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Merchant and Craft Guilds
A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades
Part I. Chapter I - Introductory


In tracing the origin and development, and in ascertaining the true character and influence of the different classes of trade guilds that up to a recent period played so important a part in the industrial and social life of almost every town and village in Europe, many difficulties have had to be encountered. There has been no lack of antiquarian and historical research, but much of the material necessary to satisfactory inquiry has disappeared, and, in consequence, there has been considerable difference of opinion in regard to their true scope and functions. Most writers on the subject frankly admit that, to a, considerable extent, they have been groping in the dark, while several have evidently taken up a preconceived theory or idea, and manipulated their historical material accordingly. The death of Toulmin Smith, in the midst of his elaborate work of research among the ancient Guilds of London and England, is a matter for deep regret, but he has left behind him a vast amount of material which has greatly helped to throw light on the darkness with which the early history of communities has been surrounded. Lugo Brentano, of Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, has also pursued his researches into this interesting subject with a success that none have been able to excel ; and from the works of these writers, as well as from the writings of such standard historians as Hallam, Froude, Freeman, and others, much interesting information may be gleaned.

Considering the important part that religious, commercial, and industrial Guilds have played in civilised life for so many centuries, it is a matter of surprise that so little attention has been given to them by historians, compared with the attention given to records of dynasties, ruling families, great battles, and civil and religions revolutions. Most of our historians content themselves with mere incidental references to the industrial life of the people, not so much from any desire to ignore it, but mainly from a want of reliable historical data to work upon. The history of any period, or nation, and especially of towns must necessarily be incomplete which does not take full cognisance of its Guild life, so intimately associated is it with the religious, the social, the inner, and common life of the people. In the Guild life we can trace civilisation to its cradle. In very early times these Guilds or associations were like the people themselves, rude and simple in their organisation, but they all sprang from the one common instinct of men seeking strength, by union or combination. As civilisation developed, the Guilds developed; they changed in character and scope as new wants arose, and adapted themselves to the continual and progressive march of civilisation. The modern combinations of to-day, such as friendly societies, trades unions, and trading companies of all kinds, are but a further development of ancient Guild life, rendered necessary by the freer, broader, and more enlightened ideas of modern times.

A considerable amount of valuable information has been collected by successive Royal Commissions that have inquired into the history of the London Guilds. Mr. Herbert, the laborious librarian of the Corporation of London, made a very exhaustive inquiry, and his information has been largely supplemented by the reports furnished by the various Livery Companies. It is necessary, however, to bear in mind that these reports were prepared for a special purpose, and historical impartiality has at times been sacrificed for the purpose of serving the particular end in view. But, with the knowledge of this tendency before us, we can easily extract sufficient material of a reliable character from the reports of these Royal Commissions to serve our present purpose; and with regard to the points on which such eminent historians as Hallam and Freeman, Brentano and Toulinin Smith differ, we must be content to leave them until further inquiry and research has thrown more light upon them.

In the etymology of the word guild—or gild, as the German authorities prefer to spell it—we have some light thrown on the origin of the institution. Gild, or geld, is Old English for a set payment or contribution, from zeldan or zyldan, to pay (from which the present word yield is derived) ; the primary meaning being payment, and the company of those who paid becoming known by this chief title to membership. Thus, also (according to the Encyclopcedia Britantnica) glide, Danish and Low German, in the sense of a contributory company of this kind; gjalda or gildi, Icelandic, a payment, and gildi., also meaning a banquet. In the opinion of some authorities the word thus derived is better spelt without the u, but a colour is given to the ordinary modern form of Guild by deriving it (as in Wedgewood's English Etymology) from the Welsh or Breton, Gouil, a feast or a holiday—givylad, keeping a holiday. In Aberdeen down to quite a recent period the word was uniformly spelt gild.

