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The Guilds: Figures of the Mystical Body and Economic Common Sense

The Guilds: Figures of the Mystical Body and Economic Common Sense
By Peter Chojnowski, Ph.D.  
           As we, here in the United States, go off the “financial cliff” (as I write) and prepare to “kick the can down the road,” again, it is time for us, as Catholics, to think deeply and “outside the box” about our current financial and economic situation. This is exactly what has not happened over the last four years since the world found itself in the greatest economic and financial downturn since the Great Depression. Every effort is to put the dying system of Enlightenment Liberalism on life-support, in which the Central Banks of the world perform the functions of breathing, heart pumping, and brain-activity for a debt-ridden, job-deprived moribund global economy.
            In order to think in a different way about the economic situation, we first need to realize the way we have been thinking about it. No matter how hard we insist that we are traditionally-minded, our brain follows the tracks laid out for it about 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. For Enlightenment Liberalism, the good and liberated society was made up of a heap of “free and equal individuals” who, having thrown off the traditional structures and institutions that they found themselves in because of birth, were free to engage themselves in organizations, nation-states, churches, stock corporations, and social networks as they themselves saw fit. All social relationships were understood to be the same as that of a civil contract between equal parties.
None of us really belongs anywhere; we only temporarily associate with those who provide us with the means for the satisfaction of certain private desires or needs.  We are like little atoms floating in the void, colliding, if we should so choose, with other little atoms who choose, for a moment, to form an
            Such was the atomistic Liberal view of man in society. This was not the end, however, of Liberalism’s disintegration of that which was organic and whole. Not only were ancient kingdoms, the guilds and civic corporations, family, and the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, to be pulverized into “rights-bearing” individuals, but Liberal Man himself, in the Consumer Capitalist Age of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries, would become divisible into distinct and, often conflicting, desires, impressions, choices, and dimensions, each with its own “right” to “fulfillment.”
            Just as the Liberal State gained absolute power over men, by dividing them into isolated, detached, and rootless individuals, so too the Liberal Economy divided man into incongruous parts by visually immersing him in a world of advertisements which appeal to individual, often socially hidden, desires and urges. The ad-campaign becomes the driving motor of Liberal Consumerist Society. The appeal to the groundless curiosity of a man or woman, the false promise of glamour, beauty, acceptance, and care-free leisure, can only leave a man “besides himself,” beside himself with false hopes, living a mental life which is not his own. Our economy is powered by illusion and ends in despair.
Ads: Signs of the Revolution that was
            If the “ad” is the sign of the Liberal Economic Order and the Consumerist Man who is “besides himself” with advertisement-induced desire, it is surely an indication of a quite different economic and social system when we realize that, as late as the 18th century, any attempt to lure potential customers into one’s own business, whether by ad or by verbal inducement, was strictly forbidden in France. This prohibition was in place before the dissolution of those Catholic economic units called “the Guilds.”[1] The Guilds were State and Church supported institutions meant to ensure the livelihood and the personal and familial development of their members. The organic and communal structure of life practiced by the Guilds, were both an expression of and encouragement to an integral and personal manner of existing. How did the old prohibition of the ad indicate and express all of this? Mostly, because the ad indicates the exaltation of the free choice of the individual over the economic need of workers and their families. By a flashy and enticing image, the individual is psychologically drawn to disregard the real needs of all the workers and families which are not part of the business which is advertising. By being attracted, we become enclosed within our own desire for the product. In our encounter with most advertisements, we are surrounded and enclosed by our own urges, in our own egotistic need to provoke the envy of our neighbor. To buy without any reference to or enticement by an ad, as was the norm in the Catholic Ages, is to approach a product in a totally different way than a product was approached in the Age of Consumer Capitalism.
            In the Age of Consumer Capitalism, there is a certain recklessness which attaches itself to every purchase. The producers and advertisers depend upon this recklessness. They know that when the contemporary consumer buys a product, he does not care who has produced the product, under what conditions, for the ultimate financial benefit of whom, or whether by buying a cheap and mass-produced item we are overlooking a product which was crafted by a true artist. We are indifferent to the possibility that by buying a “low-cost” item, we may be undercutting the livelihood of a man and his family in need. It does not matter. The social implications of our purchases are non-existent. We act to satisfy our own need. The exotic and voluptuous advertisement causes us to forget artist, family, social economy, and investment of real work. Moreover, those who cannot really advertise are finished.
