The concept of the guild, or occupational group, as its modern version has sometimes been called, is one of the most distinctive features of Catholic socio-economic thought. The guild combined two of the most important points of Catholic social theory, the principle of subsidiarity, as it later became known, and a distrust of purely economic motives in the conduct of human affairs. In the workings of the medieval guilds one can see both of these principles clearly, and because of this, Catholic thought has insisted on the continuing relevance of the guild idea to even a modern economy. The great differences between medieval and modern technology and social organization are no reason to question whether the guild system, with appropriate adaptations and modifications, is not still viable for a contemporary economy, as more than one twentieth-century pope insisted. In order to understand how the guilds embodied these principles, let us look at the actual operation of the medieval guilds in their own setting.
The origins of the medieval guilds, or corporations, as they were very often called, are not easy to trace. There may have been links with similar late Roman societies of craftsmen or with warrior fraternities among the Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire in western Europe. Guilds of merchants for mutual assistance preceded the emergence of actual craft guilds, which occurred around 1100. From Italy and the Rhineland the craft guilds spread rapidly over much of Europe and became major economic and social institutions. The structure of a typical guild may be summarized thus:
A guild was a federation of autonomous workshops, whose owners (the masters) normally made all decisions and established the requirements for promotion from the lower ranks (journeymen or hired helpers, and apprentices). Inner conflicts were usually minimized by a common interest in the welfare of the craft and a virtual certitude that sooner or later every proficient apprentice and industrious journeyman would become a master and share in the governance of the craft. To make sure that expectations would be fulfilled, a guild would normally forbid overtime work after dark and sometimes limit the number of dependents a master could employ; this also served to maintain substantial equality among masters and to prevent overexpansion of the craft.[i]
The guilds were considered to fulfill important purposes of public policy both for the benefit of guild members and of the general consuming public. These included, on the one hand, “maintaining a steady volume of business for their members,” and on the other, “a satisfactory standard of workmanship and a fair price for [their] products.”[ii] Thus they combined purposes that today we would consign to groups such as, on the one hand, trade associations, and on the other, government regulatory agencies. This difference, as we will see, constitutes one of major distinctions between medieval and modern approaches to politics and economics.
In order to understand why institutions such as the guilds would have spontaneously arisen in medieval Europe, we should recognize that the medieval mind was deeply aware of the truth that, as St. Paul wrote (I Timothy 6:10), “if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content…. For the love of money is the root of all evils….” Since the Fall of mankind not one of man’s appetites can simply be trusted to aim at the good or to result in good, either individually or collectively. Generally Catholics today see this with regard to the sexual appetite—it needs taming and guidance and too often tends toward havoc—but the medievals still held the belief of Sacred Scripture and the early Church that the appetite for gain was of a similar nature. Thus the acquisitive spirit was a matter for distrust and suspicion.
Material riches are necessary; they have a secondary importance, since without them men cannot support themselves and help one another; the wise ruler, as St. Thomas said, will consider in founding his State the natural resources of the country. But economic motives are suspect. Because they are powerful appetites, men fear them, but they are not mean enough to applaud them. Like other strong passions, what they need, it is thought, is not a clear field, but repression.[iii]
As a result, medieval man established safeguards around this appetite.
