Alfred Milnes.

From gild to factory : a first short course of economic history online

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some one particular industry. For such a change
it is obvious that the first precondition is a large
increase of population. A comparatively small
population would contain merchants enough, each
one trading in several commodities, to form a gild
merchant. But the population would have to be
much larger to support weavers enough to form
a gild of weavers. And again, where gilds of crafts-
men can arise the articles made must have been of
a kind to command a wide market, being portable
and of universal demand. Where these conditions
obtain, the separation of employments advances
rapidly. Particular industries tend to gravitate to-
wards certain congenial localities : the men carrying
on those industries have thus local facilities for
organization, and organization is sure to come.



Trade had been carried on in towns by merchants.
Owning land in those towns made a man a burgess,
and of burgesses the Gilds Merchant had been made
up. Anybody who bought and sold anything beyond
provisions for daily use was a " merchant." And
any man who owned a plot of land however small
would not have been excluded from the gild even
though a craftsman. Hence at first the craftsmen
lived in harmony with the gild. But from the first
membership involved a property qualification, for be-
sides possessing land, a man must pay his entrance-
fee. Now the class which possessed no land and
could not or would not pay an entrance-fee, rapidly
increased, and this class consisted almost entirely
of craftsmen. The richer class grew in wealth, and
devoted themselves entirely to trade, and the
crafts were left to the poor. Hence the regulation
that no one with " dirty hands " or with " blue
nails," or " who hawked his wares about the streets,"
should be a member of the Gild, and that no crafts-
man could be admitted until he had forsworn his
craft for a year and a day. Such rules there were for
Winchester, Marlborough, etc. Meanwhile the Gild
Merchant had become the municipality, with rights


of jurisdiction in the " coiirt-leet," and monopoly
of the trade of the town. What the craftsman had
to sell he could sell only to a member of the gild
of his town. Hence as craftsmen increased there
became inevitable a two-fold struggle —

(a) To obtain for their own organizations, the
Craft-Gilds, rights of supervision over their
own members, independent of the powers of the
municipal authorities ;

{b) To break down the trading monopoly of the
Merchant Gilds.

Now the commodity which was the first one in
England to possess the qualifications necessary for
securing a wide market (cf. p. 36) was woollen cloth.
Naturally enough, then, it was woollen cloth which
began and led the struggle of the craft against the
merchant gild. Weavers and fullers, whose gilds
we know to have existed in London, Lincoln, and
Oxford as early as 1130, obtained royal recognition
of their gilds, and, following the analogy of the
merchants, allowed no one to exercise the craft
unless a member of the gild. These men led the
struggle of the craft against the merchant gild ;
and though we know little of the process the result
is clear. The trading monopoly of the gild merchant
has fallen by 1300. When in 1335 Edward III
allowed the merchants of other countries to trade
freely in England, they being " of whatsoever estate
or condition," were to trade " with what persons
it shall please them." The monopoly is gone,
and the gilds merchant go after it. As separate
organizations their day is done. What becomes
of them we hardly know. Some of them seem to
have survived in an altered form. Possibly the


Merchant Adventurers are another form of survival.
But the subject is obscure.

The crafts have now obtained powers to deal in
their own courts with disputes among their members.
By 1377 there were 48 crafts in London alone ;
and by this time the tables were turned, and
instead of craftsmen being ineligible for citizenship,
citizenship was only open to craftsmen.

Organization of the Craft Gild. — The authority
was vested in wardens, bailiffs, or masters, to super-
vise the industry and punish offenders. These were
elected at full meetings of the whole craft. For
admission to the craft the man must be approved
by the officials, either as having served Apprentice-
ship, or on giving actual proof of skill. Soon after
1300 apprenticeship became necessary.

The regulations aimed at securing good work —
e.g., night work was prohibited, as leading to poor
work. Old age and sick pensions are provided for ;
a burial fund for those dying poor ; pensions for
widows ; and if a man fall sick in the middle of
his work, his task shall be finished for him " by
those of the trade, that the work be not lost."