The Guilds: Ancient and Medieval Brotherhoods of the Skilled
            It is the same Catholic society which rejected the ad, which, also, guaranteed the existence of the merchant and craft guilds. For the State and the Catholic Church to uphold the guilds was to uphold the common good of society and the unified good of the worker. Here personal independence, pride of choice, and the recklessness of the arbitrary is sacrificed to the financial and familial good of those who produce, to the obligation to support a brother as he practices his craft, to the moral requirement that I pay a just price so that another may have a just wage. The legally sanctioned ad was the death knell of this coherent world of family, craft, brotherhood, security, and charity. Welcome to the age of Blue Cross, Food Stamps, and Social Security.
            Much can be learned about the mentality that animated the guilds and the society which fostered them, by considering the origin of the word “guild” itself. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word gildan, meaning “to pay,” the word has a close affinity to the concept of sacrifice. This etymological fact has led scholars to trace the origin of the guilds to the sacrificial assemblies and banquets of the heathen Germanic tribes. Moreover, along with this concept of sacrifice and tribute to the gods, the ancient Teutonic origins of the Medieval guilds have led many to view the family as the ultimate origin of the guild, due to the importance of family relationship among the Germanic Nations. It was this spirit of association, uniting sacrifice, work, piety, and family, which was fostered by the Catholic Church as soon as She spread her mantle over these rustic peoples.[2]
            There are very few actual records detailing the rise of the guilds that came to dominate the city life of the Medieval Period. The documentation is sparse. We get a few snippets of information from the Roman authors Livy, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch concerning the existence of the collegium, the Classical analogue of the Medieval Guild.[3] The Code of Theodosius in the 5th century AD and the Code of Justinian in the 6th century AD are, however, very informative concerning the existence, function, and structure of guilds or “colleges.” The very word collegium (derived from conlegium) emphasizes in its etymology a group of people bound together by common rules or laws. The word corpus (body) and corporatio (an extension of the same word) were used by the Severan jurists. These words were synonymous with the word sodalitas (sodality), the most common word for “social club.” Such a word like “sodality,” also, described religious brotherhoods, which in turn were commonly referred to as collegia or “colleges.”[4]
            What the ancient sources tell us about these Roman institutions is that they were attempts to realize the natural desire for association by organizing groups of people in a particular craft, trade, or line of business, who were devoted to religious observance and banquets. These organizations were popular in character and became hereditary. In the same way as it became the common practice in the Medieval guild, the Roman college came to continue its membership by encouraging sons to follow their fathers in the father’s particular trade. Sons replacing fathers, which can be called the traditional approach to occupations, gave strength to the social cohesion in the various trades and provided men with psychological coherence.[5] The Liberal Revolution’s dissolution of the father/mentor son/apprentice relationship is one of the great factors contributing to the social, economic, and personal incoherence of so many of our contemporaries. It is difficult for us to conceive of the fact that in the greater number of centuries of civilized development, the family workshop was the norm.[6]
            The truth is, however, that the Guilds of Christendom were not part of any kind of continuous development of the Roman colleges. By the time that knowledge of Roman Law revived in Western Catholic Europe in the late 1000s and 1100s, the Medieval Guild had already developed its own structure and rules without the benefit of Roman examples. This basic historical fact indicates that the “guild idea” and, indeed, the “guild reality” were the products of the collective Catholic social and economic genius.
