Guilds had a long history. Depending upon your exact definition, a form of guilds can be traced back over 4,000 years. By the twentieth century all but a few guilds had disappeared and the handful that remain had altered greatly. A major factor in their disappearance was industrialization.

The following is a very basic outline applicable to most European guilds. It is intended as a starting point only. Anyone intending to write about guilds in a particular city will need to do research into those specific guilds and cities. Guild rules and practices varied by region, country, city, and time.

The Steps to Becoming a Guild Master

Step One:

Apprenticeship—a boy between 12 to 16 years old goes into a master’s household for training. The family pays the master to train their son. Depending upon distances, the apprentice might go home to his family Saturday afternoon and return to the master Sunday evening. If the master is in a smaller village the apprentice might stay at home, reporting to the master every morning. The apprentice is not paid for the work he does.

Apprenticeship is a legal contract between the boy’s family and the master. Basically, apprenticeship lasted until the master agreed that the apprentice was ready to be a journeyman. This might be anywhere from one year to ten. On the other hand, a master might declare that an apprentice was unfit to ever become a journeyman, in which case the young man was dismissed. A dismissed apprentice’s family was unlikely to find another master willing to take him on.

The master is charged with training the apprentice in the craft and seeing that he has schooling in general education and business education (such as basic bookkeeping) so that the boy will be prepared to run his own shop. If the boy lives with the master, then the master is responsible for feeding and clothing him during the apprenticeship. The master may hire the apprentice out to another master or to a farmer with the boy’s wages coming to the master. Hiring out to non-guild members was generally frowned on if not actually against most guilds’ rules, but appears to have happened with fair regularity.

The only rules that appeared to be universal among almost all guilds were that for a child to be acceptable for apprenticeship the child had to be of legitimate birth and male.

Step Two:

Journeyman—a young man of 16 to 25 + years old who has been determined to have reached a certain level of training and leaves the master who trained him. At this time he may “journey” around from town to town, working for different masters, learning different techniques. More importantly, he looks for a town that has room for another master. Journeymen work for wages and to learn new techniques from different masters. Journeymen were not allowed to marry.

The usual time from being apprenticed to being a journeyman ready to apply for mastership was considered to be seven years regardless of the craft. The minimum time was considered to be three years. It rarely mattered.

Some guilds required a journeyman to “tramp,” that is, move around for a minimum time, usually three years, before trying for his mastership. Again, there were many exceptions. A journeyman who was the son of a master in a large city might “tramp” no further than to a couple of other masters within the same city before coming back to his father’s shop. Less well-connected journeymen did move around and some went far from home.

Step Three:

Master—a man of 22 to ?. The journeyman has been working for a master and has produced a “masterwork” that showcases his abilities. In a town or city with multiple masters of a single trade, several of the masters needed to agree that the work was of masterwork level. They also had to agree that there was room for one more master to set up shop. A master sets up his own shop, takes on apprentices, hires, and promotes or fires journeymen.

New masters had to set up their own shops as no master was allowed to work for another master. In some cases, the new master might be able to partner with an older master who had no son to take over the established shop rather than set up on his own. Upon becoming a master, a man also had to marry at once. Often the ceremony granting his master’s license was immediately followed by a marriage ceremony. So, add into the requirements for becoming a master the requirement for enough money to both set up a shop and marry.

A journeyman might also marry the widow of the master he was working for, take over the business and, de facto, be accepted as a master. If the town had no room for another master of his trade, the journeyman must travel on, seeking a place where he can become a master.

There were no set ages or set tests to determine any level. If a journeyman produced what he considered a masterwork, there was no guarantee that the master would accept it. In that case, all the journeyman could do was move on to another master and try again.

A journeyman didn’t really “train” for his mastery. He tried to find a master that A) would hire him, B) had a technique that the journeyman didn’t know, C) would accept the journeyman’s work as being master level, or D) was sick and/or elderly and without heirs, and had a wife the journeyman can marry upon the master’s death, or any combination of these. If a journeyman hadn’t become a master by the time he was in his thirties, the chance that he would achieve that level dropped to nearly zero. Option D was about all that was open to him.

One last hurdle to becoming a master was that the journeyman had to be acceptable for citizenship of the city he was seeking his mastership in. If he wasn’t, he didn’t become a master and had to find another city that would accept him as a citizen and another master who would hire him.

Should the journeyman be the master’s son, his progress from journeyman to master was assured. He would still be expected to go out for a while and work for other masters but the rules on this varied. Guild rules were not always applied equally nor did guild practices always match guild rules.

The Power of the Guilds

Were the guilds powerful or weak? The guilds could and did have the power to regulate who became an apprentice, journeyman, and master. They could fine masters and journeymen for violating guild rules and regulations. Disputes between members of a guild were mediated by that guild. Guilds could dictate what goods carried the guild stamp. They could set prices for their own goods and, often, the prices paid for raw materials used to make their goods. In many places they could prevent goods made outside their city from being sold within the city.

