the whole cycle of plays; while if he cared to see any one of them repeated, he had only to follow the pageant to the next street.


stage of a seller of drugs

The plays were entertaining, and that was reason enough for bringing together a good audience. Moreover to attend them was thought to be particularly good for one's soul; and to do something religious and be entertained while doing it, was regarded by the good folk of the Middle Ages as a most excellent arrangement.

As for the gilds, at first they looked upon presenting these plays as an honor and also a religious privilege. They chose the actors from their members, and paid them in proportion to the length of their speeches and the amount of stage "business" for which they were responsible. In the play of St. Peter, in Coventry, the man who did the crowing was paid fourpence; but when he also attended to the hanging of Judas, he received tenpence more. The gild had to pay these charges, buy costumes and keep them in order, and provide provisions for the actors at rehearsals. It is true that collections were taken up in the streets to help pay expenses, but the burden was still a heavy one. Then too, trades changed with the changing fashions. Sometimes one trade was divided into two. In 1492 the blacksmiths and bladesmiths in a town separated. This resulted in two weak gilds instead of one strong one, and the whole expense of a pageant was a serious tax to each. As time passed, the gilds made strenuous objections to keeping up the plays, but now the law stepped in and in many towns they were required to produce their pageants or else pay a large fine.

As the craft gilds became more numerous and powerful, the merchant gilds lost in power and slowly died away. The craft gilds, too, weakened with changes in methods of manufacture, and most of these also disappeared. In London, a number of gilds still exist; but the procession which takes place whenever a Lord Mayor is to be inducted into office is the last reminder of the old trade pageants.

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