Home / West in the Middle Ages 481 A.D. - 1485 A.D. / The Town and the Guild 1100 -1382

The Town and the Guild 1100 -1382

ONE FINE SPRING MORNING, in the French town of Troyes, in the county of Champagne, a bell rang out through the clear air. The people streaming along the road to the town knew why the bell was ringing; it signaled the start of another day of the fair. Now they walked faster or whipped up their horses, anxious not to miss any of the excitement. Most of them were merchants, who had come to buy the goods that were on display. Some were lords and ladies, who hoped to find gleaming silks from the Orient, or fine Spanish leather, or rich furs from Russia. The rest were peasants and workmen; they had little money to spend, but they might buy a few small things and they would enjoy the clowns, minstrels and jugglers who performed for the crowds on the streets.


The fairs of Champagne, held at several towns in that county, had their beginning early in the twelfth century and continued for more than two hundred years. The feudal lords of Champagne, who were called counts, realized that the fairs brought many benefits to them and their people and wisely did everything they could to make Champagne a center of trade. They built spacious warehouses and pavilions for the storage and display of merchandise. To make it easier for merchants from various parts of the world to do business, the counts set up booths where the money of one territory could be exchanged for the money of another. They established a special court to settle disputes over business dealings and their troops protected travelers from the bandits who roamed the roads. The counts themselves profited from all this, for they collected fees from the merchants and traders who took part in the fair.

Champagne’s location made it easy to reach from any direction. Italian and Swiss merchants could come over the Alps through the St. Bernard pass. Traders from the south could come up the Rhöne River. From the west, Champagne could be reached by way of two more rivers, the Loire and the Seine and from the north by three — the Meuse, the Moselle and the Rhine.


So the fairs at Champagne, held throughout the year, became the most important in Europe. Silks, woolens, linen, leather, wine, furs, articles of iron, spices — all were sold at Champagne. There were fairs in other towns as well. Paris had a fair that was famous throughout Europe. In England, fairs were held at St. Giles, St. Ives, Bartholomew and Stourbridge; in Flanders, at Ypres, Lille, Thourout and Bruges.

The success of the fairs was part of the rise in trade that took place in the later centuries of the Middle Ages — and the rise in trade led to the growth of towns. In the early days of feudalism, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there had been little growth of towns. The decaying roads made travel difficult and the communities were isolated, cut off from one another. Everything they needed, they produced for themselves — food, clothing, weapons and household goods.


Slowly, over the years, this isolation was broken down. Italian cities on the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas, such as Venice, Genoa and Pisa, began trading with the Byzantine Empire. To their busy ports ships brought the products of the East, including spices, medicines and luxury goods such as perfumes, pearls, ivory and silks. The Crusades also helped to open up new channels of trade between the East and the West.


A new class of men came into being, men who were not lords nor knights nor clergymen nor craftsmen. They were the merchants who made long and difficult journeys to seaports, bought the goods brought in by ship and transported the goods for sale to the cities and towns of Europe. To avoid the bad roads and the robbers that infested them, they began to travel by water, over the many rivers of the continent. By boat and barge they went throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. Some merchants, finding a community they particularly liked and needing the protection of a powerful lord, decided to settle down and open shops.


As trade increased and more shops were opened, the towns grew. Other things, too, helped the towns grow. A new monastery or cathedral might be built and it would attract scholars and pilgrims, as well as church officials. And serfs from nearby villages, seeking freedom, fled to the towns. Among them were craftsmen, who found that they could earn a living by making clothing or pottery or furniture and selling it to their neighbors.

In time, the feudal rulers came to welcome the growth of towns in their domains. They found that they could add to their wealth by placing taxes on commercial enterprises. They also found that the goods on sale in the towns added to the comfort of their lives.

During the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, monarchs and noblemen began issuing charters for towns, in return for a sum of money plus a yearly rental fee. Kings were especially eager to grant town charters, both to bring in money and to insure themselves of the town’s loyalty. In most of the charters, the lords agreed to consider the town’ s land as free land. This meant that all residents of the town became freemen after living there for a year and a day. “Town air is free air,” people said, and to breathe the free air of the towns, many serfs ran away from the manorial villages where they were held in bondage. To protect their independence, some towns banded together and in this way were formed the Lombard League in northern Italy and the Hanseatic League in Germany.


