This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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The example of the guild system

The term “guild” is largely dead, or is at least devoid of historical meaning where it is still employed. The guilds were not “clubs” of individuals with similar interests, as we might find a “quilting guild” today; nor were they analogous to modern labor unions. In fact, the phrase “labor union” signals the difference: for while modern unions are formed exclusively of workers who have nothing but their labor to bargain with, the guilds were formed by “working owners” whose strength lay in their ownership as much as in their labor. Thus, in this respect, we can see that modern unions have been rendered necessary precisely due to the division between ownership and work, or capital and labor, a division which does not make any sense in the guild context.

The guilds, thriving primarily throughout the Middle Ages, were cooperative associations. Neither private nor public, they served the role of the “intermediate organizations” mentioned earlier.[1] By serving as this link between individual and State—a link which no longer exists in contemporary society—craftsmen were able to wield political strength while nonetheless retaining their independence from a distant political authority. As such, they were able to provide for their membership in ways that are unthinkable today.

In his massive survey of history, Will Durant described how incredibly diverse the divisions were among the crafts, and how organized. He found that the leather industry, for example, had separate guilds for “skinners, tanners, cobblers, harness makers and saddlers.” Likewise, among carpenters there were “chest makers, cabinetmakers, boatbuilders, wheelwrights, coopers, twiners,” and so on.[2]

As to the functions and features of the guilds, Durant reports that:

“Guild rules limited the number of masters in an area, and of apprentices to a master; forbade the industrial employment of women except the master’s wife, or of men after six P.M.: and punished members for unjust charges, dishonest dealing, and shoddy goods. In many cases the guild proudly stamped its products with its ‘trademark’ or ‘hallmark,’ certifying their quality… Competition among masters in quantity of production or price of product was discouraged, lest the cleverest or hardest masters become too rich at the expense of the rest; but competition in quality of product was encouraged among both masters and towns. Craft, like merchant, guilds, built hospitals and schools, provided diverse insurance, succored poor members, dowered their daughters, buried the dead, cared for widows, gave labor as well as funds to building cathedrals and churches, and pictured their craft operations and insignia in cathedral glass.” A guild would also often “provide for its members insurance against fire, flood, theft, imprisonment, disability, and old age. It built hospitals, almshouses, orphanages and schools.”[3]

Now consider for a moment the astounding level of autonomy exhibited here in this massive project of cooperation. Consider how socially competent these organizations much have been. Notice also that while these groups regulated themselves, they did not do so by verdict of anonymous and far-removed legislators, but of their own accord based on the principles of justice they perceived. Needless to say, such an accomplishment would be completely impossible under the aegis of self-interest, competition, and maximized profit.

The guilds not only regulated the conditions of work, wages, quality control, and the just price within the trade, but provided equivalents to modern insurance, social security, public works and philanthropy.

[1] Section III, part 5b; section V, part 10.

[2] Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York, 1950), p. 635.

[3] Ibid., pp. 635-636.

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