Organization of Labor: Guilds

Different kinds of economic activity led to distinctly different kinds of guilds. In typical medieval style, people at the time only spoke of “greater” and “lesser” guilds, which might or might not be formally recognized in the City Council. Some guilds were recognized as being “better,” by which was meant that they dealt with a better sort of client, the work itself was more skilled, and so on. This division is too broad and vague to be useful to the historian; it’s useful only if you happen to be living in the town at the time. So here is another way to group the guilds, along with some comments on significant differences between them.

Service Trades

This means pretty much the same thing it does today: trades that do things rather than make things. Barbers, doctors, teachers, notaries, all these were service trades. Because they were, certain aspects of guild life were rather different. For example, demand was relatively constant, so they tended to keep a stable number of apprentices and journeymen. There was no masterpiece to produce, but the bathhouse keepers of Augsburg, for example, did have to pass an Examen before receiving mastership.

There were any number of odd service trades peculiar to a location. For example, Venice had tourist guides. The city was not so much as tourist destination as an entrepôt for the many pilgrims going to the Holy Land. Ever since the 13th century the city had licensed tour guides operating. While this wasn’t quite a guild, it is an example of the economic diversity of towns.


Most crafts did their own retailing, but there were a few trades that sold and did not produce. Grocers are one example, innkeepers another (though many did brew their own beer). Apothecaries likewise sold but did not make, even though some did mix chemicals and herbs.

As with the service trades, demand here tended to be inflexible and that conditioned labor relations as well as potential for wealth. Occasionally we find a businessman who owned more than one dry goods store or multiple inns, but costs went up as well and the opportunities for great wealth simply didn’t exist in this sector. On the other hand, it was hard to go broke.


Here is where most of the great merchants made their fortune.

Large-scale Production

There wasn’t much of this, but in the early modern period we do start to see shops that had dozens or even scores of workers. Mining was another area that had many employees. There was no miners guild, but rather certain skills in the process might be organized into guilds.

Fine crafts

The most prestigious of the guilds were those that dealt in expensive materials and sold to wealthy clients. The fineness of the material, whether in metal or cloth or wood, combined with the social position of the customer base, naturally elevated the status of the craftsman himself. Goldsmiths (which usually included silver as well) were universally of high status. The confectioners guild (in some places a separate guild) was always of higher status than ordinary bakers. Joiners had higher status than carpenters. This had an effect on lesser guilds, too. A shoemaker who made shoes in fine leathers and velvets held higher status thereby, even though he remained in the shoemaker’s guild.

Expenses were high in such guilds, however, and in hard times they could find themselves pressed for work. It was entirely possible to go bust as a goldsmith, especially when your noble clients failed to pay.

Labor crafts

Most of what we would call unskilled labor was not organized into guilds. Petty retailing is one area: rag sellers, fishmongers, that sort of thing. Carters were never organized as a guild (that is, those who carried things about town on a cart).

Economic Functions

The usual picture of guilds portrays them as hopelessly backward, obsessed with preserving the status quo, and quite unsuited to economic expansion. The implication behind the picture is that guilds had to be got out of the way. Indeed, there is some evidence for this, as we see merchants and even workers increasingly looking for ways to work outside the guild structure. Even so, this doesn’t mean that the guilds did not play a vital economic role, or that this role was always negative.


In many guilds, labor demand was relatively constant. In fact, some guilds went so far as to limit the number of journeymen a single master could employ. In other crafts, however, demand was highly variable. A good example can be found in the construction trade, with the joiners or carpenters, for example. They might need one assistant this month, but a project next month might require a half dozen. The masters needed a place they could go to find workers, and the journeymen needed a place to go where they could find potential jobs.

In Germany, this place was the Herberg. This was a building, sometimes built or bought specially by the guild, sometimes just an inn that served the function, where jobs were posted and journeymen could reside. When a journeyman came to town, he was obliged to report to the Herberg and take jobs only there. Similarly, masters were required to do all their hiring there.

From Apprentice to Master

Guilds provided their own training system in the form of apprenticeship and journeying. The nature, extent, and strictness varied greatly from one guild to another and over time, and few generalizations will hold across time, place and guild. Think of the following description as an abstract line drawn through a wide scattering of points on a graph. If it intersects a specific point, it does so largely by coincidence.