At every turn, therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings, against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs. It is right for a man to seek such wealth as is necessary for a livelihood in his station. To seek more is not enterprise, but avarice, and avarice is a deadly sin. Trade is legitimate; the different resources of different countries show that it was intended by Providence. But it is a dangerous business. A man must be sure that he carries it on for the public benefit, and that the profits which he takes are no more than the wages of his labor.[iv]
And as another historian has put it,
We can, therefore, lay down as the first principle of mediaeval economics that there was a limit to money-making imposed by the purpose for which the money was made. Each worker had to keep in front of himself the aim of his life and consider the acquiring of money as a means only to an end, which at one and the same time justified and limited him. When, therefore, sufficiency had been obtained there could be no reason for continuing further efforts at getting rich,…except in order to help others….[v]
If, then, the appetite for riches also needed taming and guidance, the only question was, by whom? Certainly, just as with sexual desire, individual effort was necessary and even decisive here, but was there a role for institutions? Today, if we accept the necessity for limitations on economic conduct, we generally consider this as a task for the state. But in the Middle Ages, for a variety of reasons, this was not seen as the natural place for that power. Although usually guild statutes were submitted to the civil authorities for their approval,[vi] the guild members themselves assumed the task of coordinating and orienting the activities of their members, and thus of restraining and guiding their acquisitive appetites. No doubt, with the small size of medieval governments, central economic regulation would have been impossible in any case, as this would have required not only a specialized bureaucracy but a more rapid communications technology than was available at the time. However, that was not the only or even the fundamental reason for the existence and activity of the guilds. The medieval state was weak not only because it had not yet undergone its later historical development, but because the medieval mind saw widely distributed power as part of the nature of things. The feudal system is certainly the best example of this, with a hierarchy of authority and power in which that of the higher depends directly on that of the lower. Those who actually held land were stewards of its use and responsible to those above and to those below them in the feudal and social hierarchy. And a similar idea operated with regard to economic matters. It was felt to be part of the natural order of things for those who performed the same economic task to govern themselves, as far as that concerned their common activity. Thus the guilds were simply examples of a corporate approach to organizing human society. Instead of the individual and the state, which moderns take as the natural order, society was like a quilt, with many sectors governed by their own rules, but fitting harmoniously into the whole, within a common framework. As Christopher Dawson wrote:
Thus the medieval city was a community of communities in which the same principles of corporate rights and chartered liberties applied equally to the whole and to the parts. For the medieval idea of liberty, which finds it highest expression in the life of the free cities, was not the right of the individual to follow his own will, but the privilege of sharing in a highly organized form of corporate life which possessed its own constitution and rights of self-government. In many cases this constitution was hierarchical and authoritarian, but as every corporation had its own rights in the life of the city, so every individual had his place and his rights in the life of the g[u]ild.[vii]
Therefore economic regulation, to use our modern term, was entrusted to the guilds not as a concession, but because that was where its primary locus was seen naturally to lie. Moreover, as we saw above, the guilds existed not only to protect the public from ill-made goods and unfair prices, but also for the sake of their own members, to provide “a secure livelihood” for guild members.[viii] And the obvious nearness of the guild structure to those whose activity it was to control—in fact, they were the same people—meant that a concern for their own prosperity was likewise natural to a guild, but not at the public expense. In this way guilds differ sharply from such modern organizations as trade associations, in that the guilds had protection of the public as one of their official ends. Nor was there, at least in theory, any conflict between these two purposes, for a just price for his goods would provide the craftsman with a fitting living according to his state in life, but neither more nor less than that. Neither seller nor buyer—again in theory—was out to achieve the best deal possible for himself, for each conceived the transaction as governed by principles of justice. We are yet far from that dubious notion of Adam Smith that the public good is ultimately promoted by simple self-interest. In any case, both the guilds and medieval public opinion vehemently rejected the notion that justice as an end could be attained by means that were lacking in either justice or public spirit.
From the public’s point of view what they chiefly desired was quality products at fair prices. And from that of the craftsmen, a sufficient remuneration for those products, along with steady work. As we saw, the guilds were in a position to respond favorably to both of these desires. Product quality was one of their major concerns.[ix] The statutes of the bakers’ guild of Exeter provided that the guild wardens
haffe fulle powere to make serche, with one of the officeris of the cite, as well vppon thoo that byeth mele contrary to the custume of the cite, as vppon gode paste to be made acordynd to the sise, as vppon all oder defavtys.[x]
The Bristol fullers arranged to have “four men of the craft…chosen as Masters” who would “search every house of the said craft, twice a-week, and oversee all defects in the said cloths, if any there be….”[xi] In both cases, if any defect was found, a fine was payable, half to the guild and half to the city government.
