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14. The Town Government. In the middle of the thirteenth century there were some two hundred towns in England distinguishable by their size, form of government, and the occupations of their inhabitants, from the rural agricultural villages which have just been described. London probably had more than 25,000 inhabitants; York and Bristol may each have had as many as 10,000. The population of the others varied from as many as 6000 to less than 1000. Perhaps the most usual population of an English mediaeval town lay between 1500 and 4000. They were mostly walled, though such protection was hardly necessary, and the military element in English towns was therefore but slightly developed. Those towns which contained cathedrals, and were therefore the seats of bishoprics, were called cities. All other organized towns were known as boroughs, though this distinction in the use of the terms city and borough was by no means always preserved. The towns differed widely in their form of government; but all had charters from the king or from some nobleman, abbey, or bishopric on whose lands they had grown up. Such a charter usually declared the right of the town to preserve the ancient customs which had come to be recognized among its inhabitants, and granted to it certain privileges, exemptions, and rights of self-government. The most universal and important of these privileges were the following: the town paid the tolls and dues owed to the king or other lord by its inhabitants in a lump sum, collecting the amount from its own citizens as the latter or their own authorities saw fit; the town courts had jurisdiction over most suits and offences, relieving the townsmen from answering at hundred and county court suits which concerned matters within their own limits; the townsmen, where the king granted the charter, were exempt from the payment of tolls of various kinds throughout his dominions; they could pass ordinances and regulations controlling the trade of the town, the administration of its property, and its internal affairs generally, and could elect officials to carry out such regulations. These officials also corresponded and negotiated in the name of the town with the authorities of other towns and with the government. From the close of the thirteenth century all towns of any importance were represented in Parliament. These elements of independence were not all possessed by every town, and some had special privileges not enumerated in the above list. The first charter of a town was apt to be vague and inadequate, but from time to time a new charter was obtained giving additional privileges and defining the old rights more clearly. Nor had all those who dwelt within the town limits equal participation in its advantages. These were usually restricted to those who were known as citizens or burgesses; full citizenship depending primarily on the possession of a house and land within the town limits. In addition to the burgesses there were usually some inhabitants of the town strangers, Jews, fugitive villains from the rural villages, or perhaps only poorer natives of the town who did not share in these privileges. Those who did possess all civil rights of the townsmen were in many ways superior in condition to men in the country. In addition to the advantages of the municipal organization mentioned above, all burgesses were personally free, there was entire exemption from the vexatious petty payments of the rural manors, and burgage tenure was thee nearest to actual land ownership existent during the Middle Ages.

15. The Gild Merchant. The town was most clearly marked off from the country by the occupations by which its people earned their living. These were, in the first place, trading; secondly, manufacturing or handicrafts. Agriculture of course existed also, since most townsmen possessed some lands lying outside of the enclosed portions of the town. On these they raised crops and pastured their cattle. Of these varied occupations, however, it was trade which gave character and, indeed, existence itself to the town. Foreign goods were brought to the towns from abroad for sale, the surplus products of rural manors found their way there for marketing; the products of one part of the country which were needed in other parts were sought for and purchased in the towns. Men also sold the products of their own labor, not only food products, such as bread, meat, and fish, but also objects of manufacture, as cloth, arms, leather, and goods made of wood, leather, or metal. For the protection and regulation of this trade the organization known as the gild merchant had grown up in each town. The gild merchant seems to have included all of the population of the town who habitually engaged in the business of selling, whether commodities of their own manufacture or those they had previously purchased. Membership in the gild was not exactly coincident with burgess-ship; persons who lived outside of the town were sometimes admitted into that organization, and, on the other hand, some inhabitants of the town were not included among its members. Nevertheless, since practically all of the townsmen made their living by trade in some form or another, the group of burgesses and the group of gild members could not have been very different. The authority of the gild merchant within its field of trade regulation seems to have been as complete as that of the town community as a whole in its field of judicial, financial, and administrative jurisdiction. The gild might therefore be defined as that form of organization of the inhabitants of the town which controlled its trade and industry. The principal reason for the existence of the gild was to preserve to its own members the monopoly of trade. No one not in the gild merchant of the town could buy or sell there except under conditions imposed by the gild. Foreigners coming from other countries or traders from other English towns were prohibited from buying or selling in any way that might interfere with the interests of the gildsmen. They must buy and sell at such times and in such places and only such articles as were provided for by the gild regulations. They must in all cases pay the town tolls, from which members of the gild were exempt. At Southampton, for instance, we find the following provisions: “And no one in the city of Southampton shall buy anything to sell again in the same city unless he is of the gild merchant or of the franchise.” Similarly at Leicester, in 1260, it was ordained that no gildsman should form a partnership with a stranger, allowing him to join in the profits of the sale of wool or other merchandise.