The name Guild has been almost exclusively applied in Scotland to the associations or organisations formed by the merchant class of the community. The Craft-associations were simply designated by the name of the particular craft to which their members belonged, such as, "The Weavers," "The Bakers," "The Wrights," &c. In more recent times they were spoken of as "The Weaver Trade," "The Baker Trade," &c., while it is quite a common practice now to style them "Weaver Incorporation," "Baker Incorporation," and so on. The word Incorporation was brought into use in connection with the Craft,-Guilds when the craftsmen in a particular town incorporated themselves together under a deacon-convener, and established a Convener Court, or Convenery, to look after matters that were common to all the different crafts. Thus we may speak of "The Aberdeen Incorporated Trades," or "The Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen," but in speaking of an individual trade it would have been far more appropriate if the name which is used on the continent and in many parts of England had been adopted, namely, "The Guild of Weavers;" and we should then have had the appropriate title of "The Aberdeen Incorporated Craft-Guilds," a designation that would have been understood wherever Guilds are known.

Summing up the result of his inquiry into the origin of all the different classes of Guilds, Brentano states that "the family appears as the first Gild, or at least as the archetype of Gilds. Originally its providing care satisfies all existing wants, and for other societies there is, therefore, no room. As soon, however, as wants arise which the family can no longer satisfy—whether on account of their peculiar nature, or in consequence of their increase, or because its activity grows feeble—closer artificial alliances immediately spring forth to provide for them in so far as the State does not do it. Infinitely varied as are the wants which call them forth, so are naturally the objects of these alliances. Yet the basis on which they all rest is the same; all are unions between man and man, not mere associations of capital like our modern societies and companies. The cement which holds them together is the feeling of solidarity, the esteem for each other as men, the honour and virtue of the associations, and the faith in them—not an arithmetical rule of probabilities indifferent to all good and bad personal qualities. The support which the community affords a member is adjusted according to his wants—not according to his money state, or to a jealous debtor and creditor account. In short, whatever and however diverse may be their aims, the Gilds take over from the family the spirit which held it together and guided it; they are its faithful image, though only for special and definite objects." Here we have the essential difference pointed out between the Guilds in their earlier forms, and the associations and combinations of modern days; and in proportion as the Guilds became mere money-making institutions—in some instances, embarking upon industrial and commercial undertakings—in so far did they fall away from their original character and constitution. As a rule they invested their money in land in the immediate neighbourhood of towns, hence the wealth and influence which many of them acquired. It is roughly estimated, for instance, that over one half of the land on which Aberdeen is built is held by the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen, while the enormous wealth of the London Craft Guilds is in a great measure due to the purchase of land on which modern London is built.

