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Workingman's Guilds of the Middle Ages, The

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 Dr. Godefroid Kurth - with an Introduction by Father Denis Fahey, C.S.Sp. — Small book 64 pages

 

Is not the strategy of the enemies of God there to teach us a lesson? They want to destroy the faith in the hearts of individuals, it is true, but they direct still more vigorous efforts to the elimination of religion from social institutions. Even one defeat of God in this domain means the weakening, if not the ruin, of the faith in the souls of many”

(The Kingship of Christ according to Cardinal Pie of Poitiers, p. 59).

 

Godefroid Kurth, C.S.G., was born at Arlon, Belgium, May 11th, 1847, and died at Assche, Brabant, January 4th, 1916. He was a Professor at the State University of Liege from 1872 to 1906, and then Director of the Belgian Historical Institute in Rome from 1906 to 1916. He was Secretary of the Royal Historical Commission and Member of: The Academy of the Catholic Religion (Rome); the Royal Society of Literature (London); the Royal Academy of Belgium and various other learned societies.

 

This short essay on the workingman’s guilds by Professor Kurth was translated into English by Father Denis Fahey, who also wrote the introduction included here. The introduction is longer than the article since it introduces briefly the entire plan for a Christian social order, of which the economic life of the laboring man is only a portion.

 

When speaking of the economic life of a Christian society the most important principle to consider is that it—the economic life of society— must be subject to the moral law before all else. This subjection must be the first principle of the structure of society’s economic life and not simply something engrafted as an afterthought. Both politics and economics are disciplines subsidiary to the science of ethics.  Without this subjection nations become ensnared by the terrible modern errors known as capitalism, communism, or socialism, all of which amount to the same thing, the destruction of the society operated according to their principles, and the end of Christian civilization.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS 

INTRODUCTION: The Divine Plan for Ordered Social Life— The Growth of Naturalism—The Uprise of Liberalism—The Socialist and Communist Reaction against Liberalism—The Sovereign Pontiffs and the Revival of the Guild—System—Irish Trade Unions and the Revival of the Guild System—A Specimen of Naturalist or Anti-supernatural Propaganda amongst Irish Workingmen in Great Britain—Communism and Revolution—General Principles governing Economic Reform—Workingmen’s Unions, Catholic and  Mixed—Godefroid Kurth, Historian

 

CHAPTER I: Historical Sketch

CHAPTER II: General Idea of the Guild—Definition of the Guild—The Place of Religion in the Guilds—Mutual Assistance—The Guilds as Civic Personalities—Their Method  of Government—Political Role of the Guilds—The Guilds and Military Service—Social Position of the Guilds
CHAPTER III: The Guild Hierarchy—Dignity of Labor—The Apprentice—The Journeyman—The Master—Results of the Hierarchical Arrangement of Work

CHAPTER IV: How the System Worked—The Purchase of Primary Goods—Common Workshops—Rules Governing Production—Sale—Guarantees to Buyers

CHAPTER V: The Condition of the Workers—Women and Children—Length of the Working Day—The Sunday Rest—Salary of the Workers—The Minimum Wage—The Right to Strike—Veto on Coalitions—Veto on the Truck-System

CHAPTER VI: The Revival of the Guilds—Translators’ Note

 

Frontspiece

“So long as Christ does not reign over nations, His influence over individuals remains superficial and precarious. If it is true that the work of the apostolate consists in the conversion of individuals and that nations as such do not go to heaven, but souls, one by one, we must not forget, nevertheless, that the individual member of society lives under the never-ceasing influence of his environment, in which, if we may not say that he is submerged, he is, at least, deeply plunged. If the environment is non-Catholic, it prevents him from embracing the faith or, if he has the faith, it tends to root out of his heart every vestige of belief. If we imagine Catholic social institutions, with Our Lord no longer living in the hearts of the individual members of society, then religion has there become merely a displeasing signboard which will soon be torn down. But, on the other hand, try to convert individuals without Catholicizing the social institutions and your work is without stability. The structure you erect in the morning will be torn down by others in the evening. Is not the strategy of the enemies of God there to teach us a lesson? They want to destroy the faith in the hearts of individuals, it is true, but they direct still more vigorous efforts to the elimination o religion from social institutions. Even one defeat of God in this domain means the weakening, if not the ruin, of the faith in the souls of many”

(The Kingship of Christ according to Cardinal Pie of Poitiers, p. 59).

