Figure 1.--A Tudor aprentice boys walking in front of his master at night. The drawing is from an article "A pagent of British boys" published in the 1930s. Image courtesy of the AM collection.
Guilds or associations of commoners began to achieve some importance in the 11th-12th centuries. European life in the 10th century was dominated by aristocratic rule and the Church. The guilds were organized similarly to feudal society with masters serving as a kind of feudal overlord. At a time before modern nation states, the guild help to order medieval society. There were two major types of guilds, merchant and craft guilds. The most inflential were the merchant guilds. They were the first secular challenge to the authority of Europe's feudal order. There were also craft ot trade guilds. These were associations in various industries, such as capenters, weavers, and others. Often the weaving guild was one of the most important as the weaving industry was such a major industry in the medieval world. Guild masters took own boys as apprentices. The masters were responsible for teaching their apprectices the craft. The master provided for their room and board and paid them a small subsistance wage. All these matters such as the payment to the master, wages, and years of apprenticeship were carfully agreed in advance. Apprentices are often associated with the cities, but there were also appretuces in villages as well where boys might earn skills like smithing, milling, and other skills.
European life in the 10th century was dominated by aristocratic rule and the Church. The guilds were organized similarly to feudal society with masters serving as a kind of feudal overlord. At a time before modern nation states, the guild help to order medieval society.
The different guilds set the terms of its craft: labor contracts, product standards, and
payment methods. The sucees of the guilds provide them the wealth to buy influence. This was especially possible in dealing with small municipalities. But in the 11th and 12th centuries many nobels, even kings, had limited power and need financial backing. Thus the wealthy guilds were able to establish their position by payments to nobels and even monarchs. Gradually their placed in medieval society became an accepted feature of European life. The craft guilds in some cases involved large numbers of people concentrated in the rusing ciies. This was epecially true of the weavers. There numbers and affluence could threten royal feudal authority. The weavers were especially powerful in the Low Countries and their were actual revolts such as in Bruges and Ghent. The guilds came to play a major role in the government of important medieval cities such as London and Paris, a role accepted by the monarchs of the day.
There were two major types of guilds, merchant and craft guilds.
The most inflential were the merchant guilds. They were the first secular challenge to the authority of Europe's feudal order. Associations of merchants began to form in Europe during the 11th century. Merchants were often poorly treated by the aristocratic feudal governments. The division of Europe into small often waring fedual enclaves had been a serious barrier to trade and commerce. Extentensive trade began to develop after the turn of th new millenium. As trade and commerce grew, the importance of the guilds in the growing towns increased in importance. In some areas the guild managed to acquire a role in government that had been totaly controlled by aristocrats. Some Italian merchant guilds actually came to dominate the governments of cities like Genoa and Florence. Merchant guild also became important in several countries (England, Germany, and other countries). Some guilds which came to dominate city life developed relationships or associations with other cities to promote trade and commerce. The most important such association was the Hanseatic League of northern Europe centered around the Baltic.
There were also craft ot trade guilds. These were associations in various industries, such as capenters, weavers, and others. Often the weaving guild was one of the most important as the weaving industry was such a major industry in the medieval world. These guilds expanded rapidly with quicening pace of commerce in the 12th century. The Crusades and the expansin of trade routes were importanat factors. These guilds competed or cooperated with the merchant guilds in Europe's expanding cities. The guilds for the most part were composed of masters, apprentices, and journeymen. The masters actually ownned the shops and workshops. Journeymen were youth or men who had completed their apprenticeships. Mny were competent artisans, but not yet masters because the guild limited the number of masters permited. The apprectices were nboys being trained in the craft.
Guild masters took own boys as apprentices. The masters were responsible for teaching their apprectices the craft. The master provided for their room and board and paid them a small subsistance wage. All these matters such as the payment to the master, wages, and years of apprenticeship were carfully agreed in advance. Apprentices are often associated with the cities, but there were also appretuces in villages as well where boys might earn skills like smithing, milling, and other skills.
Aprrentices were often recruited from neigboring villages surronding the growing cities. Medieval cities were o healthy places. Thus boys had to be recruited to meed the need for labor in the cities. The plague and other diseases descimated city populations throughout Europe.
Most appretices were boys. Girls for the most part were kept at home to assist their mother and be trained as wives and mothers, but not all. Some girls were also appreticed. Some girls were trained in various trades. not infrequently it was the master's wife who trained the girls. Women were not normally masters themselves, but they ften kne as much about the craft as their husbands. Some crafts were especially common for women, especially seamstress. While women could not be master, knoledge of a craft could make them a more valuablke marriage partner.