As against outsiders the gild merchant was a protective body, as regards its own members it was looked upon and constantly spoken of as a fraternity. Its members must all share in the common expenditures, they are called brethren of the society, their competition with one another is reduced to its lowest limits. For instance, we find the provision that “any one who is of the gild merchant may share in all merchandise which another gildsman shall buy.”

The presiding officer was usually known as the alderman, while the names given to other officials, such as stewards, deans, bailiffs, chaplains, skevins, and ushers, and the duties they performed, varied greatly from time to time.

Meetings were held at different periods, sometimes annually, in many cases more frequently. At these meetings new ordinances were passed, officers elected, and other business transacted. It was also a convivial occasion, a gild feast preceding or following the other labors of the meeting. In some gilds the meeting was regularly known as “the drinking.” There were likewise frequent sittings of the officials of the fraternity, devoted to the decision of disputes between brethren, the admission of new members, the fining or expulsion of offenders against the gild ordinances, and other routine work. These meetings were known as “morrowspeches”.

The greater part of the activity of the gild merchant consisted in the holding of its meetings with their accompanying feasts, and in the enforcement of its regulations upon its members and upon outsiders. It fulfilled, however, many fraternal duties for its members. It is provided in one set of statutes that, “If a gildsman be imprisoned in England in time of peace, the alderman, with the steward and with one of the skevins, shall go, at the cost of the gild, to procure the deliverance of the one who is in prison.” In another, “If any of the brethren shall fall into poverty or misery, all the brethren are to assist him by common consent out of the chattels of the house or fraternity, or of their proper own.” The funeral rites, especially, were attended by the man’s gild brethren. “And when a gildsman dies, all those who are of the gild and are in the city shall attend the service for the dead, and gildsmen shall bear the body and bring it to the place of burial.” The gild merchant also sometimes fulfilled various religious, philanthropic, and charitable duties, not only to its members, but to the public generally, and to the poor. The time of the fullest development of the gild merchant varied, of course, in different towns, but its widest expansion was probably in the early part of the period we are studying, that is, during the thirteenth century. Later it came to be in some towns indistinguishable from the municipal government in general, its members the same as the burgesses, its officers represented by the officers of the town. In some other towns the gild merchant gradually lost its control over trade, retaining only its fraternal, charitable, and religious features. In still other cases the expression gradually lost all definite significance and its meaning became a matter for antiquarian dispute.

16. The Craft Gilds. By the fourteenth century the gild merchant of the town was a much less conspicuous institution than it had previously been. Its decay was largely the result of the growth of a group of organizations in each town which were spoken of as crafts, fraternities, gilds, misteries, or often merely by the name of their occupation, as “the spurriers,” “the dyers,” “the fishmongers.” These organizations are usually described in later writings as craft gilds. It is not to be understood that the gild merchant and the craft gilds never existed contemporaneously in any town. The former began earlier and decayed before the craft gilds reached their height, but there was a considerable period when it must have been a common thing for a man to be a member both of the gild merchant of the town and of the separate organization of his own trade. The later gilds seem to have grown up in response to the needs of handicraft much as the gild merchant had grown up to regulate trade, though trading occupations also were eventually drawn into the craft gild form of organization. The weavers seem to have been the earliest occupation to be organized into a craft gild; but later almost every form of industry which gave employment to a handful of craftsmen in any town had its separate fraternity. Since even nearly allied trades, such as the glovers, girdlers, pocket makers, skinners, white tawyers, and other workers in leather; or the fletchers, the makers of arrows, the bowyers, the makers of bows, and the stringers, the makers of bowstrings, were organized into separate bodies, the number of craft gilds in any one town was often very large. At London there were by 1350 at least as many as forty, at York, some time later, more than fifty.