Apprenticeship was the time spent with a specific master when one was still a child. This was a formal agreement between two families, almost like a marriage, and was governed by a contract. The boy (it was usually a boy, though girls could be apprenticed into some trades) would be sent into the household of the master for a period of some few years, with the agreement that the boy would serve and obey the master during those years, in exchange for which he would be taught the craft.

Terms varied. The usual age of apprenticeship was seven to ten years old, though it could be as late as twelve. The length of service might be only a couple of years, but might be as long as four or five. The contracts usually stipulated some parameters and bases for breaking the agreement. The boy was not to run away and return home. He was to be obedient. The master was obliged first and foremost to teach the craft and not use the boy merely as a servant (this, indeed, was one of the more common complaints in apprenticeship disputes). He was not to be abusive and beat the child without cause

Apprenticeship might be fairly impersonal. It was not at all the case that every boy followed in his father’s footsteps, and sons could be apprenticed into other trades. If a family could afford it (apprenticeship contracts always involved payment of a fee or stipend), a non-tradesman could hope to apprentice his son into a craft and thereby improve his family’s fortunes. But apprenticeship also frequently happened within a craft, and there the agreement was also a form of alliance between families. It was not at all unusual for a boy to be apprenticed to an uncle or other relative.

At some point, usually in the teen years, the apprenticeship contract was over. It could happen that a boy served more than one apprenticeship, with contracts of shorter duration. But there came the day when a decision was made: could he enter the craft? For, not all who trained were automatically skilled enough or were otherwise deemed acceptable. Assuming the boy was, however, the master now gave to the youth a letter of introduction. He was judged capable to practice the craft, and the letter was addressed to other masters, sometimes generally and sometimes to specific towns. The youth was now a journeyman.

If there is anyone in the medieval craft guild process that could be called a “worker” in the modern sense, it would be the journeyman. He was hired by a master, who was the owner of the business, and was paid a wage for his work. The master did not have a contractual relationship, as he did with the apprentice, even though a journeyman might work for a master for a number of years. The journeyman was an employee and nothing more.

For the journeyman, the years spent in this status were in part a finishing school, where he could learn more about his craft, improving his skill to the point where he could qualify for mastership himself. In many, though not in all, cases he really did journey, and so learned techniques from more than one master, in more than one town, making business contacts along the way. As importantly as any skill, the journeyman also selected his future home and found a wife, for few guilds would allow unmarried masters.

In fact, one hallmark of early modern guilds was their exclusivity. This had not always been the case. Medieval records are spotty, but it seems clear that from the later 1400s guilds all across Europe became increasingly restrictive. They made it easier for the sons of guildsmen to become master than for the sons from other crafts, and for the sons of citizens to become masters. They did this by adjusting entry fees, putting additional demands on outsiders, and by setting quotas and then filling from their own ranks first.

Once the Reformation came along, admission to the guild gained an additional wrinkle: religious affiliation. Some guilds were heavily Catholic while others were Lutheran or Reformed. As one Augsburg journeyman joiner complained, it was possible to be entirely qualified for mastership and yet be denied simply because no woman from the Protestant guild would marry a Catholic journeyman. He couldn’t find a wife and therefore couldn’t become master.

For whatever reason—social, religious or economic—more and more journeymen in the 16th and 17th centuries were finding themselves closed out of mastership. They were becoming a permanent underclass within the guild system: adults forever in the employ of another with no hope of attaining mastership and setting up their own shop. They tried switching careers (not every guild was equally exclusive), but they also found there were industries where there were no masters. Guilds did not control every craft in every community, and especially fromt the 17th century onward some communities found they could foster growth by freeing this or that craft from guild control. It is too soon to talk yet of free enterprise, but there were clearly problems in the older, medieval system, and there were clearly attempts to find ways around the roadblocks.

Merchant Guilds

With wholesale merchants there were no shoes or cabinets being made, but there was still a craft to be learned. It was learning the family business, for apprenticeships here was nearly always within the family or with business partners. And with merchant guilds, there were no journeymen. Once the apprenticeship was served, the youth was simply placed somewhere in the family business.

