Guilds and Confraternities

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Guilds and Confraternities

Group Identity and Controlled Commerce.

Guilds and confraternities were an essential phenomenon of life in the early thirteenth and later centuries. They played an important role in the development of the cloth trades and in the consequent rise of fashion in all of its social and aesthetic ramifications. For example, although religious confraternities allied to a particular church or shrine were chiefly organized for the purpose of mutual spiritual and social support, they also played a role in the development of fashion. Their rules and charters designated a particular costume to be worn at meetings to identify members and give a feeling of community. Members prayed together and for each other; they provided mutual financial support and comfort in times of illness and death, and they formed and financially supported groups who went on pilgrimages, often wearing the colors and heraldic insignia of the group. The merchant guild was organized in the smaller cities or towns primarily to enforce a monopoly that ensured its membership—craftsmen, traders, and merchants—the control of commerce within the city or town boundaries. They retained economic control within their geographical area by imposing fees and rules that non-residents and non-members had to add to their cost of doing business within this town or city. These guilds also provided aid to their members who were sick or needed burial, in addition to meeting regularly for ceremonial and social dinners. They, too, required members to be appropriately dressed in the costume that identified the guild. At least as early as 1216 there were a notable number of these merchant guilds controlling, for example, the transportation trades of carters, watermen, and the like.

Standards of Craftsmanship.

In the larger cities such as London and Paris, however, a different kind of guild—that of artisans—sprang up. There, the numbers of craftsmen were great enough that individual crafts might form a guild of their own, and specialization within a craft provided the opportunity for increasing skills, developing talent, and encouraging innovations in style. Such guild members intermarried and tended to live in the same neighborhoods, which then became identified with those trades. At the same time, the guild developed and maintained standards of craftsmanship and assumed responsibility for punishing any member or apprentice who violated these standards. Like the merchant guilds, artisan guilds also aimed to control commerce, protect it from predatory and innovative non-members or foreigners, and make it work always in their own favor. When towns expanded into cities, these craft guilds supplanted the merchant guilds that had formerly held trade monopolies. Gradually, the number of specialized craft guilds increased. Throughout the Middle Ages, the largest and most powerful of these guilds were those having to do with the cloth trades, but leather crafts were also very important since they supplied shoes, clothes, and belts, as well as other serviceable goods.


introduction: A French "trade poem" called "Le Dit du Mercier," from a manuscript in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale MS fr. 19152, composed between 1270 and 1340, presents the mercer as a speaker, hawking his merchandise and describing some of his sales practices. The text offered here contains only the portions relating to fashion.

Hello to this very fine company.
I am a mercer, and carry mercery,
which I would sell willingly,
for I am in need of pennies.
Now, if it pleases you to listen,
I can easily describe the goods that I carry,
however heavy the weight of it that I bear—
I have some charming little girdles,
some fine gloves for young girls;
I have gloves in both double and single weight thickness.
I have good belt buckles
and good looking iron chainlets for the belt too—
I have wimples saffron tinted and perfumed;
I have well sharpened needles
and neat little boxes to hide trinkets in—
When you see them you will nearly cry out.
I have leather purses with nice catches,
Indeed, I have too many wares to describe.
I have good otter-skin winter cloaks,
and ermine and silks
and border edging of porpoise.
I have trains of fur
and nicely worked needle cases. …

I have braies [male underpants] and lovely garter belts
and good saddle bags.
I have sewing thimbles
and various alms purses
of both silk and Spanish leather
which I would love to sell.
And I have some also of plain linen.
I would gladly sell a veil to a Benedictine nun.
I have iron buckles for your shoes. …

and for ladies horn clips for your hair.
Buckles for your shoes
And even pewter catches for a child's shoe straps.
I have fine laces for felt hats.
I have beautiful silver wimple pins,
as well as some of pot metal too,
that I sell to these fine ladies.
I have some pretty head scarves
and lovely coifs with laces
that I can sell to pretty girls,
and a matching silk
for hats with bordered brims,
and I also have some linen hats for young girls,
embroidered with flowers or birds—
of a smooth and bright warp and woof—
to primp in before their boyfriends,
and for peasants some hats of hemp
and mittens for their hands.
And for monks some purses …

