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Basic Information

A guild is a type of private members association that rose to prevalence during the European middle ages - although similar institutions existed in other places and times.

Craft and Merchant Guilds

The most famous guilds were those formed within specific professions, crafts or merchant trades - essentially cartels that controlled the supply of a given good or service for the benefit of the providers, dividing up markets and fixing prices. Officially or unofficially a guild would also control who could work at a given business within their territory - often by paying the Crown for a Royal Monopoly of the business, allowing them to bring the force of law to bear against dissenters. Besides controlling manufacture, most craft guilds also had a monopoly on retail sales of anything within the remit of their guild - and used goods were not necessarily exempt, although disposal of personal effects would likely be beneath the guild's notice. Even members of a trade guild (or guild merchant) would be obliged to offer their goods to relevant craftsmen (at a "fair price" defined by the craftsman's guild) before selling them retail1.

Membership was conditional on observing the laws and institutions of the guild and these traditionally included some form of quality control inspection to insure that work was being done in a way that wouldn't bring the guild as a whole into disrepute or threaten their privileges. Many guilds had their own courts for enforcing guild policy and settling disputes.
Guilds also operated primitive forms of life and health insurance for their members, frequently ran schools for members children and provided retirement and dependants benefits. Given the medieval mindset, these tended to include collective religious observances, corporate charity and/or the endowment of religious institutions and masses for the dead.
Guilds could also often be seen holding formal public processions on relevant feast days2 and sometimes funding public performances such as mystery plays as well.
The money for this was collected both by voluntary subscription and by membership fees levied on the members of the guild.

Traditionally a man3 entered the guild as an apprentice in his early teens and worked under indenture to a master of the guild for a set number of years4, after which he was examined and, if satisfactory passed as a journeyman.
The etymology of 'journeyman' was actually based on the fact that he was now fit to be employed at the guild day-rate (from the French 'journee'), but in many traditions he was also expected to journey - to travel about working for various masters and learning new skills.
Eventually a successful journeyman could apply for the position of master - full member of the guild with a right to accept apprentices and employ journeymen. This, again, was by examination by existing masters (who would sometimes refuse to pass a man who had upset them or might provide unwanted competition) and, in the craft guilds at least, required the presentation of a high quality sample of work (a 'masterpiece') for assessment. Entry into the rank of master normally also required the payment of a fee. From amongst the masters of a given guild the syndics were elected, who represented the guild in its dealings with other public bodies.

Just how all-encompassing or narrowly sub-divided a guild might be is based entirely on how many craftsman of a particular type were in the community. Larger cities needed to break out the jobs more finely, and as the middle ages wore on there was more and more the tendency to further split hairs. For example, an early guild might just be a leatherworker's guild that covers everyone who works in tanned hides, whereas in later centuries might see separate guilds for tanners, cobblers, malemakers, saddlers, lorimers, etc. Such subdivision could be taken to extremes, such as when the London wood-stacker's guild broke off from the wood-cutter's guild in the 14th Century. Alternately, such inter-related fields may still all be governed by a single guild, but said guild might require every leather worker in the community to choose a specialty so as to limit competition. Price fixing was, after all, an expected function of the guild.

Also worth noting is that the monopoly for a guild could be very specific - or at least its franchises clearly defined - and in most cases there would be places where guild privilege didn't apply, either because it was outside the bounds of the monopoly or because there was no guild franchise present. This could potentially start right outside the gates of a town or city under guild control and could be expected to occur in rural areas. In these parts "bunglers" - non-guild craftsmen and merchants - could work their trade without official penalty5. Importantly, the term bungler was very much a blackwash - whilst some of them would indeed be at best semi-skilled, others, especially foreigners denied guild membership6 could be very skilled indeed. Peddlers and other small scale traders would likewise often lie outside the remit (and therefore notice) of the merchant guilds and farmers were generally permitted to sell their own produce subject to the payment of appropriate fees and taxes (indeed anyone buying up agricultural produce for resale could be prosecuted for forestalling). Pawnbrokers also tended to be allowed to sell practically anything within reason.

Ironically there were also significant numbers of medieval towns and cities that required passing merchants to stop and offer their goods for sale for a specific time - governed, of course, by appropriate guild privileges.

Within the masters of a guild there may also be a distinction between bonded masters - whose franchise is entirely devoted to a single customer (for example a smith employed by the lord of a castle to perform the work needed by his retainers) - and free masters (who keep open shop and deal with any customers that engage them). This may or may not be a big issue depending on time, location and the size of the market … and the attitude of whoever controls the bonded franchise.