Specific Industries: Rural

The first thing that springs to mind when talking about non-agricultural occupations in the village is the village smith, but a good many other crafts could be found as well. The miller was one, though technically that’s not a manufacturing trade. Shoemakers could be found everywhere, though they might be only cobblers (that is, engaged in the repair of shoes but not the making of new ones). It should be kept in mind, too, that villages came in all sizes and could be quite large. A large one might have its own bakery, carpenter, and so on.

Not all villages were engaged in the same agricultural activities. One on the sea coast might be devoted to fishing, another might be devoted to raising dairy cattle, while another might be among vineyards or olive orchards. Each of these required special manufacturers who might be resident in the village.

Two trades that could be found in or near villages of any size were those of the smith and the miller. A good many peasants milled grain by hand in their own home, but mills were to be found everywhere, often in the hands of a local lord. A mill required substantial capital investment: the building was large and required specialized construction for both the mill itself and for the waterwheel (or, more rarely, the windmill). The millstones themselves were manufactured items, often imported from some distance, and required much skill. There were two stones, one above and one below, specially cut so the grain was moved outward as it was milled. The stones could be quite large, several feet in diameter, and of course were very heavy. The gears that drove the stones were likewise carefully crafted, imported, and expensive.

The investment for a smithy could be much less. Certain ironworks were large, with multiple ovens and forges, specialized procedures, and many workers, but in a village it could be as small as a single man operating a single bellows. This sort of smith might also be a farmer, unable to live off the smithy alone.

Weaving was an increasingly important rural industry, especially for the poorer sort of peasant. We hear something of this in our phrase “cottage industry”. This was such an important development, it deserves separate treatment.


Mining enjoyed a boom in our period, mainly in central and eastern Europe. Not only were new mines opened, new techniques were developed as well, allowing deeper mines. In addition, and somewhat related, new techniques of financing brought about a transformation of the industry itself.

By ancient tradition, it was the state that owned natural resources, and this included what was under the ground. This right took precedence over any ownership, so that if an ore were discovered, it could be worked, even if it were in the middle of someone’s farm or estate.

The usual arrangement was that the right to work the mine was leased by an entrepreneur who specialized in mining. He paid the king or other prince an annual fee, and in exchange he exploited the mine and sold whatever he could.


A major source for information on mining techniques comes from Agricola, who published "" in 15xx. Not only did he describe processes, he also illustrated them, giving us a rare look into the details of mining.


Silver was far more important than gold as currency. There were few gold mines in Europe, but there were a number of silver mines, and there were some new discoveries in the course of the 16th century. These fueled a minor resurgence in silver coinage in the early 16th century. These were starting to play out, though, when the huge discoveries in the New World were made. The amount of silver coming from the mines at Potosí in Bolivia dwarfed the combined production of all European silver mines, and that industry more or less collapsed in the 17th century. Mining of precious metals was never significant afterward.


This became more important in our period, for two reasons: princes began using it for coinage, both as copper coins and alloyed with other metals; and armies were using copper in their cannons.

In a number of cases, princes handed over their mines to entrepreneurs, in payment of debts. The prince retained the mine itself, but the entrepreneur got the income for a fixed number of years. He also got the operating rights and if the mine became more profitable, he could keep the difference.

The main centers of copper production were the Tyrol, Hungary, and Thuringia. In the 17th century, Sweden too.

Iron cannons superseded copper in the later 1600s. The same happened with copper housewares, as iron was cheaper.


Iron was mined mostly from the surface or from very shallow shafts. The limiting factor here as in other mining was the height of the water table. Once water was hit, mining pretty much stopped.


Lead was starting to be used in roofing. It was in huge demand for armaments, but was also used for piping and other materials. Like iron, it was mined from surface shafts and was smelted nearby, as tranport costs were otherwise prohibitive. In the 16th century they developed bellows that were driven by watermills, which allowed hotter, more even-burning smelters and improved yield.

Lead mining was important in England, where it had been mined off and on since the days of the Romans.

Cloth Industry

This one was fundamental. Everyone wears clothes (very few nudist colonies in the Reformation era!), which means that the textile industry was as basic to the economy as was the growing of food. It was by far the largest industry, both in terms of wealth generated and in terms of number of people employed.

The most common cloth was wool, followed by linen and silk.


Need to say something about Spanish wool and the Mesta, and about the centers of sheep-raising, and processing.