Characteristics of the Craft-Gild System.

1. Dealing in necessaries of stable demand, and
not in unstable luxuries, it was able to supply con-
sumers outside the family group.

2. Capital was of little importance ; skill and
" connexion " were everything.

3. As yet there was no "working class" in the mod-
ern sense. There were journeymen, serving under
the masters, and hoping, and as a rule able, to
become masters of their craft after a few years.


4. The master craftsman was an independent
producer, working in his own shop, with his own
tools, and at his own choice of hours. Hence it is
not the master, but the journeyman, whose position
should be compared with that of the workman of

5. Municipal control with a view to securing a
good quality of produce. After the fall of the Gild
System, this function was for long in abeyance, and
has been lately somewhat revived in Adulteration
Acts, etc.

6. Each craftsman had to choose his craft and
abide in it, with a view to more perfect supervision.
This principle, afterwards enforced in the great
Statute of Apprentices, 5 Eliz., c. 4, 1563, was
embodied in a Statute as early as 1363 ; and lasted
until it went down before the assault of Adam
Smith, and was finally repealed in 1814.

7. The members of each craft lived together in the
same street or locality. Of this there are traces left
to this day, in cases like the Bermondsey tanning.

Such was the plan of organization of most of our
industries at the middle of the fourteenth century.
And not merely for manufactures. The rustic
labourer had his Gild, and in some cases also his
Gildhall in the villages, and found there ready to
his hand the organization which gave some of its
inspiration and most of its strength to the Peasant
Revolt of 1 38 1.

Citizenship, then, has come to include membership
of a craft. And the town, organized on this basis
of citizenship, controlled industry. The old associa-
tion based on land has given way to one of persons ;
it has changed from real to personal. And the


various mysteries were welded into a whole which
constiUited the municipal life of the town. Politically,
they were the organs of local administration and
self-government ; economically, they were the instru-
ments of supervision in an age when everything was
supervised. And in this citizenship plutocracy ruled
rather than democracy. The mayor and his
brethren of the Council were the ultimate authority
in trade disputes.

Essentially, no one could be allowed to carry on
any occupation within the limits of the town, unless
he had been admitted a craft freeman.

The organization accorded with the economic
time. It was the day of the local market, and
industrial organization was also local. And the
great object of the organization was to do for a
man's trade and earnings what the Frith-Gilds had
done for his person, and secure him in the safe
and regular enjoyment thereof. The craft was
governed by its meetings, and at these meet-
ings the master and wardens were appointed.
And as the purpose of the Gild was to regulate
the trade, it is obvious that that object could
only be carried out if all who belonged to the
trade belonged also to the Gild. Hence, the regu-
lation that all of the trade must belong to the Gild
was, at all events at first, one of government and
not of monopoly ; and this is shown by the fact that
at first, while none of the trade were allowed to
remain outside of the Gild, all were allowed to
enter it ; and it is not until the craft has degenerated
into the Corporation that the spirit of monopoly
endeavours to limit the size of the body of the craft.
And before this same degeneration one frequent
regulation of the craft referred to the number of
" servants " that one master craftsman might


employ — often only one. This shows that such
" servants " (i.e. wage-earning labourers) must
have been scarce, and that at this time there was no
" working class.''



The craft Gilds, then, are now fully organized,
and for most industries in England, the story of the
crafts and their development is that of the Trade.
For the name " Gild " soon drops out of use, and
" mistery " or " craft," takes its place, and the craft
system continues its growth and its own internal
changes from Edward III to EUzabeth. During
the reign of Elizabeth the tendency to recognize the
crafts as " Corporations " has become marked ; and
it is under this name that they and their privileges
are assailed by Adam Smith. But during these
two centuries — say, roughly, 1350-1550 — there has
not occurred, for most industries, the extent and
intensity of economic change that would at once
cause and condition any fundamental alteration
of economic system.

