Guilds, Then and Now

I thought it made sense to follow up my comments on SCA Households with an article about our SCA guilds. First, let’s look at guilds and commerce in medieval history. It’s surprising to see how little our SCA guilds resemble the real things. There was no mass production in the Middle Ages. Manufacturing was done by individuals, artisans who were often assisted by family members or others who had been sent to live with the artisan in order to learn a trade. Things were pretty much made to order, one at a time. The idea of building up a surplus of goods with the goal of making a big future sale was foreign to the medieval tradesman. They made what they knew was going to sell. If someone wasn’t buying it, they didn’t make it.

Just as the general populace of the Middle Ages learned the advantages of banding together to live in towns, so, too, did the tradesmen learn that there were advantages to banding together. Over time, guilds were established by tradesmen to serve a variety of purposes. A guild was an official, law-wielding organization within a town that oversaw various aspects of commerce and the production of goods and services. A typical medieval town could have anywhere from a dozen to a hundred guilds, each looking after its own tradesmen. There were bakers’ guilds, shoemakers’ guilds, glaziers’ guilds, plasterers’ guilds, brewers’ guilds, etc…

According to Philip Daileader, Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, guilds protected the common interests of those who practiced a certain trade. Though guilds looked out for the welfare of the producer, NOT the consumer, they maintained a high degree of quality in the products and services that they controlled, ultimately benefitting the consumer of the day. Guilds were very much opposed to competition within their memberships, making very sure that one tradesman didn’t gain an advantage over another: they banned any form of advertising by individual members, established set prices for products or service, limited the quantity of goods that individual members produced, and regulated the tools and raw materials that members could use as well as how they were to be used. By classifying their members as Master, Journeyman, or Apprentice, guilds controlled who could make and sell a particular product or service.

Unlike their historic namesakes, SCAdian guilds bear no such authority within the Society. Even if one squints really hard, it’s difficult to find many similarities. In the SCA, a guild is nothing more than an unofficial collection of members who want to learn about and discuss a particular art or science. In most cases, there are no specific requirements for or benefits of membership in an SCA guild. SCA guilds are, essentially, special interest groups and exercise no control over who can and can’t participate in our various arts, sciences, and crafts. Even for members who happen to make and sell a particular product at one of our events, SCAdian guilds have no authority over that individual or the product or service, nor do they offer any endorsements.

Most SCAdian guilds have little to no hierarchy. In most cases, it’s difficult to even produce a list of the members within a given guild. Some longstanding guilds have a guildmaster or guildmistress, though that title is unofficial and isn’t taken as part of one’s name. (Since “Master” and “Mistress” are reserved in the SCA for certain members of the Peerages, these titles cannot be used by the various guilds within the SCA; a notable and unfortunate deviation from history.)

Certainly, there can be benefits to belonging to an SCA guild. It can put a novice in touch with artisans both local and abroad, and vice versa. Though the modern relationships that form are probably nothing like those of historic medieval Masters and Apprentices, they can be entertaining and fulfilling to everyone involved. Guild members may pool information and resources and work on common projects together. It’s always fun to gather and talk with folks of similar interests, and more often than not, someone comes away having learned something.

In my local SCA group, the Shire of Endewearde, we have a few guilds. The two most active are the brewers’ guild and the cooks’ guild. In addition, there’s also the embroiderers’ and tailors’ guilds. A good way to find the various guilds within the SCA is to do a search on the Internet. You’ll be surprised at what’s out there! Different kingdoms value their guilds differently, or not at all. In most cases, membership within a particular SCA guild is not limited to a specific region or kingdom. All one needs is an interest in, a desire for, or a willingness to share, information.

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