Medieval boys usually had little choice in their appreticeship and what craft they would study. Nor could they choose the master for who they would work. Here the boy's future was often determined by who his father was and the family connections. Perhaps his father had a friend in the same or adifferent craft willing to take on his son. There could also be connectins from grandfathers and uncles or even godfathrs. Boys with fathers with means had more options as they could offery higher fees to masters. The sons of guild masters were by Guild law automatically accepted into the Guild. In the medieval world it was expected that sons would follow fathers in their craft. Many sons would do apprenticeship with masters other than their fathers. This allowed them to learn skills and techniques to compliment what their father had already taught them.
There were, howevr, substantial variation among different crafts nd trades as well as in different areas of Europe. The apprentices were bound to individual master, not to the guilds. The guilds, however, played an important role in the appreniceship system because the guilds set the terms under which the apprentice contracts were draw. Apprentices were legally bound to their masters. Apprenticeships were formall arrangements. Boys and formal sponsors and contracts were signed. The Guilds required that bonds be posted that guarantee the apprentice met the agred expectations and completed the term expected. The sponsor was responsible for paying damages if the apprtice ran away or proved unsatisfactory. The masters often were paid an agreed amount of money. A boy's sponsor or father might pay a fee for a master take on a boy. This would help to defray the expences, especially when the boy was younger and without the skills to work productively.
An apprentice's relationship between a master and apretice were critical for a boy. An appretice lived in their master's household or in his shop. They normally ate with their master's own family. They were disciplined by their master. Many masters developed close emotional relationships with their apprectices not unlike fathers and sons. Boys not only learned a crft, but master helped form their characters. An appretice might even marry into the family. Some receive bequests in the mater's will. There were also cses of abuse. Some dispites were taken to court. Apprectices might be viciouslly beaten. An apprctice might steal from his masters. Some appretices ran away. It was not unknown for fathers or older brothers to tke on their sons or brothers as appretices, but this was not common. [Hanawalt, p. 147.]
The purpose of an apprenticeship was to learn a craft. The master was responsible for teacing the boy apprentices were there to learn a craft. The appretice was susopsed to be used primarily on assisnments to hlp him learn his craft. Some masters used apprentices for menial tasks insted of hiring employees. Some authors believe, however, that this was not common. A competent master would want to develop his aprentice as quockly as possible so he could be helpful in the shop. A master might, however, withhold some of his special touches or "secrets of thevtrade"
Apprecticeships were long-term arrangements. Appreticeships of 7-10 years were common. Medieval life spans were much shorter than in our modern life. A boy's apprenticeship thus made up an important part of a person's lifespan. After an appretice completed his training, a youth became a journeyman. He could then leave the masters shop and workmon his own or work for hismaster as an employee.
Boys were normally accepted in their early teens.
We have virtually no information on the clothing worn by apprentices. We do know that masters took on the responsibility for clothing their appretices. Styles of course varied over time. We do not know of any specific styles which identified boys as apprentices, butour information is very limited. There may have been some clothing that identified various trades. A HBC reader writes, "I am searching for information on the type of clothing worn by apprentices in the pewter trade. What would a young man have in the way of an apron, cap, pants and shirt? Would the clothing have been supplied by the master? Would any one piece of clothing been symbolic of the craft or his years as an apprentice?" While we believe that the clothing would have been supplied by the master, we have little additional information.
The growth of nationalism in Europe acted to restrict the influence of the guilds. Nation states began to coalese around monarchs vested with growning authority. Especially by the 15th and 16th centuries there was a groth of royal power. European monarchs for financial reasons wanted to establish control over the financial system of the country. This tended to impinge on areas that the guilds had controlled. a variety of developments began to undermine the influence of the guilds. Communcations improved and trade expanded. This imprived access to forign goods thus increasing competition. The decline of feudalism and rise of capitalism and the entreprenurial system further weaked the guilds. The guilds attempted to maintain the existing system and were not receptive to inovation methods of production. They attempted to maintain monopoly and high prices, but in the end were unable to compete. The power of the guilds had eroded significantly and largely disappeared in the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. France abolished the guilds during the French Revolution (1791). England revoked the privlidges of the guilds in the 19th century (1835). The Germans, Austrians, and Itlalians also abolished the guilds in the 19th century. The influence of guilds tended to persist longer in the stll feudal society of Eastern Europe and Russia.
One of the most powerful economic development in modern history was the Industrial Revolution. Much of the thrust of the Industrial Revolution was to reduce the cost of proucing goods by replacing skilled craftsmen with machinery and mechanical power like steam engines. As a result, apprecticeships became increasingly less important in the 18 and 19th centuries.
Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993).
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