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Guilds of the Middle Ages

Guilds of the Middle Ages

by Gregory Smith

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, Volume 9, #4, 1981

The Guilds of the Middle Ages in western Europe were the outgrowth of religious, economic, political, social and legal needs of the working class people of the period. The collective power and influence of a large group of craftsmen or businessmen could wield enough force to effectively combat the oppression of the feudal lords. The guilds influenced them in various ways ranging from petitioning their grievances, leading revolts against the nobles in the case of the Flemish weaving guilds, or the wealthier guilds simply paid the lords to issue ordinances that were advantageous to their trade. Guilds were established so the workers could gain control of the different trades and professions by setting standards of workmanship and prices of goods and through prohibiting poorly trained workmen from carrying on a trade, and by setting up a hierarchy of status within the system. They even had pension funds and gave money to journeymen and masters that were ill.

In London, a guild came into existence by an ordinance of the mayor and aldermen of the city which granted them the power to control their trade. This was usually followed by a Royal Charter of Incorporation granted by the king.1 Throughout most of Europe, guilds were chartered and named either according to the materials used by the craftsman or by the item produced. The Joiners, who were incorporated in England in 1307, joined wood together and this group included cabinetmakers, makers of virginals, harpsichords and other wooden instruments such as lutes and viols. The Brasiers and Stringers were granted a charter in 1416. The Brasiers of brass workers made various items including trumpets and other brass instruments. The Stringers made strings for archery bows and it seems likely that they also made gut strings required by the many types of stringed instruments of the Renaissance. In 1603, the king granted a charter to the Musicians and also to the Turners, who turned wooden articles, including recorders and other wind instruments on their lathes. The instrument makers, or luthiers, of France were united into one guild in 1599 by a statute issued by Henry IV. Before that time they were ordinarily grouped by the materials with which they worked. The trumpet makers around 1300, for example, were members of the iron and copper pot makers.2 As early as 1270 a small guild of wire drawers existed in Paris.3

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