Yet for one great industry, or class of industries,
the economic change does arise, and the consequent
alteration in system does take place ; and the textiles,
with wool in the leading place, pass from the Gild,
or Craft, to the Domestic organization.

Hence, therefore, we have to trace separatel_v
these two distinct lines of development ; first, the
slow and continuous growth of the gild or corpora-


tion system — a growth without revolution, and
along lines already laid down ; and, secondly, the
more revolutionary or catastrophic change to a
system of large manufacture, wherein by passing
through the domestic, our textiles develop into the
factory system.

And firstly, then, for the further story of the

In some trades, particularly the textiles, we had
gilds with a membership of workers at a very early
date. The twelfth century gave us Weavers' Gilds,
and these must have existed side by side with the
Gilds Merchant. But these Weavers' Gilds took
their authority from the Crown, whereas the Craft
Gilds of the fourteenth century were created with
the approval and under the control of the civic
authorities. And the relation between the two,
when Merchant and Craft Gilds did exist contem-
poraneously, is difficult to trace. Cunningham
suggests that perhaps in some at least of such
cases the crafts were specialized branches of the
Gild Merchant. This however, is probably going
too far ; and the more likely explanation is that
as at first the gild merchant did not exclude the
craftsman, so when the craftsman found himself no
longer welcomed in the (iild Merchant he combined
with others, who resembled him in station, though
not necessarily identical in trade. And that thus
the Craft Gilds grew by differentiation of the
parts of the Gild Merchant, and aggregation of like

The object of these Craft Gilds was the " regula-
tion " of the trade. Our judgment, therefore, upon
the crafts as institutions will be but a particular case
of the more general judgment which we pass upon
the desirability of regulation as such.


There can be no doubt that much of this system
of regulation was intended to check fraud, and main-
tain the corporate good name of the craft. And of
the provisions which make up the system none was
more important than the appointment of the
" Searchers." As early as 1363 it was enacted that
two of every craft be chosen " Searchers," to see that
none use other craft than the same which he has
chosen ; and by the end of Edward Ill's reign it
was ordained that " all the misteries of the city of
London shall be lawfully regulated and governed,
that so no knavery, false workmanship, or deceit
shall be found in any manner in the said' misteries.
And in each mistery there shall be chosen and sworn
four or six or more or less, according as the mistery
shall need ; w^hich persons so chosen and sworn shall
have full power from the mayor well and lawfully
to do and to perform the same." These regulations
seem to indicate that there was at the time more
rather than less of petty knavery as compared with
modern times ; and that the more highly placed in
the gilds recognized the advantages of honesty as
practised by the others. Fraud of coarser sort seems
to have been abundant — short weight, stones in
hay, and the mixing of various kinds of leather, e.g.
basil with cordwain, and calfskin with cowskin.
Now there certainly seems to be some reason for
thinking that a " corporate conscience " is neces-
sary as a defence against this kind of fraud.
As witness the work of our present London County
Council, which has brought it about that the " coal-
cellars which a year or two ago held two tons of coal
will now only hold a ton and a-half." But it will
not do to suppose, as Cunningham seems to suppose,
that all this regulation was to the advantage of
the workman, as compared with the modem com-


petitive regime. The legal regulations were made
by the payers of wages, not by the receivers of them.
And every care was taken to prevent competition
from " functionating " when the result might be
favourable to the workmen. E.g., the cordwainers,
who after swearing in four of their number to see
that " those who shape and make shoes shall mix no
manner of leather with other, but shall make them
wholly of one leather," proceed to enact : — " And
it is forbidden that the servant workman in cord-
waining or others shall hold any meeting to make
provision which may be to the prejudice of the trade
and to the detriment of the common people, under
pain of imprisonment." In fact, the gild consisted
of the aristocracy of labour ; and those were times
when all aristocracies were fully alive to the differ-
ences of destiny fixed by Providence as between
themselves and commonalties. They were the
elite of each trade, and chosen peoples have habitu-
ally approved the choice. But this fact was the
cause at once of their early strength and of their
ultimate breakdown.