The craft gilds existed usually under the authority of the town government, though frequently they obtained authorization or even a charter from the crown. They were formed primarily to regulate and preserve the monopoly of their own occupations in their own town, just as the gild merchant existed to regulate the trade of the town in general. No one could carry on any trade without being subject to the organization which controlled that trade. Membership, however, was not intentionally restricted. Any man who was a capable workman and conformed to the rules of the craft was practically a member of the organization of that industry. It is a common requirement in the earliest gild statutes that every man who wishes to carry on that particular industry should have his ability testified to by some known members of the craft. But usually full membership and influence in the gild was reached as a matter of course by the artisans passing through the successive grades of apprentice, journeyman, and master. As an apprentice he was bound to a master for a number of years, living in his house and learning the trade in his shop. There was usually a signed contract entered into between the master and the parents of the apprentice, by which the former agreed to provide all necessary clothing, food, and lodging, and teach to the apprentice all he himself knew about his craft. The latter, on the other hand, was bound to keep secret his master’s affairs, to obey all his commandments, and to behave himself properly in all things. After the expiration of the time agreed upon for his apprenticeship, which varied much in individual cases, but was apt to be about seven years, he became free of the trade as a journeyman, a full workman. The word “journeyman” may refer to the engagement being by the day, from the French word journee, or to the habit of making journeys from town to town in search of work, or it may be derived from some other origin. As a journeyman he served for wages in the employ of a master. In many cases he saved enough money for the small requirements of setting up an independent shop. Then as full master artisan or tradesman he might take part in all the meetings and general administration of the organized body of his craft, might hold office, and would himself probably have one or more journeymen in his employ and apprentices under his guardianship. As almost all industries were carried on in the dwelling-houses of the craftsmen, no establishments could be of very considerable size, and the difference of position between master, journeyman, and apprentice could not have been great. The craft gild was organized with its regular rules, its officers, and its meetings. The rules or ordinances of the fraternity were drawn up at some one time and added to or altered from time to time afterward. The approval of the city authorities was frequently sought for such new statutes as well as for the original ordinances, and in many towns appears to have been necessary. The rules provided for officers and their powers, the time and character of meetings, and for a considerable variety of functions. These varied of course in different trades and in different towns, but some characteristics were almost universal. Provisions were always either tacitly or formally included for the preservation of the monopoly of the crafts in the town. The hours of labor were regulated. Night work was very generally prohibited, apparently because of the difficulty of oversight at that time, as was work on Saturday afternoons, Sundays, and other holy days. Provisions were made for the inspection of goods by the officers of the gild, all workshops and goods for sale being constantly subject to their examination, if they should wish it. In those occupations that involved buying and selling the necessities of life, such as those of the fishmongers and the bakers, the officers of the fraternity, like the town authorities, were engaged in a continual struggle with “regrators,” “forestallers,” and “engrossers,” which were appellations as odious as they were common in the mediaeval town. Regrating meant buying to sell again at a higher price without having made any addition to the value of the goods; forestalling was going to the place of production to buy, or in any other way trying to outwit fellow-dealers by purchasing things before they came into the open market where all had the same opportunity; engrossing was buying up the whole supply, or so much of it as not to allow other dealers to get what they needed, the modern “cornering of the market.” These practices, which were regarded as so objectionable in the eyes of mediaeval traders, were frequently nothing more than what would be considered commendable enterprise in a more competitive age. Another class of rules was for mutual assistance, for kindliness among members, and for the obedience and faithfulness of journeymen and apprentices. There were provisions for assistance to members of the craft when in need, or to their widows and orphans, for the visitation of those sick or in prison, for common attendance at the burial services of deceased members, and for other charitable and philanthropic objects. Thus the craft gild, like the gild merchant, combined close social relationship with a distinctly recognized and enforced regulation of the trade. This regulation provided for the protection of members of the organization from outside competition, and it also prevented any considerable amount of competition among members; it supported the interests of the full master members of the craft as against those in the journeyman stage, and enforced the custom of the trade in hours, materials, methods of manufacture, and often in prices.

The officers were usually known as masters, wardens, or stewards. Their powers extended to the preservation of order among the master members of the craft at the meetings, and among the journeymen and apprentices of the craft at all times; to the supervision, either directly or through deputies, of the work of the members, seeing that it conformed to the rules and was not false in any way; to the settlement, if possible, of disputes among members of the craft; to the administration of its charitable work; and to the representation of the organized body of the craft before town or other authorities.

Common religious observances were held by the craftsmen not only at the funerals of members, but on the day of the saint to which the gild was especially dedicated. Most fraternities kept up a shrine or chapel in some parish church. Fines for the breach of gild rules were often ordered to be paid in wax that the candles about the body of dead brethren and in the gild chapel should never be wanting. All the brethren of the gild, dressed in common suits of livery, walked in procession from their hall or meeting room to the church, performed their devotions and joined in the services in commemoration of the dead. Members of the craft frequently bequeathed property for the partial support of a chaplain and payment of other expenses connected with their “obits,” or masses for the repose of their souls and those of their relatives.

Closely connected with the religious observances was the convivial side of the gild’s life. On the annual gild day, or more frequently, the members all gathered at their hall or some inn to a feast, which varied in luxuriousness according to the wealth of the fraternity, from bread, cheese, and ale to all the exuberance of which the Middle Ages were capable.