Although the civil authorities often directly set prices themselves,[xii] this practice was facilitated by the fact that no craftsman would have claimed the moral right to charge whatever the traffic would bear. That is, he himself, and his guild, recognized in principle the idea of the just price. The general ethical consensus of the period as summed up by St. Thomas appears thus:
And therefore if the price exceeds the quantity of the value of a thing, or, on the contrary, the thing exceed the price, equality of justice is removed. And therefore to sell more dearly or buy more cheaply a thing than it is worth, is in itself unjust and illicit.[xiii]
Thus a guild would not, at least in theory, have actively worked against this consensus, whatever private economic vices any individual guild members may have possessed.
At the same time, though, the guild also aimed at the prosperity of the craft as a whole. This was done by various devices. By limiting entrance into a craft, for example, the guilds sought to guard against overproduction and destructive competition. The number of apprentices each master could train and the number of journeymen he could employ was limited to what was thought to be the economic needs of the locality.[xiv] Enforcement of minimum product quality standards not only served the public interest, as we saw above, but eliminated, or at least limited, competition between various workshops. Since in intention, at least, every apprentice and journeyman would eventually become a master, economic life was not driven by the split between a proletariat without property, living solely by the work of its hands, and a prosperous class of owners who dominated their employees. And in fact the number of journeymen, at least during the high point of the guilds, does seem to have been limited in accordance with these ideals.
But even in a great city like Paris the 128 g[u]ilds which existed at the end of the thirteenth century appear to have included 5,000 masters, who employed not more than 6,000 to 7,000 journeymen. At Frankfurt-am-Main in 1387 actually not more than 750 to 800 journeymen are estimated to have been in the service of 1,554 masters.[xv]
Although in some cases workers may have been satisfied to remain journeymen or hired workers, and did not aspire toward a mastership, nevertheless the number of such was not sufficient to destroy the essentially unitary conception of the guild and of economic life during the medieval period.[xvi] Moreover, it is noteworthy that guild governance was not always limited to masters, that is, to those who owned independent shops. The statutes of the Exeter cordwainers, for example, provided that the membership “electe Wardynez of the saide crafte, for the yere folowyng, whereof ij. of theyme schalbe schoppeholders, and ij. other jorneymen.”[xvii]
These primarily economic and administrative regulations were ultimately grounded in the notion of the craft as a “fraternyte.” Those who worked in the same trade were to see each other as brothers fulfilling a public service, not as competitors or rivals for market share. Guild regulations usually provided for common religious festivals, banquets, meetings to conduct business, such as election of officers, and attendance at funerals of deceased members. Attendance at these events was required on penalty of a fine, as in the Exeter fullers the defaulter “as ofte as he so maketh defaute, xij.d.; halfe to be enployed to the vse of the said Cite, and the oder halfe to the sustentacion of the said ffraternite.”[xviii]
Because a guild conceived of itself as a brotherhood, it assumed other important social tasks.
The gild chantry, the provision of prayers and masses for deceased brethren, and the performance of pageants and mystery plays on the great feasts were no less functions of the gild than the common banquet, the regulation of work and wages, the giving of assistance to fellow gild-men in sickness or misfortune and the right to participate in the government of the city.[xix]
Particularly noteworthy are the Corpus Christi plays, elaborate dramas staged around the time of the Feast of Corpus Christi in England, in which salvation history from Creation to the Last Judgment was portrayed, each guild being responsible for a particular play.[xx]
Implied in what I have written above, but of sufficient importance that I should mention it explicitly, is that guilds were not voluntary associations nor, since Catholic thought does not make the same neat distinction between public and private authority that Liberalism takes for granted, should they be understood as either public or purely private institutions in the modern sense. Although, of course, no one was forced to become a member of a guild, if one wished to carry on a trade in a town, then it was obligatory to maintain membership in the proper guild and perforce abide by the guild regulations. This obligation could be ultimately enforced by the civil authorities. Very often the principle of subsidiarity is assumed to call for and refer to voluntary organizations only, but this is incorrect. It applies to lower organizations of all kinds, and in fact its prime application is to guilds or occupational groups, for when Pius XI, in introducing the principle of subsidiarity, lamented “the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds” (Quadragesimo Anno, 78), he was surely thinking first of all about guilds. To hold that subsidiarity calls for the existence of voluntary organizations or institutions only is unwittingly to embrace one of the fundamental principles of all forms of Liberalism, that except perhaps for the family only the state itself can have any real social authority.
