The branch of collegia from whence our own labor organizations stem date back to the lands that became England. Unlike the Stellinga in the Carolingian Empire, where 140 ringleaders were beheaded, 14 hanged and many others mutilated,1 gilds were an accepted part of Anglo-Saxon society. During the reign of Viking king Cnut (1,000 AD), for example, the Orcy’s Gild at Abbotsbury was established. By the age of the Angevin Empire, craft guild charters were an easy source of livres for the king.
Crown or municipal recognition gave the societies a monopoly within their professions. No artisan who was not a freeman (journeyman) of the society could ply his trade in the marketplace except after payment of burdensome taxes. Generally only those who had served a seven year apprenticeship were admitted to freemanship, and admission to apprenticeship in the more prestigious crafts could be costly. The journeymen and apprentices were organized in each craft as it best suited the interest of the masters. The societies were allowed to “search” the city’s shops in their particular trades to ensure that the quality of the products sold were up to their standards and to prosecute those who violated these standards or who used fraudulent weights and measures.
Patron saints were associated with specific crafts. They would worship together on their saint’s day and other holidays at a specific church. They also provided death benefits and fraternal outlets through religious services and burials.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the religious orientation had nearly disappeared, yet the associations continued to flourish. While maintaining their functions as sources of benevolence and enhancing their comradely activities with the erection of halls, some quite elaborate, they became significant economic institutions. They were able to control both the quality of their product and the prices and wages within their craft, either through royal incorporation, the preferred and most prestigious route, or through municipal ordinance.
The masters, the livery or “livened” members of a society, more often than not, were retailers and wholesalers rather than as handicraftsmen. Beneath them in the society were independent proprietors of smaller shops and the “yeomen” or journeymen who could never reach livery status. At times the yeomen would organize independently within the society because their interests were so clearly different from those of the livery.
These differences would be harbingers of the conflicts to come during the Industrial Revolution.
Guilds were actually the “first and original basis for the theory and practice of popular democratic government in Europe” and the first to give worker organizations a role in the polity.3
4 Guild & State: European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present. Antony Black, p. xvii
1 Naismith. (2020). Gilds, states and societies in the early Middle Ages. Early Medieval Europe, 28(4), p. 638. https://doi.org/10.1111/emed.12433