The Guild Merchant and Other Guilds and Freemasonry
By S. Perkins Pick
The history of Guilds embraces a very wide area, including as it does Social-Religious, Craft and Merchant Guild Societies.
These Guilds were differently constituted and varied very greatly in their membership, rules and objects. They also overlapped each other, and in many instances the Merchant Guild embraced in its membership brethren of the other Guilds.
There are still extant records of a few Guilds. which existed in Anglo-Saxon days, about the beginning of the eleventh century in England. They appear to have been of a Social-Religious character, similar to many of a later date, and to have had for their chief objects the salvation of the soul, psalm singing, feasting, escorting the dead to the grave, and other matters of common interest. Members were admitted by a solemn entrance oath. They contributed to a common fund for mutual assistance in distress. They were fined for neglect of duty and for misconduct. All these are objects that would be very likely to bring people together with a common sympathy for self-preservation and protection of each other's trades on the one hand, and for social intercourse on the other.
The most important of the early Guilds in this country is undoubtedly the Merchant Guild, whose history with us begins with the Norman Conquest. In municipal records it is called "Gilda Mercatoria" or "Gilda Mercatorum." In many towns the Guild Merchant continued in some form down to the eighteenth century, and in some towns in Scotland in a modified form even to the present day.
From town charters and other records we are able to determine that the Guild Merchant prevailed in the British Isles during the Middle Ages, in about one hundred and fifty different towns, among them being Leicester, part of whose Records, lately published, form such an important item in the history of Guilds, and in fact in that of the country generally. The date of the first Merchant Guild roll of the town of Leicester is Wednesday, October 9th, 1196; but this society appears to have been established here, by consent of the first Norman Earl of Leicester, in 1107, who for a consideration allowed the citizens to enroll themselves in a Guild Merchant for mutual protection and for the regulation of matters entrusted to them for the good government of the town. There are only one or two other towns whose Records show them to have had the Guild Merchant previous to this early date.
The Guild Merchant was generally granted to cities and towns by the king, in return for an annual payment. The privileges were stated in the grant, and generally mainly consisted of the exclusive right of trading within the district.
A good description is to be found in the Ipswich Records, stating what the burgesses did upon receiving the charter for establishing a Guild Merchant, in accordance with a grant made by King John in A.D. 1200 The whole community of the borough having assembled in the church- yard of St. Mary-le-Tower, elected the various officers to manage the business of the Guild, which included in this case, among other things, the management of town matters. These officers were pledged to see that the bailiffs treated rich and poor justly and without fear or favour. They also elected a fit man to be Alderman of the Guild Merchant. In order to maintain the Guild it was ordained that the Alderman, and all future Aldermen, should have the monopoly of buying and selling stone and marble, the Alderman on oath to make a return annually of all profits.
In some towns the Master, Wardens or Keepers occupied the place of the Aldermen.
To become a Guildsman, or to obtain the Guild-ship, it was necessary to pay certain initiation fees, which consisted of either a money charge, a bull, bear, wine, or some other commodity, which was doubtless consumed at their festive gatherings. Some allowance was generally made in favour of the relatives of Guildsmen. At most places a new member was required to find sureties, who were responsible for the fulfilment of his obligations to the Guild, also for his good conduct, for the production of good and honest work, which, when otherwise done, the sureties had to make good at their own cost, in case a client was unable to get the work properly carried out by any Guildsman. The sureties were also responsible for the payment of his dues. A new member took an oath of fealty to the fraternity, swearing to observe its laws, to uphold its privileges, not to divulge its councils, to strictly obey its officers, not to aid any non-Guildsman under cover of the newly-acquired freedom.
These conditions have many points in common with Masonic aims of to-day, and some which are not now part of our rules might with advantage be incorporated: for instance, the proposers, seconders and supporters of candidates might quite reasonably be called upon to be answerable for Masonic dues, should their nominees at any time fail to carry out their obligations to the Lodge into which they have been initiated.