            Rather than being something forced or imposed on an unwilling population, the guilds appear to have been voluntary associations formed for the mutual benefit of the members.[7] These associations were encouraged by the Church and officially sanctioned by the State. These voluntary associations needed the Church, since most of the social life of the guild members was structured by the liturgies, devotions, and festivals of the Church. The guilds needed the State in order to receive its monopoly over the exercise of their specific trade in their particular city or region.[8]
            Even though there is not much information concerning the early formation of the guilds,[9] we do know that by the 600s AD, the formation of guilds was mentioned in and sanctioned by the “Laws of Ina,” as these were published in England, a nation that experienced some of the most advanced development of the guilds during the Medieval Period. In the very early centuries of the Middle Ages, you have the formation of what were known as the Frith Guilds (Peace Guilds). These were associations, voluntary in character, which assumed a corporate responsibility for the good conduct of their members, while also sharing a mutual liability with regard to the financial security of its members. These guilds, formed to be brotherhoods of men and not of workers, practiced many of the works of charity and sustenance towards their own members which would become the common fare of the craft guilds in the High Middle Ages.       From alms giving, to care of a sick brother, insurance funds against losses, burial of their own dead, to providing Requiem Masses for the souls of their deceased brothers, the frith guilds were the institutionalization of the natural needs and desires of man directed by and suffused with the gift of supernatural charity.[10]
            It has been the guilds with an occupational and economic orientation, however, which have attracted the most attention from historians. On type of such guilds, the merchant guilds were well established throughout Western Europe by the High Middle Ages. As an indication of their prevalence, in England, by the year 1100, there was a merchant guild to be found in a town of any significant size. Such guilds were presided over by 1 or 2 aldermen assisted by 2 or 4 wardens. These officers presided over the meetings of the society and administered its funds and estates. They were assisted by a council of 12 to 24 members. The merchants’ guild of the Medieval Period possessed extensive powers, including a monopoly of all the trading that occurred in the town.[11]
            This monopoly was bolstered by providing the merchant guilds with the power to punish those who were not members of the guild, but who were trying to encroach on the local practice of the trade. Our very concept of “municipality,” has its origin in the Medieval merchant guilds. Being the original “burgesses” (i.e., those who held land within the town boundaries, whether they were merchants or holders of agricultural land), the members of the merchant guilds made up the municipality as distinct from feudal lands. This founding share in the constitution of the medieval town was normally passed down by inheritance, the eldest sons of the guildsmen admitted to the guild as of right, while the younger sons of the burgesses paid a small fee for their inclusion.[12]
The Craft Guilds: Hierarchy of Working Brothers
            Even though the details of the early origins of the working brotherhoods in Western Europe and England remain unclear, we can identify a few early historical markers. In England, it was the weavers and the fullers who were the first to obtain royal recognition of their guilds. By 1130, they had guilds established in London, Lincoln, and Oxford.[13] In northern France, the word gilde first appears in written accounts as early as the year 779.[14] By the 600s, the first corporations (from corporatio or body of men) were well-established in Italy. From a very early date in the Middle Ages, the Mining Guilds, formed in Saxony and Bohemia and called Brüdershaft, Gesellschaft, and Genossenschaft, played a very critical role in establishing and enforcing regulations which protected the welfare of the worker and his family.[15] Such things as requiring hygienic conditions in the mines, ventilation of the pits, precautions against accident, accommodations for bathing, limiting the allotted hours of work, establishing an advancing scale of wages, and supplying the necessities of life for the families of members, would serve as models for guild regulations and humane working conditions into the Christian centuries.[16]
            Since the guildsmen were often the responsible parties within the great Medieval towns and cities, it often fell to the guilds to defend the towns and their surrounding area from external attack.  In many a Medieval local war, each guild would form its own company. Many victories were won by armies constituted by guildsmen, fighting as comrades shoulder to shoulder. Even though their places were not held in esteem, indeed, the mounted knights often scornfully referred to them as the “foot,” nevertheless, the insignia of their profession were held in honor and proudly displayed on their banners in battle. Many a battle formation saw standards decorated with the miner’s pick and the carpenter’s saw fluttering proudly alongside the pennons which bore the heraldic lions of the knights.
            It is from these fighting units that the armorial bearings of the craftsmen originate the same bearings which adorn windows and statuary niches in many a Medieval and Renaissance church.[17] Referring to the presence of such bearings on the stained glass windows of cathedrals, Godefoid Kurth states that, “when the sun lights up their brilliant colors, one seems to see, as it were, the workers themselves, transfigured by religion, resplendent in all the imperishable glory and magnificence of Christian toil.”[18]
Apprentice, Journeyman, Master
            The idea that a man needs to perform well the duties and functions imposed upon him by civil society is one rooted in the ancient past. The more diverse and developed a society is the more specialized will be the roles which men play in that society. To excel in a specific task, craft, or art which one is responsible for, was always considered an attribute of manhood. The very word the Germans used for “prowess” or prouesse in French was manheit or manliness. It is very difficult to any longer conceive of a “master,” a man who had within his mind and his flesh and his bones an “art,” which one could only grasp after years of watching, speaking with, and, even, living with the master. In our age of “skills” employable by “human resources,” it taxes the understanding to grasp the Medieval and Ancient conception of “art” (ars in Latin and techne in Greek). To fashion so as to create something well-made, to not follow “instructions,” but to know how to do or make something was the property of the Master.