A brief word about the later career of the guilds is in order.[xxi] Due primarily to changing ideas about economic activity, brought about by the decline of the medieval ideal, as well as new technology and modes of conducting business, the importance of guilds in the economy diminished after the sixteenth century, although they maintained an important economic role through most of the eighteenth, and in some places, especially in central Europe, into the nineteenth century.
In France the guilds were abolished after the Revolution by the National Assembly with the Chapelier law of 1791. In Britain their exclusive legal role was abolished by act of parliament in 1835, although they had already been of little practical importance for some decades. Even in the Papal States Pope Pius VII suppressed them in 1801, under the influence of the new ideology of the Revolution that accompanied the conquests of Napoleon.[xxii]
But in the mid-nineteenth century Catholics began to confront the modern social problem with the increased poverty and dislocation of the working class, and the demise of many traditional economic arrangements in both rural and urban areas. As a remedy for this situation many Catholics looked in part to a revival of the guilds, and began to work for their restoration. Among the most prominent of these thinkers who sought to apply traditional Catholic principles to the changed conditions of modernity was Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler of Mainz, Germany, who called for the reestablishment of guilds in his 1864 work, Die Arbeiterfrage und das Christentum. Even before then, in 1852, Pope Pius IX had restored a modified form of the guilds in the Papal States. With the accession of Leo XIII to the papacy in 1878, although no longer sovereign of a temporal kingdom, the new pope was active in urging a restoration of the guilds. In 1885 he told a group of French pilgrims, “We have exhorted the faithful of all countries to revive the…workers’ corporations which arose in better times and flourished under the inspiration of the Church with great success, both spiritual and temporal, for the laboring classes….”[xxiii] In his famous encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo lamented the destruction of the “ancient workmen’s Guilds” and devoted considerable space to setting forth the desirability and characteristics of societies of workers and employers, which, although not guilds in the strict sense, were intended to play a similar role in economic life.
In the twentieth century the name of Pope Pius XI is especially associated with a revival of guilds or occupational groups. In his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, and in Divini Redemptoris of 1937, he explicitly called for occupational groups that would unite workers and employers, and his successor, Pius XII, reiterated this call on many occasions. These new guilds were to be adapted to the realities of twentieth-century life, and were called by a variety of names, in the United States receiving the semi-official designation of industry council.[xxiv] These were to retain the essential note of the guild idea, industrial self-regulation, membership by all, whether employer or employee, and the aim of the common good both of the entire national economy as well as of the specific industry or profession. In 1940 Philip Murray, a Catholic and president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), put forward such a plan on the part of organized labor.[xxv] And under the inspiration of the papal program, Catholic regimes in Portugal, Austria, Spain, and elsewhere made attempts to restore occupational groups, chiefly in the 1920s and 30s.
Guilds were also an integral factor in the social program of the English Distributists and associated movements.[xxvi] Among well-known economists, Joseph Schumpeter indicated an interest in guilds and acknowledged their usefulness for present-day economic regulation.[xxvii] Another primarily non-Catholic movement that supported guilds was the English “Guild Socialists” of the early twentieth century, who made a type of guild a central feature of their economic program.