There are many Freemasons of to-day who appear to think that the term "Free," as applied to Mason, was exclusively used by operative stone masons in medieval times; whereas it was also used to designate many other tradesmen who were members or brethren of the various Guilds, or in other words by those who were made "Free" of the Guilds. The Freedom of the Merchant Guild in most cases carried with it the freedom of the town, and gave the brethren rights of participating in the benefits of property belonging to the Freemen. In connection with this subject it is interesting to note, that although the properties belonging to the old Guilds have been taken possession of by the Crown, that belonging to the Freemen has in most instances still remained to them. In the case of Leicester there was a division made in the eighteenth century, part of the estate going to the ordinary burgesses and part to the Freemen.
With respect to candidates for initiation into Freemasonry, brethren will remember that one of the first questions put is an enquiry as to the station in life which is occupied by them, " Are you a 'Free Man'?" &c. An illustration of the advantages of being a Freeman, and of its ancient use, is given in the Hereford papers, in which it is stated that the townsmen of Hereford" looked down with contempt upon natives and rustics of ancient time who pay to their lords corporal services of divers kinds, they are not of our condition neither shall they have our laws and customs," &c.
Villeins and serfs were expressly excluded from becoming burgesses and holding office in many towns, and were prevented from. entering the Guilds, either Craft or Merchant.
It is curious to note that in some cases certain rules had to be enacted to prevent brethren from disposing of their Guildship. For instance, in A.D. 1296 it was ordained by the Guild Merchant of Andover that no one in the future shall sell or give away his Guild except to a relative within the third degree: those of this relationship admitted were to pay half a mark to the Guild: but if the father give it to his son the payment shall be only 2 shillings. In other cases the Guildship was granted for life without hereditary succession. A parallel for this may still be found in Leicester today, in the fact that sons of Freemen can easily obtain their freedom together with a life interest in the property belonging to them, while others can only obtain it by a seven years apprenticeship to a Freeman — an obsolete system now very rarely carried into practice.
Brethren might lose their freedom from various causes. For instance, if a brother continued to do bad work after having been twice fined in respect thereof, he was liable to be expelled from the Guild, and would not afterwards be allowed to again carry on such business, for which the brethren had decreed he had not shewn proper honesty and capacity. Each Guild had its own peculiar powers and enactments, defining privileges and prescribing rules of conduct for its brethren. In the Leicester Records many instances are given of brethren of the Guild having been fined for wrong doing: for example, in using shoddy material in the making of woollen goods; for selling below the standard prices fixed by the Guild in council; for trading outside their calling; for telling untruths about brother members of the Guild, and for a number of other offences against their rules. The Guilds had also drastic powers over those outside their membership who transgressed against their rights. In the same Records a case is mentioned of a woman against whom several convictions for unlawful trading had previously been recorded, who was then sentenced to have her ears cut off, with certain other fearful threats against her, should she ever return to the town again. It is even said that the Alderman of the "Corpus Christi" Guild, which had taken the place of the Guild Merchant of Leicester, had power to fine or punish members of the Town Council, and even the Mayor himself, for misdemeanours.
The Guildsmen of Andover enacted a decree of ex-communication against brethren who were guilty of serious offences, commanding "that no one receive him nor buy and sell with him, nor give him fire or water, nor hold communication with him under the penalty of the loss of one's freedom." From this it will be seen that the gentle art of boycotting is not a modern discovery.
Turning to the social side of the Guildship, we find there was much conviviality among the brethren at the regular meetings, or on those days specially appointed as festivals, on which occasions much eating, drinking and merry-making took place. At Ipswich the brethren came together once a year, "familiarly to feast and to refresh their bodies with food and dainties." At Yarmouth they regaled themselves with "frometye, rost byffe, green gese, weale spyce cake, good bere and ale," which feast was usually held on Trinity Sunday, at the cost of four of the brotherhood successively, at which feast all private quarrels and emulation were heard and ended to the glory of God, and mutual love amongst neighbours. Here again we have another illustration which somewhat forcibly reminds us of the annual festivities of Masonic Lodges. It is difficult to conceive any better object than is indicated by the amicable settlement of all differences, which, when happily effected, led to the reunion of the brethren.