But at the time of which we are speaking, the
fourteenth century, the gild system harmonized
so well with the spirit of the age that the formation
of a gild became a kind of instinct of self-preservation,
which went as low down as the parish clerks. Nor
were more solid reasons wanting. The craft obtained
the monopoly of the trade, and none could be a
tradesman unless in the craft. Whence sprang
abuses, when the craftsmen kept down their
numbers by demanding heavy entrance-fees, and
placing other difficulties in the way of joining the
craft. So that by about 1475 various trades
had openly avowed their purpose of protecting them-
selves against the competition of stranger workmen.


Early in the fifteenth century the greater London
industries had secured unto themselves separate
incorporation ; and they remain to this day as the
City Companies. Of these we shall hear a good deal.

And classes began to be differentiated within the
crafts, chiefly by discrimination of Apprenticeship
and Joume5mian Service. Hence there were in a
fully developed Gild, three classes of members : —
Apprentices, Journeymen, and Masters. Of these —

1. Apprenticeship was at first exacted by the
regulations of the various' crafts acting individu-
ally. The usual time for apprenticeship was seven
years : — ;;.

"But when my seven long years are out,
Oh, then I'll marry Sally " ;

but various other periods might be agreed upon.
The master is to " find " the apprentice in food,
clothing, shelter, and chastisement ; which last item
at all events does not seem to have been subject to
short measure. A small annual payment, increasing
year by year, was due by the master to the appren-
tice, from ^d. in the first year to los. in the last.

This apprenticeship was virtually compulsory
from 1363 onwards, under the enactments of the
crafts themselves. But in 1563 the enactment
passes into law by the great Statute of that date,
the " Statute of Apprentices," 5 Eliz. c. 4. All
sorts of measures were taken to restrict apprentice-
ship to the children of the well-to-do, and to exclude
" foreigners," i.e. persons from outside the towns.
Also to restrict the number of apprentices a man
might take, generally to two.

2. The Journeyman is much more difficult to


investigate. His position is not so clearly defined in
law, and moreover seems to have been essentially
various and dubious. Sometimes we find journey-
men taking part even in the governance of the craft,
sometimes the victims of laws forbidding them to
combine amongst themselves, and " make congrega-
tions." The journeyman was at first one who hoped,
and as a rule succeeded, in making his way to be a
master. And it was the fading of this hope which
cast him back on other ways for seeking prosperity,
by means of combinations of quite another sort.

3. The Masters. — Let us look at these for a moment
by themselves.

In the early Middle Ages our economic activity
had been practically all agricultural. Then there
arose slowly the merchant class, embodied in the
Gilds Merchant. But with the rise of the Craft
Gild we find, for the first time, a body of men with
whom manufacture was the real business of life. At
first this was a mere separation of an employment,
due to the progress of -peace. For under that favour-
ing influence the productiveness of farming industry'
so increased that a smaller proportion of the popu-
lation sufficed to grow food for all, thus setting more
hands free for " other-than-food " production ; and
the demand for goods other than food became
constant and reliable enough to enable men to devote
their whole time to meeting it. And thus was
developed a higher skill than the ordinary peasant,
turning an occasional hand to manufactures, could
possibly acquire. The possession of such skill,
handed down by inheritance and training, differ-
entiated the artisan class from the cultivators. But
this artisan class is not what we should now call a
" working-class." That is to come later on. The
Master was a man of substance. As a burgess of the


town he could undertake to train and maintain
apprentices, under the recognized regulations.