Regulatory structures with some guild features were also established by the Italian Fascist regime. Fascist and quasi-fascist parties in Europe and elsewhere were very interested in certain aspects of the guild idea, and Mussolini made the “corporation” the centerpiece of his ideas of economic organization. These entities, which had some resemblance to guilds, were to guide and govern the Italian economy. The Italian “corporative state,” however, was not really an effort to set up anything akin to the actual medieval guilds, for as Pius XI noted in Quadragesimo Anno, the Italian Fascists ignored the most important feature of the guild idea, self-government, and made them basically agencies of the state. Thus the totalitarian nature of the Fascist state, which Mussolini openly acknowledged, vitiated from the beginning any genuine guild order. As Oswald von Nell-Breuning, who is generally considered one of the chief architects of Quadragesimo Anno, wrote in his commentary on that encyclical,
Thus, two principal defects of the Fascistic organization are characterized: first, the totalitarian state, the omnipotence of the state, for which the corporate [guild] institutions are merely the means of dictating economic life, contrary to the principle of subsidiarity; secondly, the intermingling of public-legal and private-legal domains by forcing the guilds into the public-legal setup of economic society.[xxviii]
Thus the failure of the Fascist effort to truly recreate guilds followed necessarily from the Fascist notion of the state. If the state aims to act in a totalitarian manner, as the only active principle in the society and economy, then of course any guild-like structures that it establishes will be only convenient state instruments, which will endure only as long as they are a ready means to accomplish the state’s political goals in the economy.
Another effort that may be considered as inspired by the guild idea, broadly speaking, was the National Recovery Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, created in 1933 by the National Industrial Recovery Act and declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1935.[xxix] The Act provided for the establishment of codes of fair competition formulated by industry groups, which would then “be the standards of fair competition for such trade or industry or subdivision thereof.”[xxx] Msgr. John A. Ryan, the great American expositor of Catholic social thought, who was actually a member of the NRA Industrial Appeals Board, considered the NRA as deficient with regard to Pius XI’s ideal of occupational group restoration, which was “more radical, more democratic, and more desirable.” But, he wrote, “I still believe that if N.R.A. had been permitted to continue, it could readily have developed into the kind of industrial order recommended by Pope Pius XI.”[xxxi]
The institution of the guild fulfills in a remarkable way the ideal of Catholic economic regulation and order. At the same time as it restrains and guides economic activity toward the common good, it abides by the principle of subsidiarity. Instead of regulation and supervision by the central authorities, it is those actually involved in the work who perform those functions. In the Middle Ages the guilds arose as a more or less spontaneous means of industrial self-regulation in obedience to a deeply felt sentiment of self-government. The modern guild movement was a conscious echo of the medieval in response to the economic chaos brought about by liberal capitalism, and Pius XI’s enunciation of the principle of subsidiarity simply made explicit what the medievals instinctively understood. Thus occupational groups or guilds are a key to the establishment of an economy that is neither socialistic nor capitalistic, but rather is inspired and informed by Catholic principles.
Since the 1950s, in spite of some clear references to guilds or occupational groups in the writings of recent popes, including John Paul II,[xxxii] Catholic thought has shown less attention to such organizations. But in view of their prominence in Catholic tradition and their congruence with Catholic social ideals it is hard to see how the guild idea could be completely discarded.
Thomas Storck is an independent scholar in Ohio.
[i] Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1976), 127.
[ii]. Antony Black, Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present. (Ithaca: Cornell University, c. 1984), 8.
[iii] Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, c. 1926), 31-32.
[v]. Bede Jarrett, Social Theories of the Middle Ages (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1942), 157-158. Cf. the statement of St. Thomas Aquinas, “…the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches [i.e., money] is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence….” Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3.
[vi]. Black, Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present, 17, 24. A typical formula was that of the fullers’ guild in Bristol, which in the preamble to their ordinances mention “the assent of the whole Council of the aforesaid town…sealed with the seal of the mayoralty.” English Gilds: the Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds…, ed. [Joshua] Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith. (London: Trübner, for the Early English Text Society, 1870; Reprint, published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1963), 283.
[vii]. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950), 206.
[viii]. Black, Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present, 16.
[x]. Smith, English Gilds: the Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds, 336.