Although the merchants who attended the fairs came from many different places, the towns they returned to were much alike in their general plan. Around every town was a high wall and a moat, with drawbridges at the gates. Near the main gate stood the gallows and often, as a warning to criminals, the body of a condemned man was left hanging there, or his head was cut off and stuck on one of the spikes over the gate.


Within the wall, except for one street that ran around the entire town, the streets were narrow and crooked. The houses were usually two or three stories tall, although some were as high as seven stories, with overhanging upper stories that cast deep shadows over the unpaved streets. All day long the towns were filled with noise and bustle. Merchants and craftsmen were busy in the open shops. They had little time to glance at the people passing by — peasants carrying live chickens or a basket of eggs, monks in their brown or black habits, students in their billowing gowns, beggars in tags, dawdling schoolboys and housewives doing their shopping. They had to press back against the walls to make way for carts or horsemen, or noble ladies in litters carried by four attendants. Dogs and pigs were everywhere, feeding on the garbage that was tossed out of the windows, often without warning.

At the center of each town was the paved public square, where markets were held and the people gathered for festivals and processions. On one side of the square stood the cathedral or the town’s largest church; on the other sides were the town hall and the halls of the guilds, the associations of merchants and craftsmen.

Townspeople rose early and went to bed early. If they had to go out after dark, they carried lanterns or torches, for there were no street lights. Mostly they stayed indoors; night was the time when robbers lurked in the shadows and watchmen and guards were few.

Day or night, there was always the danger of fire and disease. The houses were jammed closely together and fire spread quickly from one to another. In some towns, watchmen carried long hooked poles to pull down burning houses that threatened their neighbors.

Disease spread as quickly as fire, and epidemics called Plagues, were common. Worst of all was the Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that spread throughout Europe in 1348 – 49, striking down millions of people. Those who could, fled from the towns and cities, where carts rumbled through the streets, piled high with the bodies of the dead.


In spite of fire and disease, the towns grew — and the guilds grew with them. The guilds were first started by merchants, to protect themselves against outside competition. They had strict control of all trade within a town and they regulated prices, the quality of goods, weights‚ measures and the methods of doing business. The guilds were so strong that a merchant feared expulsion only less than death itself; to be expelled meant being deprived of a livelihood. The guilds were religious, social and welfare organizations as well as business associations. Each guild had its patron saint and the members celebrated religious festivals together and often were responsible for putting on religious plays. The guilds looked after their sick and their poor; the rules of one guild stated that when a member became ill, “wine shall be sent to him, two loaves of bread and a gallon of wine and a dish from the kitchen; and two approved men of the guild shall go to visit him, and look after his condition.”

Craftsmen followed the example of merchants and formed guilds of their own. They set standards of workmanship and members found guilty of faulty work were heavily fined. Working conditions were also carefully regulated, as shown by the rules of the spur-makers, or spurriers, of London: “No one of the trade of spurriers shall work longer than from the beginning of the day until curfew ring out at the Church of St. Sepulchre outside Newgate, by reason that no man can work so neatly by nights as by day . . . nor shall they introduce false iron and iron that has been cracked, nor put gilt on false copper. . .”

Craftsmen were divided into three classes — apprentices, journeymen and masters. To enter a trade, a boy had to work as an apprentice — to a master for a term of two to seven years. His parents paid the master a fee; in return, the master furnished the apprentice with food, lodging, clothes and taught him the trade. After his term of apprenticeship, the craftsman became a journeyman. This name came from the French word journée, which means day; a journeyman had the right to work by the day for wages. To become a master and open his own workshop, a journeyman had to pass an examination and take an oath to abide by the rules of the guild. Often, to show his skill, he also had to submit an example of his work, called a “master’s piece.”

Members of merchants’ guilds were usually the richest men in a town and controlled the town’s government. As the merchants became more and more powerful, trouble broke out between their guilds and those of the craftsmen, who wanted their share of the power. Between 1378 and 1382 there were bloody uprisings in Florence, Ghent and Paris, in France the king took steps to give the craftsmen more privileges.

Already the merchants were widening their activities and becoming bankers and industrialists. Europe was moving toward that system of society called capitalism, a system in which the guilds would disappear and craftsmen would be employees working for wages. Altogether, the growth of towns and the guilds led to the breakdown of feudalism and manorialism. Serfs found freedom by running away to the towns and a man no longer had to be born an aristocrat to have wealth and power. He could gain a fortune for himself in commerce and industry. The merchants, who needed the law and order that only a central authority could provide, supported the kings against the feudal nobles. The rigid world of the Middle Ages was beginning to change.

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