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Origin and Creation: London Guilds of the Twelfth Century

Origin and Creation: London Guilds of the Twelfth Century


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Origin and Creation: London Guilds of the Twelfth Century

By Katherine Payne

Historia, Vol.21 (2012)

Introduction: Written records concerning guilds did not begin to appear until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The only reference prior had been in the laws of Anglo-Saxon rulers. This paper will focus on the origins of medieval London guilds and the three most popular formations during the twelfth century: merchant, craft, and religious guilds. Each guild represented different influential institutions of medieval society and their economic contributions to the city as a whole. Many historians have debated over the true motivation in the formation of the guilds and two of the leading intellectuals are Lujo Brentano, with his theory of brotherhood, and in response George Unwin, who believes “volunteer associations” and the idea of Western European progress played a significant role in fueling the construction of the London guilds. London, as well as other towns and cities of the twelfth century, acted as the epicenter for guilds to create a regulated authority over members, monopolies, and outside merchants.

Prior to the invasion of 1066, England had been under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons who for over five centuries had established a social and political system, which transitioned “from a tribal to a territorial organization.” These institutions echoed some of the feudal system’s principles of later centuries with “social unions, lordship and fellowship.” In order to keep citizens and members of the guild community informed, social unions and meetings were held once a year to air grievances, collect dues, and set new laws. The notion of fellowship seemed to have the largest impact on the creation of the guilds. By forming groups of “fellows” with like-minded ideas and goals, the men and women would then be able to create their own forms of authority in their “fellowship” or guild. According to Joseph Strayer’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages, guilds were considered “an association of merchants or artisans primarily intended to promote the interests of its members…The guild usually enjoyed legal recognition and social permanence.” Some of the earliest guilds became examples of how the formation of power structures within the medieval towns or cities changed both politically and economically in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.


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