Guilds in History and the SCA

Mediaeval guilds, also called Companies, Societies or Misteries, were associations of professional crafts- or tradespeople. Guilds had their origins in the religious fraternities of the early Middle Ages, and many guilds still bear religious associations in their names or charitable activities. These associations evolved into commercial entities to meet the needs of the growing professional and merchant classes. A guild served to protect its members by regulating commerce and trade, and providing business and social support for members and their families. Guilds often developed great wealth and prestige, and wielded considerable economic and political influence.

Membership in a guild was usually strictly regulated and ranked, with members being required to meet high standards of workmanship and training. In contrast to feudal relationships, guilds were democratic bodies, with elected masters and a Court of Officers who oversaw the running of the association. These officers could include the Guildmaster, the Upper Warden who served as deputy to the Guildmaster, the Renter Warden who managed the property and assets of the guild, and the Beadle who was responsible for the guild’s finances. Guilds managed their own affairs with charters or ordinances, a set of rules decided by the members in their best interests. Such ordinances governed the daily operations of the guild, often in considerable detail regarding business restrictions, pricing structures, training and safety standards, members’ benefits and penalties, social obligations and more. An example of a period charter, of the Arras Guild of Shearers from 1236, can be found below.

Although guilds were self-determining, Royal patronage and association were keenly sought. Particularly important guilds might even boast the King as a member or honorary master. Many guilds were recognized as “official” bodies, being granted Charters by the Crown. Such London Guilds or “Livery Companies” so honoured included the Weaver’s Company (in 1155), the Company of Goldsmiths (1300), the Guild of the Body of Christ of the Skinners of London (1349), The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors (1327), and the Mercer’s Guild (1394). Such a charter was by no means essential to the functioning of a successful guild however; the Painters Guild traces its ordinances to 1283 while the Stainers Guild is mentioned in 1268. These two guilds combined in 1502 as the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers, and received their first charter from the Crown in 1581.

A Royal Charter generally granted the guild recognition as a corporate entity, with the right to own property, use a common seal and even Armorial bearings granted by the King’s heralds. A Royal Charter could be granted or confirmed more than once, or revoked. The Leatherseller’s Charter was granted by King Henry VI in 1444, and the Company sought to confirm its status by obtaining another Royal Charter from James I in 1604. The Company was forced to surrender its privileges in 1685 when King Charles II issued the Company with a new charter asserting the royal prerogative. This was revoked by the Court of Assistants in 1689, and the Leathersellers reverted to the authority of their 1604 charter. King Charles II’s charter was declared void, and the King’s Great Seal attached to it was broken into fragments as an act of defiance.

In the SCA, guilds are rarely commercial associations. Although the term “guild” is occasionally used to refer to a local group which organises projects for their Shire or Barony, generally it refers to an association of people who wish to focus on an aspect of the Arts and Sciences. Arts and Sciences guilds in Lochac range from smaller groups who share a common interest in a particular field, to larger and more formal associations which emulate the structures and practices of the great mediaeval guilds. It is this type of Guild this document discusses.