The Greek and Roman Empires both furnish examples of Guilds bearing a strong resemblance to the Medieval Guilds of Europe. Much controversy has taken place as to whether or not the ilediheval Guilds were a survival of the Roman Collegia ohificum. In his notes to "Cicero de Senectute," Mr. Reid says that the resemblance of the Collegia to the London Guilds is, in many respects, not excluding that of hospitality, very striking; and in his "History of the :Biddle Ages" Mr. Pearson remarks that, "in spite of the English names under which we know them, it is pretty certain that they only continued the old Roman Collegia of the trades;" while Dr. Mommsen directs attention to a letter from Pliny to Trajan, and the Emperor's reply thereto, respecting the establishment of a Guild of smiths (fabri or fabbri) at Nicomedia. Among the Greeks, too, in the second and third centuries B.C., associations known as Eranoi, or Theasoi existed; and although Professor Newton, of the British Museum, contends that these associations were distinctly religious communities, and not in any sense Craft Guilds, there are others who consider that they were not so strictly confined to matters of religion as Professor Newton endeavours to make out. One writer mentions that the Erctnoi were numerous at Rhodes, in the islands of the Archipelago, at the Pilaus, and in other important places. These societies, he adds, partook more nearly of the character of the Mediaeval Guilds than those of the Romans. The members paid contributions to a general fund, aided one another in necessity, provided for funerals, met in assembly to deliberate on their affairs, and celebrate feasts and religious sacrifices in common. Strict rules against disorderly conduct were enforced by fine, and he who did not pay his yearly quota to the society was excluded unless he could show cause by poverty or sickness. "Some of these societies," he goes on to say, "concerned themselves with religion, others with politics and commerce; in the cause of liberal, as opposed to official, religion they appear to have done good service. In both the Greek and Roman Guilds we find the same motives at work—weakness seeking the power of numbers to resist oppression; and the affinity which those possessing the same occupation and the same interests have in each other." These are the underlying forces that have operated in all countries, and in all ages, in bringing Guilds into existence. and are sufficient to account for the existence of the Erunoi in Greece contemporary with the Collegia of the Romans; and, further, they are sufficient to explain how, although the Collegia opificum, or Artisans' Guilds, are found as late as the code of Justinian, we have, fifty or sixty years later in the 6th century, says the writer already quoted, a record of a soapmakers' craft in Naples (letter of Pope Gregory the Great) ; also that the Guild in the towns of Italy should begin to show a new life in the 10th century (Hegel). They also explain why in England we find, from the 7th to the 10th century, other Guilds actively in existence, while in Norway they were instituted in the 11th century. These societies " may thus have one history in China, another in India, another in Greece or Rome, another in Europe of the Middle Ages; the like needs all require the same kinds of help, and develop institutions which, amid whatever diversities of outward garb, will substantially fulfil the same end." Mr. E. A. Freeman is one of those who are of opinion that no actual connection can be traced between the ancient Collegia and the Guilds of the Middle Ages. "The gap between the Roman and English periods is hidden," he says, "by the blackness of darkness which shrouds our settlement in Britain, and which, to those who have eyes, teaches much more clearly than any light could what the nature of that settlement really was. Had there been any continuity between the institutions of the two periods, that blackness and darkness could hardly have been." The question of continuity, however, is not of the first importance. We need not be so much concerned about the continuity as with the fact that institutions similar to those which existed in many parts of Europe and in our own country in the Middle Ages, existed at the time of the Roman Empire; and of that fact there can be no doubt whatever.

Guilds have been divided into three classes—Religious or, Social Guilds, Merchant Guilds, and Craft Guilds—but the distinction must be regarded as more of a general than of a precise nature. They each partook, to a inure or less extent, of the character of the other. Religious or Social Guilds were, in some instances, Merchant and Trade Guilds ; while Merchant and Trade Guilds were always associated--especially the earlier Guilds—with religious observances and religious rites and ceremonies. And, in the same way, the Merchant Guilds and the Craft Guilds were interwoven with each other, the one overlapping the other in their aims and objects. The further back we go, the more do we find the religious element predominating in all Guilds; and in countries where religious influence most predominated, we also find that the Guilds possessed in proportion a larger share of the religious element. In pre-reformation times especially, in Merchant and Craft Guilds alike, the religious element is a strongly marked feature of their constitution. Each Guild had its patron saint; its ordinances provided for statutory religious observances; attendance at church or mass was made obligatory on the members; and in most of the larger Guilds there was a regularly appointed chaplain to conduct services at the stated meetings, and to look after the spiritual interests of the members and their households. Brentano holds that the first societies formed " were the sacrificial unions, from which, later on, the religious Guilds were developed for association in prayer and good works. Then, as soon as the family could no longer satisfy the need for legal protection, unions of artificial family members were formed for this purpose, as the State was not able to afford the needful help in this respect. These, Guilds, however, had their origin in direct imitation of the family. Most certainly none were developed from an earlier-- religious union; as little were the Roman Collegia opificum from the Roman sacrificial societies, or the Craft Guilds from the Guild Merchants, or any Trades Unions from a Craft Guild."

