Term Paper: Medieval Towns Crafts and Guilds

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Medieval Towns: Crafts and Guilds

Gervase Rosser has written an article that spells out, with descriptive attention to detail, the economic and work culture dynamics of medieval communities. The piece contributes enormously to a reader's understanding of England during the medieval period, so much so that it would seem an entire semester's study could be built around the article (with numerous supplemental articles and materials, of course).

What the reader absorbs in particular in the first few pages of Rosser's article - and in general throughout his piece - is that he is intent on setting the record straight on a number of issues about the medieval workplace and worker. In fact, this is not just an article about how medieval crafts and guilds functioned in a society in medieval England; this article is about rebutting many of the generalizations, myths, and factually incorrect views that are currently - or were previously - held by scholars and historians.

Rosser goes to enormous lengths to make clear why he is explaining the misconceptions and misunderstandings with reference to how life in the working world of Medieval England really took place. Rosser is a writer of obvious skill when it comes to deep scholarly thinking; he is a writer who more often than not takes the intellectual high road. But Rosser also apparently realizes that the reader may not be able to climb every step of the way with him on his scholarly ascent, so he takes brief moments to define his terms in more lay-friendly language.

For example, in his second paragraph, he asserts that writers have tended to convey an "oversimplified understanding" of those who worked in the "medieval urban context"; "the belief that work...was conceptually unproblematic" is wrong, he explains, but immediately after writing "conceptually unproblematic" he adds "that it simply happened," in order to ensure that readers of lesser sophistication are on board with him. This style could be perceived as arrogance, but in fact, it seems to be a scholar covering all his bases, making sure those receiving his knowledge get it right.

The emergence of guilds and their impact on workers and the economy

Meantime, as was pointed out earlier, Rosser believes he has a lot of clarifying to do; indeed, he explains that the previously held "notion of a pre-ordained social order both was and is a fiction," regarding medieval crafts and guilds, and that work during that period was actually a "varied, complex and evolving process" - not a "mere function of socio-economic relations." In other words, he is pointing out that, say, unlike the early economies in colonial America - where farming and basic manufacturing were pragmatically focused on survival for the struggling newcomers - the medieval culture had hundreds of years to fine-tune and re-fine-tune approaches to labor and crafts.

There was no "pre-ordained social order" and hence there is a misconception, which 19th and 20th Century writings of historians have contributed to, that has left "the majority of medieval urban workers out of focus."

Putting the medieval worker in focus is a task that Rosser clearly is committed to well beyond just pointing out errors in historical fact and misconceptions based on the stereotypes perpetrated over the years. He stresses that workers in this period of English history were not one-dimensional at all, notwithstanding the "traditional views" which are an "oversimplification" of the historical facts. The "artisan" as viewed by modern historians, "has tended to be too unitary and too static."

Indeed, workers had "plural identities" much like today's employee: "A 'worker' might be, all at the same time," he writes, "a mother and a household manager, a fully qualified worker of precious stones hired by the day by a monastic office of works, and an entrepreneur of the craft undertaking joint commissions with other masters and engaging journeyman or apprentice labour in her own right."

And in summing up his premise, he re-states that though much of what historians have written about the medieval worker has "blinkered modern interpretation," in order now to correct those errors in the historical record (that, for example, work in medieval towns "was not predetermined by socio-economic structures"), one should put a microscope on the individual worker and on the challenges that faced those persons hard at work in that period.

And looking at that individual medieval artisan, Rosser points out, his or her "single most pressing earthly concern" was establishing "a good personal reputation." And until one could achieve that reputation, it was not possible to "obtain credit," because the raw materials with which artisans worked, and required, were "generally provided on trust," and sales were on a "credit basis" as well.

How did an artisan build a reputation of good credit? He or she built up a solid reputation by joining a voluntary club, also known as "guilds, confraternities or fraternities." These clubs - there were "many thousands" - offered not only the respectability needed to get a job or get credit, but they also provided "cash handouts" when an artisan fell into ill health or was out of work; the clubs gave out low-interest loans, and legal backing during times of dispute over work issues.

Rosser mentions that since there had been moral conditions attached to their application for membership, the members were, as part of their benefits or perks, given spiritual support; indeed prayers were offered "for the souls of each dead member of such a guild" by the club. When sworn into a guild, members made declarations that they would observe "high standards of sobriety and Christian charity."

Meanwhile, in Steven Epstein's book, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe, Epstein uses quite a few pages to writes about the spiritual / religious aspects of guilds; and his description matches up well with what Rosser explains in his lengthy article. A reviewer of Epstein's book writes that "The Church and Christian ethics had a profound impact on the attitudes and practices of guilds" (Blomquist, 1992). The Church's focus on "moral probity" was clearly shown through the concern of the guilds, Blomquist explains, for "honesty and fairness" - which was written into their statutes.

Honesty and fairness, in fact, were the very precepts reflected in the guilds as Rosser reviewed them, which in fact gave the artisan a "good reputation" and allowed him or her to gain "good credit." Perhaps Epstein's book places more emphasis on the influence of Christian doctrine in guilds than Rosser's article does, but in any event, both report that the guilds (through Christian foundations and dynamics) placed enormous importance on "trust - trust earned by treating customer and client in an open and straightforward manner," Blomquist writes, paraphrasing Epstein's work.

To be other than be fair, open, and trustworthy - from a Christian-themed philosophy of conduct - "could be harmful to business," Blomquist continues, "and thus square dealing was an element in the competition among masters."

The rise of the guilds in social power and community prominence

Rosser writes that much of the guild movement's origins, prominence and influence in medieval communities has not been properly recorded, and thus is difficult to report all the beginnings and struggles during the fledgling periods of guild existence in his article. And he adds that "an excessively simplistic picture" has been portrayed of the formalized crafts from early in the development of guilds.

Still, he has catalogued a substantial list of the early guilds in England and Europe; Rosser writes that in London - by the year 1300 a city of 80,000 people - the skinners and tailors' guilds - among the larger clubs - had actually engaged in collective bargaining for wages, and indeed took on formal roles within city government, in terms of dealing with labor issues.

And in Italy and southern France - where the public registration of guild codes "was common from an early date" - in particular in Bologna, Parma, Verona, and Montpellier (where in the 13th Century "catalogues of ordinances" were drawn up), the mystery of how and why guilds sprang up "has understandably beguiled historians," Rosser writes.

Other guilds became formalized and followed the skinners and tailors: In Cordes, France, "the curriers had a fraternity" by 1371; the "shearers of Troyes received their first officially recognized professional statutes in 1510 and at that time granted license to "continue their ancient fraternity"; the "journeymen metalworkers of Frankfurt swore together in 1402, but did not bother to have their pledge copied in writing until 1417."

Were guilds the historical framework for the genesis and evolution of formal organizations?

One aspect of crafts and guilds that Rosser does not address, and given the focus of his piece - additional clarity and factual correction of many hitherto misinterpreted ideas about guilds and crafts in medieval England - he probably did not want to stray from his main theme, is what did the crafts and guilds lead to in later society? Did they lead to unions? This is likely, and seems rather obvious, but Rosser does not… [END OF PREVIEW]

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