 

GENERAL IDEA OF THE GUILD

 

DEFINITION OF THE GUILD

 

What was a workers’ or an artisans’ guild in the Middle Ages?

It was a society composed of people of the same profession who, animated by feelings of fraternal charity as members of Christ, banded themselves together to practice their craft honestly, to watch over the interests of their members, and to give loyal service to the public.

THE PLACE OF RELIGION IN THE GUILDS

Born of the solidarity of the Mystical Body of Christ, the workingmen’s guilds carried the imprint of their origin. Membership of Christ through the Catholic Church was required for entrance, as also the fulfillment of the duties, religious and moral, that go with the Catholic name. Every guild was under the protection of a saint, whose feast was celebrated with great solemnity, and to whom it dedicated a chapel, if possible, or, if its means did not allow of that, at least an altar, in the parish church. All guilds considered it an honor to figure in a body at the great religious feasts, especially in the processions, wherein they unfurled their banners, and had their position assigned, according to an unvarying tradition. The patronal feast usually came to an end with a merry banquet, at which all the guildsmen met in friendly companionship, and from which licence was excluded, but jollity never lacking.

The guildsmen fulfilled the obligations of fraternal charity towards one another. In all the great moments of life the worker found his fellow guildsmen around him, to share his happiness on the day of his marriage, by their presence at the festivities, and to pay him the last respects at his death. Joys and sorrows were in common: everybody prayed for everybody else: religion lent dignity to rejoicing and afforded consolation in bereavement.

MUTUAL ASSISTANCE

Most of the guilds organized a scheme of mutual assistance among their members and came actively and charitably to the aid of those who had fallen into misfortune. Oftentimes they gave a dowry to the daughters of the poorer colleagues or defrayed the expenses of the education of their orphans. Thanks to a small subscription, sick members were, during the time they were incapacitated for work, in receipt of an income that preserved them from destitution. Several guilds even found the means of assuaging the more cruel kinds of suffering outside their own ranks, and bestowed ample alms on leper-houses and hospitals.

THE GUILDS AS CIVIC PERSONALITIES

The guilds were recognized by the civil authorities as institutions of public utility and enjoyed all the advantages of civic personality. They had their funds, their premises, their coats of arms, their banners, their archives, their seal, their revenues in one word they had everything that a rich and influential person has. Above all they had their own regulations drawn up by themselves which constituted for them a veritable charter. They had, it is true to have their charter approved either by the municipal council or by the supreme authority of the region but the intervention of these higher powers was ordinarily limited to a simple function of control with a view to prevent conflicts either between the crafts themselves, or between the crafts and the general interest or common good of the community. Apart from this the autonomy of the guilds was complete, and they regulated their own affairs without any outside interference.

THEIR METHOD OF GOVERNMENT

They were governed by their own members, freely elected, according to a mode of election that varied from guild to guild and from town to town. It is a curious thing, but one finds on studying their electoral procedure, that these worthy artisans of other days had foreseen and eliminated most of the abuses that we are trying to get rid of today. It must be added that everybody was obliged to vote, and no one, except for most serious reasons, might refuse to accept a charge conferred upon him by vote. On the other hand, the statutes generally forbade the appointment of anyone to the same office twice in succession.

