Debates - Guilds

Was (formalized) mutual aid a social necessity or a way of creating extra revenues?


One way of looking at the formalization process of mutual aid as it emerged in the guild system was that mutual aid was a way of creating revenues. Formalizing mutual aid meant that all members had to pay regular contributions and entrance fees to the box, but tapping into it became more difficult because guild regulations became more rigid and specific as to who could benefit from the box.

When anonymous rules determined who could benefit, declining requests for aid became easier than with face-to-face contact. And face-to-face contact diminished as well as a result of a declining interest in sociability – due to rising tensions between social groups – and a dwindling interest in religiosity (De Munck, 2010, 15-8). Less sociability meant less spending on leisure and hence more revenues for the box and thus the guild, at least in the short term.

Though the formalization of mutual aid might have had its advantages, it took some serious accounting and financial insight for a guild to benefit from these changes in the long run. Some boxes did flourish, but others failed, being overdrawn and financially mismanaged. Most boxes simply tried to persevere. Restrictions on box benefits were not set so the box could reap more money, but because without these limitations, benefits would simply be too costly and ruin the box. Increases in annual contributions were initiated because otherwise 'de Gildenkasse door het onderhoud van de siecke Gildenbroeders niet bestandig is om daer in te continueren' [Transl.: the guild box would not be able to continue due to the support of the sick guild brothers] (Bos, 1998, 104). The same goes for the exclusion of certain members. The exclusion policy of the box — towards widows who got remarried, or members who failed to contribute to the box — was set to protect the box from bankruptcy and overdrawing members. Even though the lack of sociability and increase of regulations changed the ease and casualness of receiving aid, exceptions were still made for the more harrowing cases (based on Bos, 1998).



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