The Merchant Guilds in Medieval times had always, more or less, an aristocratic leaning. They associated themselves with the ruling powers much more than the Craftsmen did. A general opinion, and that adopted by the Royal Commission of 1882, is "that originally the Guild Merchants was an association of the owners of the land on which the town was built, and of owners of estates in the neighbourhood. Many of the patrician families engaged in business pursuits in the towns, and became in this way associated with the Merchant Guilds. Eventually, however, the aristocratic municipality had, in almost every case, to give way, though in some instances not till after a long and fierce struggle, to the general body of the citizens as represented by the more plebeian Craft Guilds. In London the victory of the popular party had become assured as early as the reign of Edward II." Even to this day, with the exception, perhaps, of London, we see a closer association between the Merchant Guilds and the municipalities than there exists in the case of the Craft Guilds. The latter, on account of the supervision they had to exercise over their own members iii all matters connected with their crafts, had to form independent associations ; while the Merchant Guilds, having more general interests and possessing a wealthier class of members, became more closely associated with the governing bodies.

When communities first began to take form there was no definite dividing line between the merchants and craftsmen. The craftsmen were admitted to equal privileges with the merchants if they were possessed of land of a certain value within the territory of the town. Almost everywhere the craftsmen traded in the raw material with which they worked, the separation between the trader or merchant and the handicraftsmen being a gradual process. When referring to the causes that separated the two classes, ]Brentano speaks in anything but flattering terms of the Merchant Guilds. "By the enjoyment of power," he says, "the descendants of the Frith Guild (from which the Merchant Guild sprang) became proud, ambitious, and tyrannical. The freer and more independent the burghers became, and the less they needed assistance from the general body of the crafts for the defence of liberties acquired, and the obtaining of fresh ones, the greater was the degree in which this degeneration of the original noble spirit seems to have taken place." The fight for supremacy was often keen and Litter. Many a bloody fight took place in towns on the Continent. For instance, at Magdeburg in the year 1301 ten Aldermen of the Craft Guilds were burned alive in the market place. After the Cologne weavers had lost "The Weavers' Battle" against the ruling families on November 21, 1371, thirty-three weavers were executed ; and on the day after, houses, churches, and monasteries were searched; all craftsmen who were found concealed were murdered; and, lastly, eighteen hundred of them were exiled with their wives and children, and their hall was demolished. Reference will afterwards be made to the many conflicts that took place in Aberdeen when we cone to deal with the Aberdeen Trades. In London the struggle ended in the complete victory of the Craft Guilds. So completely did they obtain the mastery that, in the time of Edward II., no person —whether an inhabitant of the city or otherwise—could be admitted to the freedom of the city unless he were a member of one of the trades or mysteries. In Norton's "Commentaries of London" the find it recorded that "in the 49th Edward III. an enactment passed the whole assembled commonality of the city, by which the right of election of all city dignitaries and officers, including members of Parliament, was transferred from the ward representatives to the trading companies."

In nearly all the oldest towns throughout Europe we find that the Guilds preceded the more extended governing body for the community generally—that, in fact, the Guilds existed prior to the formation of Town Councils or municipalities. .Many of the Guilds had charters of confirmation or recognition from the Crown prior to the time that regular charters were granted to the burghs as such. In some instances the two might have come together; but the records of the oldest towns in England, and in Scotland also, show that the power of regulating the special trading privileges was merely delegated by the Crown to the local governing bodies when the latter were brought into existence. Discussing this particular point, Hallam, in his "View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages," refers to the acuteness of Thierry in discovering the origin of the communities in the north of France. "Thierry," says Hallam, "deduces them from the old Teutonic institution of Guilds or fraternities by voluntary compact, to relieve each other in poverty or to protect each other from injury. Two essential characteristics belonged to their: the common payment and the common purse. They had also in many instances a religious, sometimes a secret ceremonial, to knit more firmly the bond of fidelity. They became as usual suspicious to Governments, as several capitularies of Charlemagne prove. But they spoke both to the heart and to the reason in a voice which no Government could silence. They readily became connected with the exercise of trades, with the training of apprentices, with the traditional rules of art. We find them in all Teutonic and Scandinavian countries, they are frequently mentioned in our Anglo-Saxon documents, and are the basis of those corporations which the Norman Kings recognised or founded." It is also true, as Hallam remarks further on, that the Guild was in its primary character a personal association; it was in the State, but not the State ; it belonged to the city without embracing all its citizens; its purposes were for the good of the fellows alone. But while they did not embrace all the citizens, those outside them had no separate or independent municipal or corporate existence. And to this conclusion it is evident that Hallam comes in the end, when he says —" From the private Guild possessing already the vital spirit of faithfulness and brotherly love, sprang the main community; the body of citizens bound by a voluntary but perpetual obligation to guard each other's rights against the thefts of the weak and the tyranny of the powerful."