Also, many guilds were responsible for the provision of some form of military presence for the settlements in which they operated - either as part of their charter, part of general civic duty or for their own prestige. This could be as simple as releasing their apprentices for weapons training, to furnishing arms and equipment for a civic armoury to hiring watchmen or soldiers. Potentially a wealthy guild master, well equipped and followed by all his employees at arms could equal or better the muster of a landed knight, and there were generally quite a few guildmasters in any settlement. Civic pride might demand that a given guild outdo its rivals in the number, magnificence or prowess of its volunteers.

See also: List of Medieval European Professions for a long list of possible trades and crafts that could be organized into a Guild.

Other Guilds

Besides the craft guilds and guild merchants, there were also social guilds - societies of like minded men formed for charitable purposes or some form of mutual advantage. Not being devoted to any one trade, profession or other business they cut across the boundaries of other guilds and could be joined by those who already had a membership in a 'work' guild. Social guilds tended to be less formal and hierarchical and their rituals could vary from the ornate to the silly. Most of the social guilds had some kind of religious gloss and were not infrequently named for one or more saints, but actual religious fervour could vary widely. Like trade or merchant guilds, a social guild might well have its own military resources - indeed, a guild might specifically be formed to organise law enforcement and/or defence for part or all of a city.

In charter towns the guild syndics were normally the people who provided the burgesses for the town council - whether the social guilds were included or not would depend on the town; although they could be represented de facto by a joint member.

The idea of a "thieve's guild" is persistent in fantasy literature - although any historical trace is problematic at best - these should probably fall between craft and social guilds and probably won't have public processions on the day of their patron saint.

Today, the guilds mostly survive in the shape of organisations like the London Livery Companies, the Rotarians and various professional trade bodies. Some would argue that the trade unions have inherited part of their legacy as well, particularly in the matter of closed shop employment and the fixing of wages, but given that a union is generally solely for employees, rather than being an association of small businessmen, this generally doesn't stand up.

The term 'guild' can also be found in those British Universities founded by Industrial Magnates (such as Birmingham) … obviously the students there would not have anything as subversive as a "Student's Union" … so a "Guild of Students" was established instead.


Game and Story Use

  • With their traditional monopolies guilds can be a pain in the ass to PCs who want to get something done - you cannot bid for a lower price (because the guild fixes that) or go to a competitor (he's in the guild as well, or forbidden to work). Guilds merchant are particularly annoying for players who are used to free market capitalism and can't understand why they can't sell their goods in the town square at any price they like.
    • The monopoly also means that when you haul a couple of dozen swords back from a dungeon, you can't just wander round the town's taverns hawking them to anyone with the cash to buy them … instead, you need to offer them to the local weaponsmith(s) (or even blacksmith(s)), who are likely to accept them only at a significant discount.
      • Or, you can take them to the pawnbroker, who may or may not give you a better price, but remains an alternative if for some reason the guild are obstructive.
  • On the other hand, a guild might reward someone with honourary membership in return for a favour - particularly if those people are travellers unlikely to re-appear.
  • Being in a guild could also give a traveller a claim to hospitality, either with his peers of the guild or at the guildhall (if practicable).
  • Historically there weren't any guilds for fighters, wizards etc. but that is easily changed - indeed a 'fighter's guild' to regulate mercenary activity would seem to be an obvious missed opportunity for various medieval monarchs: anyone who isn't either an armigerous noble, one of their bannermen or otherwise 'establishment' is obliged to be a member if they want to wander about armed.
  • A beggar's guild, like a thieves guild, would probably be pretty unofficial and likely to be more of a frame of reference term than a true organisation. i.e. to the medieval mind: the beggars appear to be organised - it must be a guild as "that's how people organise themselves"
  • A guildhall is at least as good a place to start an adventure as a tavern ever was.
  • Guild structure lends itself naturally to filling in a character's background. Most PCs fit right into the "journeyman" concept.
  • Social guilds have more than a passing similarity to secret societies, such as the Freemasons. Feel free to indulge in all the secret handshakes, brotherhood of funny hats jokes and conspiracy theory you can stomach.
  • The presence of guild armed forces - perhaps representing mutually antagonistic neighbourhoods - has real story potential.
    • An example might involve a suburb outside the city walls forming a social guild for its own defence - when the city guilds decide to suppress the bunglers living and working in the suburb, the suburban guild musters its forces and a small war develops, potentially blocking access to one of the city gates and antagonising other factions.
  • Guild festivals are likely to be regular sources of entertainment - the medieval mystery plays common to many European cities were generally performed by guilds and fairs, parades and other things could easily brighten up medieval life. Likewise, where guild militias are a big thing, contests of skill at arms - perhaps approaching the status of a tournament could develop. Guilds may even (allow their apprentices to) play football and other sports against each other - young men are liable to indulge in such things anyway, let them do so under controlled conditions and for their greater prestige of their guild!
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