And knotted laces for surcoats …

and well-made hose from Bruges …

and combs for the hair—
I have good Parisian soap
and nice boxes to keep it in.
I have catches of both silvered and
gilded pot metal—and people love those
which are made of pot metal so much
that often we mercers use silver colored pot metal
and call it silver. …

And I have knives both blunt and pointed
to make a knight-to-be look chic …

and ribbons to attach silk-covered gold buttons
and belts red and green, white and black
with iron plates—
that sell very well at fairs. …

I have many fine collars up to the ears, and napkins
that rich women wear on their heads on holy feast days,
and I have much finery for women:
Everything necessary to the toilette:
razors to shave the hairline, tweezers, make-up mirrors
and ear and tooth-picks,
hair preeners and curling irons,
shoehorns, combs, and mirrors,
and rose water with which to cleanse themselves.
I have cotton with which they rouge,
and whitening with which they blanch themselves,
and I have laces for lacing their sleeves …

I have saffron to spice your food
which I sell to ladies to tint their collars,
whole pomegranates (but I think they are expensive).
But nonetheless I know well how to sell them
—and get money or payment in kind—
and very fine belts and deceitful little trumperies. …

I have catches of pot metal and alloy
and girdles and beautiful falls to cover the head
of which I have given three in exchange for one egg!
(But I don't guarantee that they are new!)
I have fine muslin to veil your faces …

and chaplets for the old ones.
I can tell you the world has mercers
so that men and women can buy
all these goods that load me down. …

Come forward ladies, come here.
Come forward, Don't avoid me.
With an egg or a sou or a penny
come lighten my panniers. …

Now there is nowhere a man so rich
who would not better love such a load
Of mercery were he to have it—
and if he knew how to safeguard it well—
But I can get no good from it
nor could I get any profit with it
and from nothing I carried
did I gain enough to eat—
Therefore will I set down my pack
I will not meddle any more with it—
Thus I will go back to the peddlers' tax notice
at the city gates, and pray you God:
shelter me in some castle
and I get some chattel by it.

source: Philippe Ménard, "Le Dit du mercier," in Mélanges de langue et de littérature du moyen age offerts à Jean Frappier. Vol. 2 (Geneva: Droz, 1970): 797–818. Translated from the Old French by John Block Friedman.

Commercial Pride.

The flavor of these cloth trade guilds and their enterprise is encapsulated in certain "trade poems" of the thirteenth century. For example, the essence of a medieval tailors' guild is portrayed in the "Song Upon the Tailors," which emphasizes the importance of tailors to society in a time when those who could afford it always ordered their wardrobes from tailors and those who were less affluent had their garments made at home. This poem, written in Latin and dating from about 1260 to 1270, is extremely useful as a glimpse into attitudes towards clothing from relatively early in the Middle Ages. The poem illustrates the thrifty practice of the remaking of old garments into new ones, and, in a subtle play on the religious concept of transubstantiation, the poet elevates the importance of tailors' work by likening it to that of divinities (gods) active in the lives of humankind. Thus we see commercial hype alive and well in the Middle Ages.


Caroline M. Barron, "The Parish Fraternities in Medieval London," in The Church in Pre-Reformation Society: Essays in Honour of F. R. H. Du Boulay. Ed. Caroline M. Barron and Christopher Harper-Bill (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell, 1985): 13–37.

Donata Degrassi, L'economia artigiana nell'Italia medievale (Rome: La Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1996).

Steven Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

Heather Swanson, "The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns," Past and Present 121 (1988): 29–48.

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Guilds and Confraternities

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