Somewhat later, we find the craft gilds taking entire charge of the series or cycles of “mystery plays,” which were given in various towns. The words of the plays produced at York, Coventry, Chester, and Woodkirk have come down to us and are of extreme interest as embryonic forms of the drama and examples of purely vernacular language. It is quite certain that such groups of plays were given by the crafts in a number of other towns. They were generally given on Corpus Christi day, a feast which fell in the early summer time, when out-door pleasures were again enjoyable after the winter’s confinement. A cycle consisted of a series of dialogues or short plays, each based upon some scene of biblical story, so arranged that the whole Bible narrative should be given consecutively from the Creation to the Second Advent. One of the crafts, starting early in the morning, would draw a pageant consisting of a platform on wheels, to a regularly appointed spot in a conspicuous part of the town, and on this platform, with some rude scenery, certain members of the gild or men employed by them would proceed to recite a dialogue in verse representative of some early part of the Bible story. After they had finished, their pageant would be dragged to another station, where they repeated their performance. In the meantime a second company had taken their former place, and recited a dialogue representative of a second scene. So the whole day would be occupied by the series of performances. The town and the craftsmen valued the celebration because it was an occasion for strangers visiting their city and thus increasing the volume of trade, as well as because it furnished an opportunity for the gratification of their social and dramatic instincts.

It was not only at the periodical business meetings, or on the feast days, or in the preparation for the dramatic shows, that the gildsmen were thrown together. Usually all the members of one craft lived on the same street or in the same part of the town, and were therefore members of the same parish church and constantly brought under one another’s observation in all the daily concerns of life. All things combined to make the craft a natural and necessary centre for the interest of each of its members.

17. Non-industrial Gilds. Besides the gilds merchant, which included persons of all industrial occupations, and the craft gilds, which were based upon separate organizations of each industry, there were gilds or fraternities in existence which had no industrial functions whatever. These are usually spoken of as “religious” or “social” gilds. It would perhaps be better to describe them simply as non-industrial gilds; for their religious and social functions they had in common, as has been seen, both with the gild merchant and the craft organizations. They only differed from these in not being based upon or interested in the monopoly or oversight of any kind of trade or handicraft. They differed also from the craft gilds in that all their members were on an equal basis, there being no such industrial grades as apprentice, journeyman, and master; and from both of the organizations already discussed in the fact that they existed in small towns and even in mere villages, as well as in industrial centres.

In these associations the religious, social, and charitable elements were naturally more prominent than in those fraternities which were organized primarily for some kind of economic regulation. They were generally named after some saint. The ordinances usually provided for one or more solemn services in the year, frequently with a procession in livery, and sometimes with a considerable amount of pantomime or symbolic show. For instance, the gild of St. Helen at Beverly, in their procession to the church of the Friars Minors on the day of their patron saint, were preceded by an old man carrying a cross; after him a fair young man dressed as St. Helen; then another old man carrying a shovel, these being intended to typify the finding of the cross. Next came the sisters two and two, after them the brethren of the gild, and finally the officers. There were always provisions for solemnities at the funerals of members, for burial at the expense of the gild if the member who had died left no means for a suitable ceremony, and for prayers for deceased members. What might be called the insurance feature was also much more nearly universal than in the case of the industrial fraternities. Help was given in case of theft, fire, sickness, or almost any kind of loss which was not chargeable to the member’s own misdoing. Finally it was very customary for such gilds to provide for the support of a certain number of dependents, aged men or women, cripples, or lepers, for charity’s sake; and occasionally educational facilities were also provided by them from their regular income or from bequests made for the purpose. The social-religious gilds were extremely numerous, and seem frequently to have existed within the limits of a craft, including some of its members and not others, or within a certain parish, including some of the parishioners, but not all.

Thus if there were men in the mediaeval town who were not members of some trading or craft body, they would in all probability be members of some society based merely on religious or social feeling. The whole tendency of mediaeval society was toward organization, combination, close union with one’s fellows. It might be said that all town life involved membership in some organization, and usually in that one into which a man was drawn by the occupation in which he made his living. These gilds or the town government itself controlled even the affairs of private economic life in the city, just as the customary agriculture of the country prevented much freedom of action there. Methods of trading, or manufacture, the kind and amount of material to be used, hours of labor, conditions of employment, even prices of work, were regulated by the gild ordinances. The individual gildsman had as little opportunity to emancipate himself from the controlling force of the association as the individual tenant on the rural manor had to free himself from the customary agriculture and the customary services. Whether we study rural or urban society, whether we look at the purely economic or at the broader social side of existence, life in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was corporate rather than individual.