The bond of union between members of the same fraternity is forcibly expressed by an old Yarmouth chronicler, who says, "Laudable and praiseworthy is the bond of amity and friendship among mere natural men, how much more especially is that which is amongst Christians who be tied by the strongest bonds of faith and religion; but, above all, by those Christians which be of one fraternity bound and linked together by solemn oath." It should be borne in mind that the Guilds in medieval days in this country would be composed entirely of members of the Christian faith, and in this they materially differed from Freemasonry of our own day, which may embrace all men who admit a Godhead, without reference to any particular creed.
In addition, therefore, to the protection of their several trades and other secular matters, brethren of the Guilds, in accordance with their undertaking, exercised great charity towards each other, by instituting and paying for priests to pray for the souls of departed brethren, by relieving brethren when in sickness, distress and poverty, by adjusting quarrels without litigation, by abstaining from slander and malicious imputations against the brethren, and other good works, of which these precepts are among the most prominent, and which have even remained the most treasured principles of Freemasonry of today.
With regard to the privileges of Guilds, some of which have already been stated, it is interesting to further note that none but brethren " Free of the Guild "were allowed to carry out handicraft works; to keep a shop; to sell things by retail.
Guildsmen had also the first right of purchasing goods and merchandise, and if the merchant declined to accept the price offered by the Guild, they were not allowed afterwards to sell their goods to any other persons outside the Guild, but had to go away with their belongings to the next town, where a similar experience might await them. The Guild had also the right of fixing the retail price at which articles and goods were to be sold by their own members, who were liable to severe punishment if they transgressed against the rule and disposed of their goods below the fixed rate. These trade rules led to continual disputes, not only with those outside, but also between the brethren themselves, and as time went on it became increasingly difficult to administer their own laws and regulations.
It will be readily understood that all these trade and other privileges were not granted to Guilds without corresponding responsibilities being thrown upon their brethren. In addition to the annual grant paid by them to the king or earl, as the case might be, they also discharged a considerable portion of the expense incurred in the upkeep of the town walls, towers, ditches or other fortifications, streets and bridges. A common form of oath included, for instance, " I will lot and scot "—that is to say, I will bear my lot and pay my scot—" with my goods and chattels to the community in the quantity that I shall be assessed, according, to my power." The Guilds had also to assist during the visits of the king or queen or lord of the town, also to pay portions of royal fines, and satisfy many other claims which were periodically made upon them.
In some cases non-Guildsmen and outsiders were allowed to sell goods, upon condition that some toll was paid to the Guild. There was also some relaxation of rules granted at fair times, which enabled outsiders to trade within the restricted areas of towns and dries.
A good example of how selfishly the Guilds acted at times is shown by the following: "Also no foreign fishmonger, who brings fish to the market to sell, shall cut up his fish to sell, except with the permission of the stewards or bailiffs; and no foreigner can have license to do this if any guildsman has any fish to sell." Here is another example of an iniquitous rule: A non-Guildsman could not enter into partnership with a member of the brotherhood, nor was the former allowed to share profits with the latter in return for capital lent.
In Dublin the penalty for breaking the laws of the Guild was L40, one-half of which was paid to the heads of the Guild whose trade the breach affected, and the other half of the fine was handed over, part to the city and part to the finder of the offender, as a reward for services rendered.
To return to some of the curious rules of Guilds, which, as before pointed out, varied very greatly in different towns, it is interesting to note the following instances: No brother was allowed to keep more than one shop for retailing goods, wine, beer, or any other merchandise.
Bull-baiting being a favourite sport, it was enacted that no butcher be allowed to kill a bull until it had first been baited for the amusement of the people. No brother of the Guild was liable to be arrested by a common porter. It was an offence to entice from another any workman or servant, Journeymen were not allowed to be employed as such until they reached the age of twenty.
These instances are sufficient to illustrate how much medieval Guild methods and ideas differed from those of our own day.
It should be pointed out that Craft Guilds do not appear to have been established until some time after the Guild Merchant. They had, however, similar exclusive powers over the regulation of their own particular trades or industries, and held the monopoly of working in them. The Craft Guilds were subservient to the Guild Merchant, although brethren of the former were admitted to membership of the latter.
It has already been pointed out that the freedom of the Guild Merchant generally carried with it the freedom of the town, but in some cases certain rules were adopted to prevent the indiscriminate election of "Freemen," which rules were made with the object of preventing any Guildsman from being admitted to the freedom of the town, unless his application was supported by the Guild to which he belonged.