Women, save only his own wife and daughter, he
could not employ, at all events in England ; in some
of the Continental gilds workers were under no sex
disability. But the conditions under which this arti-
san class worked at that time were wholly unlike
those which now prevail. Our modern distinctions
of Labourer, Capitalist, Entrepreneur, etc., did not
then apply. If a man wanted some cloth woven, he
bought the yarn, and either took it to the artisan's
house to be there woven in the artisan's loom, or,
if he had a loom of his own, he sent for the artisan
to come and weave it. And when the work was
done it was paid for by the piece. Such a person
would be " employer," or " customer," or " pro-
ducer," or "consumer" in modern terminology,
according to the aspect of him regarded as most
conspicuous at the moment. And the craftsman
so employed was a " labourer " because he worked,
a " capitalist " in virtue of his own tools and work-
shop ; and if ever, failing an immediate order, he
bought materials and manufactured some goods in
the hope of a market for them, he appeared as an
" entrepreneur." Such conditions have survived
amongst us to this day in the gypsies' cart with its
load of baskets, etc., for sale. " Cane chairs to
mend" is a street cry even yet, and proclaims the
survival, in this humble industry, of economic con-
ditions six centuries old.

Wherefore the early craftsman simply represents
the side of industry that was not agricultural ; and
rather than say that he combined in his person the
functions of labourer and capitalist, employer and
employed, it is better to decline the anachronism of
applying these terms to him at all. They are an



artisan class ; but they arc not as yet a labour class ;
still less a " working class " in the modern sense.

But now, by about 1350, we have a real labour
class. Small at first, but increasing as time goes
on. It consisted of men who either had never been
apprentices, or who had come out of apprentice-
ship, but had not yet set up for themselves as
master craftsmen. They acted as assistants to
the masters, and at first did so for a time only, till
they had saved stock, and found opportunity for
starting on their own account. These men were
called servants, or yeomen, or valets. And as they
increase in numbers it becomes more and more
obvious that only a minority of them will ever be
able to become masters. In fact, their very exist-
ence shows that the economic conditions have been
changing. And whereas in the earlier days the
energies of all but a few had been fully engaged in
meeting the elementary wants of a primitive society
— the need of food, clothing, and shelter — now,
those needs can be met by the labour of a far
smaller proportion of the total population, and
larger numbers are set free for more elaborate pro-
duction. And as there are many more people
wanting things in general, the law of averages
begins to assert itself, and we become increasingly
certain that at any moment it will be possible to
find some one who wants some particular things.
That is to say, that men can now safely make
things in the confident expectation of being able
to sell them ; and the age of " anticipatory pro-
duction " has begun. A man li\dng in the early
" family stage " of industry which we have de-
scribed above would only make a coat when he
happened to want one himself, or, at all events,
when he knew definitely of some one who did want


one, and was prepared to give him something in re-
turn for supplying that want. But now all that is
changed, and though the coatmaker may not happen
to know who it is that will buy his coat when
finished, yet he is content to make coats in con-
fident anticipation that some one will want them.
Hence there arises an industrial class, in which the
possession of capital becomes of importance, and
within it a labour class, consisting of men who look
to this anticipatory production to procure them a
constant reward for their labour.

But at about this same time we begin to see how
the crafts themselves are becoming exclusive. The
child of the craftsman is admitted to the craft on
easy terms, but the terms are hard to the stranger.
Entrance fees are purposely fixed at a high figure,
in order to keep the numbers down, and apprentice-
ship is only open to the free and legitimately born.
And sometimes even in England, and often on the
Continent of Europe, a " masterpiece " was de-
manded of the candidate for admission to the craft,
and none could exercise the craft until his master-
piece had been approved. The word " master-
piece " has of recent times greatly changed its
meaning, and is applied, particularly in connexion
with the fine arts, to the best thing a man has done.
But the " masterpiece " was in those days simply
the work which proved a man as a master of his
craft, and would more nearly answer to the " Dip-
loma Picture " of a modern Academy. And the
burden of having to produce it was a heavy one, for
it often took long to do, and was wholly unsaleable
when done. Another obligation often enforced on
the apprentice desirous of qualifying as a master
was that of travelling, sometimes for a considerable
term of years. This gave rise to the establishment


of the Auberges, or Houses of Call, where the wan-
dering journeyman could hear if work were obtain-
able in the neighbourhood. Little wonder, then,
that men thus classified and locally concentrated,
and provided with common cause of grievance,

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