Most of the guilds’ rights and powers varied from chapter to chapter. Each guild chapter had to be chartered by the city it existed in and that guild chapter’s powers only applied within that city. The charter spelled out exactly what the guild had the power to do and what it did not. The exact wording of these charters depended upon what the masters of the town’s guild chapter considered important and what they were able to negotiate with the city council. Thus the glove makers’ guild chapter in City A might have the power to exclude the sale of all gloves made elsewhere while the chapter in City B could only limit the number of outside gloves that could be sold. City C’s chapter might be able to control the number of outside gloves being sold and force them to be sold for a set price.

Chapter charters were renegotiated from time to time and the powers granted that guild chapter would be changed. A city could revoke a guild charter. A local noble could declare piece of land he owned outside the city to be a “guild-free” zone and the guild chapters within the city were legally powerless to do anything about it.

Each guild chapter could control only what happened within the city it was chartered in. The glove makers’ guild in City C had no say in what the glove makers’ guild in City A did. No city-chartered guild could control what went on in the rural regions around it. The best that they could do would be to forbid or limit any goods not made by themselves from being sold within their own city—if their charter allowed that. One problem that the guilds were already facing in the seventeenth century was that their charters did not extend into the suburbs growing up around cities.

A few guild chapters had regional charters that did allow them control of guild-related things in all the state. These regional charters only existed as long as the state ruler(s) decided that they could. As with city charters, those regional guild chapters only had those powers that they could negotiate with the state’s ruler.

Guild chapters from several cities in a region could and did work together to lobby the region’s ruler for a wide range of things pertaining to their guild. Different craft guilds also might form alliances within a city or region and lobby. What did they lobby for? In some cases it was to force all raw material producers to sell only to them and at set prices and quotas.

The guilds lobbied city and state councils, offered bribes and loans to officials and princes. Cooperation amongst guilds was not the rule. Just as often the various craft guilds were busily lobbying against each other and against the merchant guilds.

The guild masters were socially, religiously, and politically active. They had money. They had influence. They were prominent citizens of their cities. Guild masters were found on church and city councils. In some cities you had to be a guild master to be on the city council. As prominent, wealthy, and influential citizens, they did have considerable say in what happened within their cities. They were not, however, all-powerful. At any time a non-Imperial city or town council could alter their charters and remove the rights of any and all guilds within the town.

In the sixteenth century Charles V stripped the guilds of their charters in Imperial cities. It can be argued that his move broke the guilds’ political power. There is absolutely no reason that the USE cannot and will not do the same thing. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the USE will strip the rights of guilds in Imperial cities.

The guilds sponsored feasts, dances, entertainments, and all manner of social and church functions. Events might be limited to members of a particular guild, or to all of city’s guild members, or be open to the public.

Guilds and Women

Women were not allowed to become members of guilds. Period. Fini. No way. Yeah, really. However, there is much evidence that women did do guild work and even ran shops as masters. How can this be when the rules absolutely forbade it? The widow of a master was allowed to continue to run his shop and they often did. The guilds might encourage the widows to remarry a likely journeyman or widowed master but it appears that they rarely attempted to force them.

Unofficially, women produced guild products. At some times certain products such as woven woolen goods appear to have been made more by women and other “non-guild” workers than by guild workers. The practice was frowned on, fined, grumbled over, but continued with a wink and a nod.

Many illustrations and paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth century show a guild master’s wife working along side him, doing the same work. In these and other illustrations, daughters as well as sons can be found toiling away at their father’s craft.

Despite these proofs that women did do guild work, almost all guild rules banned females from guild membership.

There were, however, a very few guilds that did allow a form of limited mastership to women. As seen above, widows of guild masters were allowed to run their husband’s shop. There is evidence that a painter’s guild in Holland allowed female masters but closely regulated what materials and methods they could use.

As stated before, anyone intending to write about guilds in a particular city will need to do research into those specific guilds and cities—especially when it comes to their attitudes toward women working in the guild.

Industrialization vs. Guilds

Developing industries wanted workers and most of the industrial jobs required little training. Under the guilds a boy underwent anything from three to seven years of training before he began earning any money. His family had to pay a master to take the boy on as an apprentice. Poor families could send a boy into industry and, instead of having to pay for his training, that boy would be earning wages from the start.

The growth of industrialization rang the final death knell for the guilds as they had been. As a note, what is known as “proto-industrialization” had been putting pressure on the guilds before the advent of the Ring of Fire. For this and various other reasons the guilds were already in decline throughout most of Europe.

Guilds vs. Unions

Some confusion may occur because the unions adopted the terms apprentice, journeyman, and master to indicate levels of abilities. However, under unions, there are standard tests that determine who gets what title. A member of the UMWA in Kentucky faces the same tests as a member in West Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Most unions use a combination of on the job training and classes to determine which apprentices can take the test for journeyman. Under most union rules, apprentices cannot work alone but may work under either a journeyman or master of their trade.

Similarly, for most unions, a journeyman has to spend a certain amount of time working as a journeyman as well as attending classes before he can sit the test for master.

Once more, the above is in no way complete. It is intended only as a basic outline to help authors. The guild system had as many exceptions as it had rules. How the guilds were run in England varied from the way they were run in France and both differed from what happened in Germany, Holland, Spain, Italy, Poland, etc. Anyone intending to write about guilds in a particular city will need to do research into those specific guilds and cities.