England was a major source of wool. Spain was the other. Sheep were raised elsewhere, of course, but in far smaller numbers and largely for local markets.

The Putting-Out System

The process was straightforward, though there were endless variations. A merchant bought wool from a sheep farmer, then took the wool to peasants in the countryside where it was spun into cloth. The merchant gathered up the woven cloth and sold it to processors who finished and dyed it. That cloth was in turn sold to a variety of industries, including tailors, who turned it into clothing.

The practice of having peasants do the spinning and weaving was old—14th century, at least—but only in the 16th century did it become so widespread as to be called a “system”. Especially in woolens, it was the dominant form of cloth production right through the Reformation era. It was most common in Germany, Italy, east and northern France, and southern England, but examples can be found elsewhere.

The system developed in part because of improvements in the mobilization of capital—the system depended on good use of credit at almost every step—and on a change in clothing habits.

The keystone of the system was the urban merchant, the only one with sufficient capital resources and access to distribution channels.


Silk comes from silkworms, which live in mulberry trees, a plant that was not native to Europe. Tradition says the secret of making silk came to the Byzantine Empire in the reign of the Emperor Justinian and to Italy some time later. By our period, silk was extremely popular and extremely expensive. Not only was it a beautiful cloth, it took bright colors far better than wool and it required much labor, all of which combined to keep silk a cloth of the wealthy.

The silkworm larvae spin the incredibly fine thread around themselves for several days, creating a single thread around a thousand yards long. To get at the thread, the cocoons are boiled to kill the larvae and then thread is hooked straight from the vat and pulled out onto wooden wheels. A single strand is too fine, so it’s wound with anywhere from three to seventy other strands to make a single thread of silk. That’s the stuff that can be dyed.

Modern techniques can speed the process up a bit, but silk is still made from the cocoons of silkworms, which still have to be undone and then wound into thread, so silk remains labor-intensive and expensive. In the early modern period, only a handful of centers had the resources for making silk, for they had to have the climate for the mulberry trees, the knowledge and resources for dyeing silk, and the skilled craftsmen for turning the threads into cloth. Northern Italy held a few such centers, as did southern France. Huguenot silk workers were among the refugees who fled France and settled in Holland during the French Wars of Religion.


Linen was made from flax, a plant that requires fairly elaborate treatment to get it into a cloth. The plant is pulled up by the roots and left on the ground to dry. The heads of the plant are then pulled off (the seeds yield linseed oil); it’s the stem that’s needed. Bundles of the stems were tossed into a stagnant pond where the outer parts rotted away (takes a week or two), then they’re laid out for another week. The rather messy result is strung up to dry.

The outer portions of the stems have pretty well rotted away by now, but the fibers of the stem have to be separated without being broken. This is done by beating them with a mallet! The useless portions fall away (the plants are still hanging) and what’s left are the fibers. These are combed with a hackle—a kind of rough comb—and only the long fibers are retained. These are dampened and spun into the finished yarn, which in turn gets woven into linen.

As you can see, there’s ample room in the process for cutting corners, for getting the timing right (or wrong). The result was that there were many different qualities of linen, and those towns that had a reputation for making fine linen policed their production assiduously.


Fustian is a blend of linen and cotton, sometimes with wool as well. Depending on the combinations, the fabric can have a variety of textures, but one particular type is denim. Germany was one center, but fustian production could be found all over Europe.

Industry in the Countryside

There were other kinds of industries in the countryside that were not associated with villages and farming. Two of the most important of these were smelting and woodcutting. Smelters were sited in or near forests because of their voracious demand for charcoal. Woodcutters were “independent contractors,” working off permits from local lords and selling the trees to lumbermen who took them off to sawmills. Since the trees belonged to the lord, he got most of the profit, and a woodcutter was a stock figure of poverty in folk tales.

Specific Crafts: Shoemakers

The Work

The shoemakers of Augsburg were craftsmen who made shoes. Yeah, I know: obviously. But the statement is actually significant, for it meant two related things: one, the members of the Shoemakers Guild did not repair shoes, they only made new ones; and two, others were not allowed to make new shoes. This specifically included the cobblers (Schuhflickern) within the city, but it also included non-citizens and particularly rural shoemakers.