The nature and objects of the Guilds support the view that they were established in the earliest stages of civilisation. As self-protection is the first instinct of the individual, so we also find it to be the case with groups of individuals. No sooner did the art of a craft become known, than the instinct of protection and self-preservation by means of common counsel and combined action asserted itself. Rude and elementary though these associations must have been originally, they rapidly unproved in organisation; they became possessed of wealth and property; and formed the basis of the wider and more popular forms of government for the inhabitants generally. And, to a considerable extent, the same spirit or desire for protection is manifested in newly formed communities in our own colonies. Protection is their infant cry, as protection has been the infant cry of all new countries and peoples over the civilised world.

During the reign of Richard II. an inquiry was made into the origin and development of Guilds, and although much of the record thus made has been lost, portions have been brought to light again by the Early English Text Society. An important result of that inquiry was confirmation of the opinion that " the Trade Guilds have in all countries attracted more attention than the rest, on account of their wealth and influence. They were of two orders—Guilds-Merchant and Craft Guilds. The Guild Merchant arose in this way. The same men who had possession of town lands were frequently also traders, and the uncertain state of society in early times naturally caused them to unite for protection of their trade interests in a gilder mercatolia, which made internal laws akin to those of other Guilds. The success of their private interests enlarged their influence, and when the towns and boroughs obtained confirmation of their municipal life by charter, they took care to have it included that the men of the place should also have their Guild Merchant. Thus these Guilds obtained the recognition of the State; in their origin they had been as other Guilds, partaking especially of the character of Peace Guilds; but now the citizens and the Guild became identical, and what was Guild law often became the law of the town." In great cities such as London and Florence, says Norton, we do not hear of the Merchant Guild; there the separate occupations or crafts early asserted their associating power and independence, and the Craft Guilds gradually took a place in the regulation of the town government. Many Craft Guilds, the heads of which were concerned in the government of the commune, are found in Italy between the 9th and 12th centuries. "But in England and the north of Europe, the Guilds Merchant during this period, having grown rich and tyrannical, excluded the landless men of the handicrafts; those then uniting among themselves, there arose everywhere by the side of the Guilds Merchant, the Craft Guilds, which gained the upper hand in the struggle for liberty in the 13th and 14th centuries."

This was more especially the case on the Continent, where severe struggles were frequent between the inhabitants and the municipalities established by this class of Guilds, but in almost every case the general body of the citizens, as represented by the more plebeian Craft Guilds, threw off the power of the Merchant Guilds. These Merchant Guilds do not appear to have ever obtained much hold in this country. Even in London it is doubtful if they ever had a predominating influence in the municipality. The Bishop of Chester, a recognised authority on the constitution of the municipality of London, says:—"During the Norman period London appears to have been a collection of small communities, manors, parishes, church tokens, and guilds held and governed in the usual way; the manors descending by inheritance; the church jurisdictions exercised under the bishop, the chapter, and the monasteries and the guilds administered by their own officers and administering their own property; as holding in chief of the king, the lords of the franchises, the prelates of the churches, and even the aldermen of the guilds, where the guild possessed estates, might bear the title of barons. It was for the most part, an aristocratic constitution, and had its unity, not in the municipal principal, but in the system of the shire."


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