I tend to focus a lot on rural life on a manor in my Medieval Monday posts. That’s because for the vast majority of people life was rural and agricultural. And because I like peasants. But there was another type of Medieval life that shouldn’t go without mention. I talked briefly about it last week in my discussion of how the textile industry revolutionized life during the Middle Ages. This was, of course, life in the city.
Medieval cities were few and far between. They were also centers of politics and commerce. Sure, the great and mighty lived there, but just as on a manor, the majority of folks living in a Medieval city were not lords or bishops, they were common people doing common jobs. In other words, they were craftspeople. And the lives of craftspeople revolved around something that is both familiar and totally foreign to modern people: guilds.
I think modern people tend to forget the huge variety of crafts and craftspeople that existed in the Middle Ages because these days everything is done by a machine in a fraction of the time. But in those days long before mechanization, everything was done by hand. Every piece of cloth was spun, woven, dyed, cut, sewn, and decorated by hand. Every goblet was forged, hammered, and finished by hand. Every piece of furniture, every stone carving, glass window, and book was made by hand. None of it was a quick process.
Tools were also made by hand, often by the people who would go on to use them. Since crafts were a family affair, tools and equipment would be handed down through generations. True, you may not have had much choice about what you were going to do with your life. If you were the son of a carpenter chances are you would be a carpenter. If your mother was a brewer, you’d probably be a brewer too. The advantage was that families worked together, families involved in the same or complimentary trades worked together as well, and over time that developed into the guild system.
The earliest guilds were merchant guilds. The first guilds appeared in Italy in the tenth century. Merchant guilds were responsible for commerce. They would import goods from the countryside or from faraway lands, organize them, and see that they were sold in the great Medieval marketplaces. These guilds would set prices and regulate trade. Merchant guilds became incredibly powerful in the budding Medieval political world. Their influence stretched beyond the goods they sold to include the care and administration of the people who worked under or around them. This is why in a lot of areas the central location of political and judicial influence was the guildhall.
As the Middle Ages progressed, craft guilds became as important as merchant guilds. Craft guilds were centralized organizations regulating and overseeing any given craft. The weavers had their guild, the goldsmiths had theirs, armorers, brewers, carpenters … they all had a guild. And like the merchant guilds, craft guilds did much more in the lives of their members than regulate quality and set prices. They took care of their members. In a lot of cases they would see to funeral and burial costs for their members. They would provide basic social services, like medical care, food and clothing assistance, and care for elderly members.
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it. It was the Medieval equivalent of unions and a welfare system. Instead of being the responsibility of a central government, which was often ineffective or in flux in the best of times or mercenary in the worse, those who shared a craft would also share the responsibility of the collective lives of their members.
In the early days guilds were easy to join. If you were a craftsman in any given profession you would just join. Within the guild there were masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Crafts were well-ordered this way. It wasn’t just men either. Entire families were part of a given craft and therefore part of the guild. Oftentimes when a man died his widow would assume responsibility for the business and take his place in the guild. And guess what? Single women could join guilds in areas where women practiced a craft, and they were considered equal to men. Because as I’ve said before, the concept of women being inferior to men and having a place barefoot and pregnant in a man’s home is actually a much later concept and not Medieval at all.
So there we are in our cities. We’ve got guilds organizing people from all professions. We’ve got a lot of people working and making stuff that would be used in the cities or imported back out into the countryside. We’ve got smiths hammering on things, weavers clacking away at their looms, fullers and dyers with great big smelly vats of caustic substances treating cloth. We’ve got brewers with boiling cauldrons. We’ve got glassblowers with their furnaces.
Yep, cities were loud, smelly, hot, and crowded. But not because people were ignorant and nasty and enjoyed being dirty and smelly. Cities were so unpleasant because they were hives of activity. They were the places that stuff was made and where things got done. So I think we can forgive a little muck. That was the muck of craftsmanship!
Although it’s no surprise that when things like the Black Death swept through Europe cities were hit hardest. It also doesn’t take much of a leap of logic to see how the overall quality of life took a few giant steps backwards when these centers of industry took a hit.
I still think I would have preferred to live as a peasant on a farm than a craftsman in the heart of a city. I don’t think I would have liked all that noise.