There was a constant tension between the Shoemakers Guild and rural shoemakers, cobblers or otherwise, for an urban population is not static nor is a rural population, for that matter. People moved back and forth for a variety of reasons, and sooner or later this involved someone whose forebear had been a citizen, or who had learned shoemaking from a citizen, and so on. We know about these people because of their petitions to the City Council after their application to the Guild had been rejected.

The tension here can be documented across many guilds and across many towns. The general pattern (with many variations) was in the direction of greater control over rural production and commerce by the larger towns. The merchants and leading citizens supported and directed this move, which can be traced back to the later 15th century, but the common craft guilds supported it as well.

The Craft

Shoemaking involved first the purchase of leather, and specifically with new leather. The key distinction between shoemaker and cobbler was that the former was authorized to work only with new leather, while the latter was authorized to work only with used leather. So a cobbler could make shoes; he just couldn’t make them of new leather. In addition, shoemakers were authorized to make other leather goods, such as wine sacks. This, too, is typical of medieval craft guilds: even seemingly specialized crafts (e.g., needlemakers) in fact made a surprising variety of objects, though normally of same or similar materials. For example, shoemakers also dealt in fine cloths, with which they made the uppers for expensive shoes.

More than any of the other guilds here considered, the shoemaker fits the stereotype of a craft guild. The shoemaker’s home was usually also his shop, and his shop was also his retail outlet, though some did have a stall at a local market. Some shoes were ready-made (and they were straight: making a left shoe and a right shoe was a rare skill), while others were made to order by wealthy customers.

Shoemaking was not a very difficult skill to master, so there was little need for extended apprenticeships. Demand, however, was pretty inflexible, and there was a slow but steady increase in the number of journeymen in proportion to the number of masters. This created tensions between journeymen and masters, which eventually led to a pretty widespread rebellion in 1725 among journeymen shoemakers. Today we would call it a strike. While there wasn’t anything like a union or even an organization, some journeymen did correspond and try to coordinate their demands. But that incident lies beyond the boundaries of our course.


The Work

Joiners joined wood and did not use nails. They either joined wood by mortice and tenon joints, or else by using glue. You might call joiners cabinet makers, but they made a greater range of objects than that, from small boxes to desks to chests and armoires. Joiners also did fine detail work on buildings, such as window frames or ceilings. They tended to work in fine woods, and the definitely did not do the sorts of things carpenters did.

The Shop

Joiners might have two workplaces. If they were making something portable and free-standing, they had a shop, but very often they did their work on a construction site, because they were installing something or building windows or ceiling work. Their most important possession, therefore, was not so much the shop as it was their tools. This included the somewhat esoteric business of making and using different kinds of glues.

The Guild

Comparison with the shoemakers illustrates how the nature of the craft directly affected the social standing of the craftsman. While some shoemakers might make very fancy shoes, this was still minor compared to making an armoire or a hope chest, both in skill and in the cost of the materials. Especially with fine furniture, they tended to work on contract to produce specific pieces, rather the same way a goldsmith or an artist would. This brought them into closer contact with their wealthy customers, which also tended to enhance their prestige.

Labor relations were different, too. A joiner’s shop tended to be larger, requiring more tools and larger workspace. It also tended to be more of a shop and less of a retail outlet for walk-in customers. Because a joiner could get a large contract, he might have a sudden need for three or five or even more workers for the space of a few days or weeks. To meet this need, the guild ran a kind of employment service. Each day a representative of the guild would announce work available and would connect workers with masters. Masters were not allowed to hire except through this service, which verified (in theory) that all the workers were properly-qualified journeymen.



The Work

Medieval barbers did more than just cut hair. They also were surgeons and they also pulled teeth and performed bleeding. They got into these other lines of work mainly because they already had scissors and knives. Barbers also tended to serve in the town militia as field surgeons.

The Shop

Barbers worked out of their own shop, but this guild was quite different from either the joiners or the shoemakers because the barbers didn’t make anything. They were a skilled service trade, like being a car mechanic. If a barber had any assistants it might be a single apprentice and a single journeyman.


The Guild

The guild couldn’t regulate the quality of materials or the quality of production, but it did try to regulate the skills. Every applicant to the guild had to pass an exam, given by fellow masters. Surgical skills, in particular, were not only important, since life and limb might be at stake, but required a knowledge of human anatomy and of surgical tools and techniques.


The Knackers Guild Aegyptus