Debates - Guilds

Were all guild members equal? 


Basically, guilds were organisations of masters. Becoming a member equalled becoming a master (or becoming ‘free’ in a trade, i.e., entitled to manufacturing and/or selling certain products independently). In order to become a member (or master, or free), one typically had to fulfil an apprenticeship term (sometimes including boarding with the master) and to make a master piece – although sometimes becoming a member could be arranged informally as well (De Munck 2010a, 5-9). Women or other groups (such as Jews or certain religions) could be excluded from membership. Master-widows were a special case. While they were typically allowed to follow in their deceased husbands’ footsteps, their membership was often conditional and/or limited in time. While widow-membership was designed to enable widows to continue the firm, it could be prohibited for them to engage apprentices or hire journeymen; or else, second marriage was likely to end their master status (Farr, 2000, 39-40).

Apprentices and journeymen did not generally enjoy full membership of guilds. Although exceptions did exist, these subordinate groups were typically entitled neither to attend meetings and other collective activities, nor to elect officials. Apprentices were in a type of ‘liminal’ (transitional) stage. They were not only trained on the shop floor, but they were also socialized into a corporative (or urban) community by a master who acted ‘in loco parentis’ (Reith, 1989; Kaplan; Brooks; Prak, 2004; De Munck, 2007b, 201-28). As such, apprentices are traditionally considered to have been prospective masters, although it has become clear that not all apprentices aspired master status (perhaps increasingly so in the course of the late middle ages and the early modern period). While some apprentices may have failed to become masters due to a lack of resources or otherwise, others were apparently registered as apprentices with an eye on the status of journeymen. In the latter, journeymen must have had a privileged entrance to the labour market that was based, in turn, upon a distinction between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ journeymen (De Munck, 2010a).

Free journeymen (i.e. journeymen who had completed an apprenticeship term and, sometimes, had made a journeyman trial) often had a type of ‘right of preference’. If so, masters could not engage an unfree journeyman (at lower wage) as long as there was a free journeyman willing to do the job (at a certain minimum wage). Still, the distinction between free and unfree journeymen was by no means universal. In the Southern Netherlands, journeymen could often be hired regardless of their having fulfilled an apprenticeship term, depending on the trade in question and, in all likelihood, the bargaining position of the journeymen in question. Sometimes hiring unfree labour was conditional upon a certain additional tax and/or limited in time (De Munck, 2010a).

Clearly, research into social mobility requires a detailed attentiveness for formal institutional arrangements.

Although masters were mostly equal in a juridical sense, they could differ substantially in economic and social terms – even within the same trade. First, company size could both differ within a given trade and change in time. While there were sometimes limits on the number of journeymen and apprentices (or machines) a master could employ, these limits could be relaxed – as happened in the Southern Netherlands in the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries (both periods of economic expansion) (Thijs, 1987, 219-57; Deceulaer, 162-3; De Munck, 2010a, 31-2). Secondly, masters could not only work for merchants in purchase (Kauf) or putting out (Verlag) systems, but they could also work as subcontractors to other masters (Lis and Soly; Mocarelli, 2008, 169). Here, formal boundaries become blurred again, as merchants could sometimes become masters themselves.

In fact, historians have sometimes made a distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ guilds. The difference does not only rest in the political power of guilds, but also in the economic power of masters (although there may have been a correlation between the two) (Lis and Soly). On the one hand, guilds could be instruments in the hands of large merchants who used them to control production processes, regulate prices, and monitor quality and the like. These merchants could then be member of the guild or not, but they in any case typically had a certain grip on the local political structures – as was the case in the Northern Netherlands, where it was sometimes prohibited for masters to engage in commercial activities (Lis and Soly, 16).

On the other hand, guilds could be instruments in the hands of masters, even if these masters sold their produce to large merchants (e.g. in export trades). This was the case in the Southern Netherlands, where masters astutely resisted the right of merchants to mingle in producing activities without becoming masters – i.e., having fulfilled an apprenticeship term and made a master piece – themselves (De Munck 2007a; 2008). Remarkably, the point was not for these masters the difference between a Kauf or Verlag system or the grip on the means of production. Rather, they wanted to preserve the link between on the one hand their privileged status (both economically and politically) and, on the other, the manufacturing (and hence superior quality) of their products. Whatever the labour relations, masters wanted to be recognized as the makers (and inventors) of their products (De Munck 2008; 2010a).

Regarding China, like in all other fields of society, a strong hierarchy, especially concerning age and financial means, applied in the guilds as well. In addition, some guilds had different journeymen’s and masters’/proprietors’ chapters. Others were entirely reserved for either journeymen or masters (Moll-Murata, 2005).

The management of the Chinese guilds tended to be rotational, so that the advantages as well as the expenses and troubles of being a guild manager were in principle shared among all members. In that sense, they were basically equal, but as some of the larger guilds differentiated in the course of the nineteenth century, a manager class developed (Rowe, 1984). 



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