The Medieval society was one of great social experiment and change in the history of mankind. Many of us have vivid memories of Medieval society and may have participated in it, or observed it through the eyes of a writer, artist, or scholar. For the rest of us, Medieval society is largely a thing of the past.
Medieval society has been defined by five major guilds. These remains of a very minor craft and social Religious, barter and merchant guilds. The most important of these, though, were the knightly order, the burghers’ guild, the jewelers’ guild, the potters’ guild and the physician’s guild. All these guilds pursued a common cause, that was to protect the people from wage theft, promote the arts, make provisions for women, and pursue learning and trade.
The medieval guilds of course had their own needs, as did each individual town and region. Common concerns included the needs of agriculture and animal husbandry; the need for good lands and farming equipment; the need for skilled labors, skilled blacksmiths, and ironworkers and so on. Every guild had a corresponding regulation to ensure compliance by its members, who were known as journeymen. These journeymen were generally accepted as equals, paid wages, allowed to travel and set their own hours. They had certain protections granted to them in the forms of letters patent, charters, privileges, guarantees, and conditions of honor and allegiance.
Letters patent allowed for written communication between guild members, which included information such as the nature of work to be done, the names of the members of the guild, and their duties and privileges. Traditionally, a master craftsman wrote letters patent, and these served as an official announcement of intent to join or create a new guild. However, as time progressed, this became less necessary as more craftsmen became self-employed and did their own work independently. The patent records were therefore no longer required to prove membership within a guild.
Similar records were kept for apprenticeships. Initially, apprenticeships could be arranged by the master craftsman, who would pay a fee for training apprentices in his shop. From there, apprenticeships were usually arranged by merchants and workers. Conditions varied according to what the guild wanted. In some areas, apprenticeships were actually given by employers to young men working as journeymen for them.
One of the things that guilds did to promote commerce and industry was to regulate prices of their products. They set the price of their goods depending on supply and demand, and bazaar business flourished in most medieval towns throughout the European continent. Prices were set by the local authorities, and guildmasters, as well as by private individuals who traded goods in the marketplace. Although most goods were exchanged in the market, some were also shipped from other parts of Europe.
In medieval Europe, the nobility controlled the distribution of grain, thereby ensuring its cost and quality. In return for their services, the noblemen were entitled to a special privilege in meetings of the right of assembly, and they were the ones who, besides leaders of guilds, who were allowed to draft laws and contribute to the decisions of their guilds. All the dues of all members had to be paid according to their terms at each meeting.
As mentioned previously, the guilds of middle ages weren’t simply trade unions. They included prominent members of society who united together for mutual benefit. They didn’t always have political power; they were bound by a system of norms, duties, and obligations. A medieval guilds contract was a legal agreement drawn up by the members.
Unlike the craft guilds of earlier days, middle ages guilds did not need any fees to be paid. A person could become a member of a guild without ever leaving his or her home. He or she would pay a fee of a fixed sum each year or month, as long as the contract is being fulfilled. Like the medieval guilds of earlier times, such contracts were drawn up by experts in the field, and an expert guilds contract was written by a panel of members.
One of the features that differentiate the middle ages guilds of the north from the guilds of the south is the size and influence. The freemen of the north formed huge fortunes by trading with the west, while the poor craftsmen of the south only managed to establish themselves thanks to the protective tariffs and laws the English government had in place. However, even in the sixteenth century, when the west began to accumulate riches, there was still plenty of room for development. Freer trade meant that the products of the various guilds throughout England were able to improve, which allowed them to compete more intensely with those of the south.
The middle ages saw the rise of the first great guilds of the Europe. The guilds of the later Middle Ages, like the early guilds of the middle ages, were devoted to particular trades. The first guilds of the middle ages, which are now no longer existent, were created to ensure that the new wealthy classes were aware of their standing in society.