[xii]. Jarrett, Social Theories of the Middle Ages, 160-61.
[xiii]. “Et ideo si vel pretium excedat quantitatem valoris rei, vel e converso res excedat pretium, tolletur justitiae aequalitas. Et ideo carius vendere vel villius emere rem quam valeat, est secundum se injustum et illicitum.” Summa Theologiae, 2-2, q. 77, a. 1. See also my Distributist Review article, “Aquinas on Buying and Selling,” http://distributistreview.com/mag/2013/05/aquinas-on-buying-and-selling/
[xiv]. To the mind formed by free-market economic liberalism, such devices inevitably smack of a cartel whose aim is to limit competition so as to raise prices. And although it would be foolish to think that no guild members ever had such an aim in view, it does not follow that just because such an arrangement could be abused, that it always or even often was abused. If one is not persuaded that free-market operations by themselves always produce justice and prosperity, some kind of regulation becomes necessary. The fact that such regulation, even if wisely designed, can be abused, is not an argument against its use, unless one is working from the premise that market forces are always and everywhere the best and only legitimate regulators.
[xv]. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 26.
[xvi]. Gervase Rosser, “Workers’ Associations in English Medieval Towns” in Pascale Lambrechts and Jean-Pierre Sosson, eds., Les métiers au moyen âge, aspects économiques et sociaux. (Louvain-la-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1994), 294-96. Rosser points out that in some trades such as brewing or baking, fewer journeymen were able to acquire the necessary capital to set up shop for themselves, while in trades requiring less equipment, more journeymen were able to obtain the tools needed for an independent establishment.
[xvii]. Smith, English Gilds: the Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds, 332.
[xix]. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 207. See also Rosser, “Workers’ Associations in English Medieval Towns,” 302-04.
[xx]. V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1966), is still a standard account.
[xxi]. Much of the following is taken from Joaquin Azpiazu, The Corporative State (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951), 78-88.
[xxiv]. A committee of the American Catholic Sociological Society in 1948 recommended the term “industry council,” and the American bishops, in a statement later that year, took note of the recommendation without explicitly endorsing it. John F. Cronin, Catholic Social Principles (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1950), 221-22.
[xxv] Cf. Kimball Baker, “Go to the Worker”: America’s Labor Apostles (Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2010), 71-73.
[xxvi] See George Maxwell, “The Reconstruction of the Crafts,” in John McQuillan et al., Flee to the Fields: The Faith and Works of the Catholic Land Movement (London: Heath Cranton, 1934), 173-92. Hilaire Belloc explicitly mentions guilds in The Restoration of Property (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1946),35 and 75. (Both these works are available in reprints by IHS Press, Norfolk, Virginia.)
[xxvii] Cf. David A. Reisman, Schumpeter’s Market: Enterprise and Evolution (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, c. 2004), 173-76.
[xxviii]. Reorganization of Society Economy: the Social Encyclical Developed and Explained. (New York: Bruce, 1936), 255.
[xxix] On other regulatory efforts in the United States embodying some guild principles besides the NRA, see Joseph D. Munier, Some American Approximations to Pius XI’s “Industries and Professions”, a Dissertation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University, 1943)
[xxx]. National Industrial Recovery Act, section 3(b), quoted in Leverett S. Lyon et al, The National Recovery Administration, an Analysis and Appraisal (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1935), 891.
[xxxi]. John A. Ryan, Social Doctrine in Action, a Personal History (New York: Harper, 1941), 249. See also, Ernest P. Ament, Industrial Recovery Legislation in the Light of Catholic Principles, a Dissertation (Washington: Catholic University, 1936), for an extended examination of the NRA from a Catholic standpoint.
[xxxii] For recent papal references to occupational groups or similar structures, see John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, nos. 37, 65-67, 84, 86-90 and 100; and John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, nos. 14 and 20, and Centesimus Annus, nos. 7, 13, 43 and 48. Worthy of note are the two paragraphs (356 and 357) on the “Role of intermediate bodies” in the recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004.