The constitution of the Guilds, particularly that of the Guild Merchant, as already stated, varied greatly, and depended very largely on the size of the town or city, as to the number of companies which were established. For instance, the Guild Merchant of Devizes consisted of three companies, viz., the Company of Drapers, the Company of Mercers and the Company of Leather-sellers. Into these three companies all the various trades were divided. At Dorchester tradesmen were divided into five companies, viz.. Merchants, Clothiers, Ironmongers, Fishmongers and Shoemakers and Skinners. At Ipswich the trades were, as late as Queen Elizabeth's reign, divided into four companies, and in order to show what varied trades were allied, the following list is given: 1-The Mercers. "All maryers, shipwrights, boke bynders, prynters, fyshemongers, swordsetters, cooks, ffletchers, arrow- hed-makers, phisitians, hatters, cappers, mercers, merchants " and several others. 2—The Drapers. "All joyners, taylors, carpenters, innholders, ffremasons, bryckelayers, tyiers, carryers, casket-makers, surgeons, clothyers" and five others. 3—The Taylors. "All cutlers, smyths, barbers, chandlers, pewterers, mynstrells, pedlars, plumbers, pynners, millers, millwrights, cowpers, shermen, glasiers, turners, tynkers, taylors" and two others. 4— The Shoemakers. "All curryers, color-makers, sadlers, poynters, coblers, skynners, tanners, butchers, carters and labourers." It was ordered that each company shall have an Alderman and two Wardens. All new comers had to become members of one of these companies at the discretion of the Bailiffs.
Attention should be directed to the trade "ffremason" which is included above in the Drapers Company. This is the only instance the writer has met with in the lists of trades, where masons are designated " ffremasons," but there are possibly many others to be found. As to whether any special importance should be given to this instance depends upon several matters, among which may be mentioned the late date of the companies, which had just been re-divided up in Queen Elizabeth's reign, and also the method of construction usually adopted in important buildings at this and prior to this date. Those who have noticed the churches in the neighbourhood of Ipswich, and in fact those of the eastern counties generally, will remember that the walling usually consists of flint work and free-stone dressings — that is to say, the traceried windows, parapets and mouldings generally are of wrought free-stone. It may therefore be argued that the term "ffremason" was an abbreviation of free- stone-mason, in order to distinguish them from the walling masons. However, this is one of those debatable points which may be argued in many ways. The fact that other masons are mentioned in the Ipswich re-division of trades, is certainly noticeable and may give the name "ffremason" a special character and meaning, this being the period of decline in the Guilds, and possibly also of the rise of Speculative Freemasonry.
Taking a rapid survey of the Guilds as they •were evolved in this country from about A.D. 1000, it will be seen that from small beginnings their operations, influence and power were gradually extended, until in the middle of the fifteenth century they had acquired almost absolute control over the whole trade of the land. To these organizations, therefore, may be attributed the credit of all the beautiful work which was carried out during mediaeval times, the excellence of which, in the opinion of most thoughtful people, will never again be equalled. From various causes a decline now set in, which gradually undermined the power of the Guilds. Prosecutions of defaulting brethren and others became more and more frequent as trade and commerce was forcibly widened. In some cases special laws were made to prevent brethren of the Guilds from carrying on a trade surreptitiously. Travelling Scotchmen, it appears, had to be watched with particular care. For instance, at Carlisle an order was made "that no brother of the Guild shall at any time suffer either Scotsmen or others to retail in his house, &c., &c., any commodity which may be prejudicial to the company of Merchants." Other persons not being Guildsmen were proceeded against for carrying on the trade of a grocer or a draper. As years passed by, it became more and more difficult to keep the various trades within the restricted compass of the Guilds, the brethren of which had no doubt, with a great amount of selfishness, kept such a tight hold on the methods of trading, that their exclusiveness brought with it its own condemnation. The Guilds, therefore, rapidly declined in a large number of towns and cities where, as a result, trade and commerce increased, but in some cities where the Guilds were particularly strong, the brethren struggled on until their trades were practically stifled. The tyranny of the Guilds was such in these cases, as to kill all enterprise and drive away trade to those places where the Guild laws had been relaxed, or perhaps to one of those free towns like Birmingham, Manchester, or Leeds, which were not hampered with the rigid protection exercised by Guilds, and prospered in consequence.