The elected heads of the guild were the governors or deans, either two or four in number. They were assisted by several assessors, by a clerk or secretary, a fund-holder or treasurer, and they had one or more servants under their orders. Their duties were manifold. They summoned the meetings of the guild, presided over their deliberations, saw to the carrying out of the rules, collected the subscriptions and defended its rights against all attacks. When important affairs were in question, they convoked a general meeting at which all members were obliged to assist. Everybody was entitled to give his opinion and the secret of the debates was strictly guarded. If it should happen that the secret was betrayed by the wife of a guildsman, it was the guildsman himself who was punished, for it was with reason presumed that she could not have spoken, if he had kept good guard over his tongue.

When the guild’s decisions concerned the general interest, they had, like the statutes, to be submitted to the supreme authority of the locality for ratification. The supreme regional authority left to the guild the task of regulating conditions of work, but they took the most meticulous care to see that the measures adopted by the guilds were not contrary to the general interest and the common good.

POLITICAL ROLE OF THE GUILDS

The guilds were more than civil personalities; they were also political personalities, that is to say, they had their say in communal affairs, and a very considerable part in the election of the communal magistrates. In many towns they had the lion’s share, so that, to have the right to vote at all, it was necessary to be registered as a member of some guild. But this rigidly democratic system was far from being the best, because it took no account of other social bodies which had the right to be represented in the communal or municipal council, and because it put guilds of very unequal importance upon equal footing. The system which divided the electors into categories, each of which had a place in the election proportionate to its importance, was far preferable. Such, notably, was the electoral system of Dinant which grouped the entire population into three classes the burgesses properly so called, the copperbeaters who formed the most important guild in the town and lastly, all the other crafts as a body. The two former groups nominated nine councillors each and the third, twelve: there resulted a council of thirty members which truly realized what would nowadays be termed the proportional representation of interests.

In a word, the worker, or craftsman of the Middle Ages was not kept at a distance from the voting urn, or deprived of the right of taking part in public affairs. The humblest toiler, equally with the proudest patrician, was interested in political life: it was anything but forbidden ground to the man who lived by the work of his hands.

THE GUILDS AND MILITARY SERVICE

Men who enjoyed such rights might well be glad to fulfill their duties. So it was that the workers were, in general, doughty soldiers who gladly took up arms for the defense of their country. Every guild formed a special company, so that, even in the army, fellow-guildsmen remained comrades fighting side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Many glorious victories were won by these valiant men whom the knights looked down upon and scornfully called them the foot.[1] It was the ‘Foot’ of Flanders who, in 1302, won the great battle of the Golden Spurs over the flower of the French chivalry. The Walloon ‘Foot’ were equal to the Flemish. In 1213 at the battle of LaWarde de Steppes it was the butchers of Liege who decided the day and cut to pieces the nobility of Brabant.

SOCIAL POSITION OF THE GUILDS

Thanks to their union and their mutual understanding the artisans or workers attained a high social standing in their towns. They were, in fact, the most important element. They were not then relegated to a social level inferior to the burgesses or bourgeoisie ; they themselves formed the bourgeoisie, so that the distinction made nowadays between the bourgeoisie and the workers was to them unknown. Far from being ashamed of being toilers, they were proud to be such, and had a singularly delicate sense of professional honor Anyone who by his conduct or his associations besmirched the guild’s escutcheon

was sternly excluded from membership. The insignia of their profession were held in honor and were proudly displayed on their banners. Everywhere, whether in processions in peacetime, or in military expeditions, the standards, decorated with the miner’s pick or the carpenter’s saw, could be seen fluttering proudly alongside the pennons that bore the heraldic lions of the knights. To this day the armorial bearings of the craftsmen or workers may be seen in many a chapel of our larger churches adorning the windows where they were placed by the guilds, and when the sun lights up their brilliant colors, one seems to see, as it were, the workers themselves, transfigured by religion, resplendent in all the imperishable glory and magnificence of Christian toil.


[1] Or un-mounted rank-and-file.” It is difficult to render the meaning of the old French word employed by the author (Translators’ note).

 

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