            It is the position of the apprentice (from the French apprendre, “to learn”), which particularly attracts our attention since it appears to be a position which has its origin in the Catholic Medieval mind, rather than in the mind of Antiquity. This idea also attracts us because the idea of a condition of patient submission and consistent extended labor is so foreign to the youth of our day. The average apprentice would remain in a condition of entire dependence upon his Master for approximately 3 to 10 years.[19]
            The obligation taken on by the Master in accepting an apprentice was great. This great responsibility required a man of sound moral character, for the Master was not to serve as merely a “skills management consultant,” but rather, he would act as substitute father for the boy which he took on. He was to treat the boy as his own child.
            The Master, therefore, needed to convince the officers of the guild that he was capable of the moral and professional education of the youth. As an indication of the public and social nature of this Master/Apprentice relationship, the contract of apprenticeship was sometimes signed in the presence of the assembly of the guild.[20]
            The paternal, and yet, also, fraternal aspects of the Master/Apprentice relationship were revealed in the fact that the Apprentice has to embody the same characteristics which one would want one’s own son or brother to embody, namely he had to be a Catholic and, normally, of legitimate birth. This “son” and “brother” was taken into the Master’s household, trained in religion and the life of virtue, guarded by “door and bolt,” and trained to practice the Master’s art perfectly. Such was the yoke which the Master bore. The Apprentice, on his side, was bound to look at the Master as his father, to honor him, to obey him, and to fulfill faithfully the clauses of his contract and finally not to leave him before the time agreed upon.
            Facts which bring out the social character, the communal and vocational sense, of this relationship are, for example, that the Apprentice paid the master nothing, not even for room and board and, in order that the Master not neglect his duty to train the Apprentice to be a Master like himself, the Master was forbidden to have more than a certain number of apprentices.[21] In a very real sense, the Master’s careful and consuming training of the Apprentice was his greatest contribution to the commonweal and to the historical continuity of his art.[22]    
            After these, sometimes long, years of careful training and diligent effort, the Apprentice, now qualified to practice his particular trade , would set out as a Journeyman (from the French journee or “day,” the Journeyman being someone who was hired by the day). This period in the life of the young craftsman, traditionally lasted for one or two years. Intended to complete and vary the technical education of the youth, exposing them to innovations not found in their own region and facilitating the transmission of innovations through the youth to various parts of the realm, the “tour of France,” as it was referred to in France and Belgium, allowed the boy, usually about 17 through 19, to complete his education both as a man and as a craftsman. Now, required to leave his safe-haven of the Master’s household, the young Journeyman bargained as a day laborer for employment.[23]
            Godefoid Kurth, in his work, The Workingmen’s Guilds in the Middle Ages, gives us an enticing picture of these “tours” when he states, “Carrying on his back a knapsack containing his few belongings and beguiling the way with many a joyous song the young workman went from town to town, stopping where he found work or pleasure, then passing on to visit new parts, becoming acquainted as he went with men and things. A conscientious and honest workman had in that way a fruitful supplementary training which brought him into touch with the more varied and less well known side of his art. He was generally sure of a hearty welcome, for everywhere he went, companies of journeymen opened their ranks to him and made it their business to find him occupation. The masters were nothing loath to employ strangers once these had furnished proof of their professional education. Often the advent of a stranger brought new methods into the workshop and thus improved the traditional ones.”[24]
            After the Journeyman returned to his own district, he would enter into the service of a Master, thereby, officially taking his place within the ranks of his own profession. Even though the Journeyman would enter upon the work of his profession, this did not entail that the status of Master was attained thereby. To prove that one had mastered one’s own craft, that one knew how to shape that which was other into a perfect form of its kind, the artisan needed to pass a series of examinations, similar to those taken at a university. The exam included a theoretical and practical section. The theoretical section consisted of questions put by the jury on the principle points connected with the profession.