In comparatively modern days, therefore, the trade functions of the Guilds became quite obsolete, until the whole system was altered into that of fraternities of a social-religious character, established under the titles of patron saints, on whose festival or feast-days a solemn procession through the town, followed by a banquet, formed almost the last phase of these wonderful organizations.
To fully comprehend the importance of the rapid changes which were taking place in the sixteenth century, not only in Guild methods of conducting trade, but also in religious matters, with which the Guilds were closely allied, it is interesting to note how quickly events followed each other. The following illustration of what occurred in Leicester is only an example of this far reaching movement.
Leicester Abbey was dissolved in A.D. 1537. The College of St. Mary in the Newarke, the fraternities of the Grey Friars, the Augustinian Friars and the Black Friars were suppressed in 1545. The parish churches were stripped of all their adornments and imagery, and the priests' vestments, hangings, rood lofts and altars were sold in 1547. Lastly the whole of the religious Guilds were dissolved and made to suffer the same fate in 1548. Among these may be instanced the Guild of St. Margaret, St. Mary and St. Katherine, St. George's Guild, the Trinity Guild, the Guild of St. John the Baptist, the Guild of the Assumption and lastly the great Guild of Corpus Christi, the most wealthy of them all, which had gradually absorbed the old Merchant Guild. The whole of the valuable properties and possessions of these religious bodies was confiscated to the Crown, in accordance with various Acts of Parliament and Protestant worship was decreed for use in place of the elaborate ritual of the Church of Rome.
After the final dissolution of the Abbeys, Monasteries, Guilds and other religious houses it was evidently thought that this country might develop into a nation of thieves and robbers, unless some religious services were kept rigorously going. Consequently in Leicester it was decreed, in A.D. 1558 or only a few years after the dissolution of the Guilds by the Municipal body sitting in Common Hall, "that at least one person from every house in the town must attend each of the services held on Wednesdays and Fridays, under a penalty of four pence." These services were of course in addition to those of Sunday.
The Guilds disbanded; their trade monopolies gone; their Roman Catholic Christian doctrines prohibited. What more natural as the outcome of all this than the spontaneous growth of Freemasonry on a broader basis? A society where men of high ideals could meet together in peace and seclusion, without being trammelled by religious creeds on the one hand, or the selfish clamourings of trade rights on the other. With regard to the first great principle: It was now sufficient for candidates to admit their belief in God. This broad distinction on religion doubtless included then, as now, the great bulk of the human race. By a stroke of what may be termed Masonic genius the Godhead was called "The Great Architect of the Universe," or "The Grand Geometrician of the Universe," or some other equally broad description was used, practically admitting all creeds and all nationalities. When it is considered what a great religious upheaval was in progress at the period now under review, it can easily be understood what an immense stride towards the successful inauguration of new societies it must have been, to have found a common ground so far as religious differences were concerned. With regard to the second great principle: It was doubtless quite as necessary to prevent the formation of any societies which might have a tendency to act with great selfishness in matters of trading. Here again the Masonic genius of the day saw that this was only possible, by the new society prohibiting all material advantage coming within the expectations of any new member. The question, therefore, "Do you seriously declare on your honour that unbiassed, &c., &c.," and " uninfluenced by mercenary or other unworthy motives, you freely and voluntarily offer yourself, &c.," is very material, clearly indicating that Freemasonry must be entirely disassociated from any idea of personal material gain—a condition quite different from the principles of the old Trade Guilds, which were very largely kept going for the purpose of protecting trading rights and for self advantage.
In conclusion, consider what would be likely to happen when all these social-religious clubs were disbanded and their properties confiscated. The brethren were of course prohibited from holding meetings under the former conditions, and it would take some years to organize any new society to properly fill the places of those disbanded. Therefore the question is again submitted "What was more likely, as the ultimate outcome, than the formation of this new social-religious Guild of Freemasonry?" Are not historians too apt to be seeking the origin of such societies in records of distant ages and foreign countries, when possibly the real cause of their existence may be found in the ordinary desires of human beings to meet together in convivial fashion and for purposes of common good?