            The practical part of the examination was, by far, the most important. The candidate had to make a masterpiece. The jury chose the task which was to be executed and watched over the execution of the same task. Upon successfully completing the task, the Journeyman was received into the ranks of the Master-Craftsmen by taking an oath to faithfully keep the statutes of the guild. The privileges which accrued to this newly-won position were many. A Master could open a workshop, employ a Journeyman and Apprentices, give himself up to the practice of his profession, and be committed to the attendance of guild meetings.[25]
            There are two things that should provoke our attention with regard to the position of the Master-Craftsman and the realm of work and fraternity that he established in his workshop. First, once a craftsman had attained the level of Master, he had no other ambition other than to be worthy of the title. There was something final and authoritative about his position and his art. His work and skill had ennobled him with a dignity which was not only recognized by his contemporaries, but also, was in a very real way, recognized by all those of the same craft which had gone before him and would come after him. How many in our day can state the same? Not only do most of the jobs in our day have no precedent in preceding centuries, but, moreover, they will have no memory in a single decade. It surely must affect the psychological state of a man to work all his life and, yet, to be “master” of nothing.
            The second aspect of the Guild and Master/Apprentice system which sets it apart from our own economic life is the fraternity which existed between master and “employee.” Kurth describes the benefits of such a system, when he states, “The immense distance which today separates the worker from the master was utterly unknown to the craftsmen of the Middle Ages in many trades. Ordinarily the master had begun by being a craftsman himself; similarly the craftsman had every chance of becoming a master himself someday. Master and craftsman had worked together at the same task, in the same workshops, in the same brotherly deference to the sacred law of toil. They ate at the same table, often lived under the same roof, and in every way lived the greater part of their lives together. Their social standing was not appreciably different.”[26]
The Guild: Our Catholic Economic Model
            It is not surprising, since the guild system was the economic system in the Catholic Ages, that an attack upon the Church and the civilization which She gave birth to, would, also, be an attack upon the guild system. This attack came with the French Revolution. It culminated in the Chapelier Law of June 1791. The first article of this law, which foreshadowed the complete demise of the guild system in Catholic Europe, reads, “As one of the fundamental principles of the French Constitution is the annihilation of every kind of guild for citizens of the same status or profession, it is forbidden to reestablish them, under any pretext or in any form whatsoever.”[27]  
            It was clear to those who advanced the self-interested agenda of Economic Liberalism, that such brotherhoods of workers would only render impossible the complete atomization of society which is the goal and end result of Liberalism.
            In light of this antagonism between the Revolution and the guild system and, even, the “guild idea,” it should not surprise us that the popes from Leo XIII through Pius XII advocated the reestablishment, in a contemporary context, of the social and economic institution which formed and filled the lives of so many thousands in past ages.
            Pius XI, in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris, On Atheistic Communism, states that, “Faithful to these principles, the Church has given life to human society. Under her influence arose prodigious charitable organizations, great guilds of artisans and workingmen, of every type. These guilds, ridiculed as “medieval” by the liberalism of the last century [i.e., the 19th], are today claiming the admiration of our contemporaries in many countries who are attempting to revive them in some modern form.”[28]
            Let us think about ways to revive these bodies of workers, so that the Holy Catholic Faith can stride into and conquer the precious realm of human labor.

[1] Amintore Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), p. 73.
[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), p. 66
[3] Steven Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 26.
[4] Plutarch, Life of Numa, 17. Plutarch wrote that Numa, the second king of Rome, was responsible for organizing eight artisan trades into colleges. Nothing is known about the internal organization or purpose of these colleges in the republican period. Cf. Jean Pierre-Waltzing, Etude historique sur les corporations professionalles chez les romains, 1: 334-341 (Louvain, Belgium, 1895).
[5] Epstein, pp. 10 and 19.
[6] Ibid., p. 20.
[7] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 66.
[8] Ibid. Also, Godefoid Kurth, The Workingmen’s Guilds of the Middle Ages, trans. Fr. Denis Fahey (Hawthorne, CA: Omni Publications, 1987), p. 44.
[9] Epstein, p. 62.
[10]Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 66.
[11] Ibid., p. 66. Cf. Ashley, Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, I (London, 1888), p. 67.
[12] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 66.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., pp. 71-72.
[16] Ibid., pp. 69-71.
[17] Kurth, p. 47.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 66.
[20] Kurth, p. 48.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 66.
[24] Kurth, p. 49.
[25] Ibid., pp. 50-51.
[26]Ibid., pp. 50-51.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Cited in Godefoid Kurth, The Workingman’s Guilds of the Middle Ages, trans. Fr. Denis Fahey (Hawthorne, CA: Omni Publications, 1987), p. 39.

Published in the January 2013
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