Freemasonry And The Guild System

Freemasonry And The Guild System

BY Bro. H. L. Haywood 
Originally Published In The Builder - November 1923


When the Angles and Saxons settled in ancient England (Britain it was then
called) they at first maintained their military form of organization, so that
each settlement was a kind of camp; but as time went on and villages became
permanent, a civil form of social order began slowly to evolve. The first step
in this was the institution of the kin-bond, wherein blood relatives stood
together for support and protection, the individual and his family being
mutually responsible. This gave way in the course of ti me to voluntary
associations founded not on blood relationship but on community ties, existing
to protect the individual against the group, to preserve order in the
settlement, and for a variety of similar purposes. These associations, described
as "artificial" in contrast to the "natural" bond of blood, were the first gilds
in England, in virtue of which fact it cannot be said that anybody ever
"discovered" or "invented" gilds; they grew out of natu ral conditions in
response to social necessity, just as t hey had come into existence among the
Greeks and Romans centuries before, the former calling them "thiassoi", etc.,
the latter, "collegia". It is generally believed by the more dependable
authorities that it is very possible that there may have been some historical
continuity between the gilds of early England and the Roman collegia, but the
historical remains of the period are too scanty to enable us to make sure on
that point. If such a continuity ev er existed it was more probable in Italy,
where the co llegia longest endured, and which, like most other European
countries, had a gild system of its own.

The word "gild" (sometimes spelled "guild") continues to be a puzzle so far as
its etymology is concerned. The North Germans had "geld", meaning money; the
Danish, "gilde", a religious feast in honour of the god Odin; the Anglo-Saxons,
"gild", from same root as "yield", and meaning a fixed payment of money; the
Bretons "gouil", a feast or holiday; the Welsh "gmylad", a festival. In later
times, when gilds became everywhere common, the North Germans used the word
"gild"; the South Germans, "zunft"; the Fr ench, "metier"; and the Italians,
"arte". In the sixteenth century England the word was generally superseded by
"company", "corporation" or "mystery", the last name derived from the Latin
"ministerium", or trade, and having no reference to anything mysterious, being
preserved in our usage to this day, as when we speak of the arts, parts and
mysteries of Freemasonry.

The first gilds, as it is believed, were organized in Italy. In France they were
very common before Charlemagne, and are first mentioned in the Carolingian
Capitularies of 779 and 789. Commercial and craft gilds began to become common
in France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden in the eleventh century.
The oldest known ordinances, as the written laws for the government of a gild
were called, occur in England in the eleventh century. The gild principle proved
so successful and was applied to s o many uses that by the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries it became the outstanding feature of the social and
economic life of Europe.

One of the commonest early uses of that principle was in the "frith", or peace,
gilds, which became very popular in North Europe in the sixth century - the
Vikings organized then to suppress piracy - and in England the century later,
where they were referred to in the Laws of Ine. These were voluntary
associations of men organized for mutual defense, to supplement defective laws,
and to police the community in a period when national governments were not known
and when the authority of the town was very wea k. We saw this system at work in
our own land under pioneer conditions, as in the case of the Vigilantes, and
even today, in spite of our elaborate machinery for the enforcement of law and
the protection of citizens, impatient men in some communities strive to make or
enforce law by similar methods.

In the course of time gilds multiplied until they came to be used for every
conceivable purpose, for good-fellowship, for drinking, for insuring a decent
burial, for worship, for hunting, travel, art and for banking; priests and
friars organized, sailors, travelers, woodsmen and shepherds; there were gilds
for men, women, children, for rich and for poor, in the country and in the town.
Functions now performed by government, armies, schools, stores, factories,
hospitals, trade unions, and most of the other innumerable forms into which
social organization has differentiated itself, were then held in keeping by

The typical gild had prayers for the dead; a common chest for incidental upkeep
and for the relief of the widows and orphans of deceased members; periodical
meetings, with banquets; admitted members on an oath, sometimes two;
administered fines; adopted ordinances for the regulation of its own activities;
punished members for improper conduct, and co-operated in many ways with the
town or national governments. Most of these societies were small, the largest on
record being the Corpus Christi gild at York, which once boasted of 15,000
members. Sometimes many gilds in a community consolidated, but there was never a
country-wide merger. Of the city of London there is record of one gild in 1130;
of eighteen in 1180, and of 110 in 1422. In the time of Edward III there were
listed more than 40,000 religious and trade gilds in England; the census of 1389
showed 909 in Norfolk alone. This proliferation received its first serious
set-back during the Ref ormation when Henry VIII despoiled all religious gilds;
it di ed down rapidly with the advent of the capitalist system, and came to a
dead stop, except in a few unimportant instances, in the last century. France
prohibited them in 1789-91; Spain and Portugal, 1833-40; Austria and Germany,
1859-60; Italy, 1864; Scotland, where the development had followed Continental
lines, in 1846, and England in 1835.

In its heyday the gild system was very closely connected with the church, so
closely that some writers credit the church with its origin; almost every gild
had its patron saint, before whose image it kept a candle burning, and many set
aside sums of money for the sustenation of a priest, the maintenance of a chapel
and for masses, chantries, church charities and church schools. Oftentimes a
gild had its own chaplain, and a very large number, as already noted, were
devoted exclusively to religious purposes; these religious fraternities were
suppressed in England in 1547, and other gilds were at the same time forbidden
to give money to churches. A number of the Roman Catholic fraternities now
existing are lineal descendants of the old religious gilds.

Partly as a result of their alliance with the church many gilds, otherwise
devoted to purely secular pursuits, participated in pageants and in mystery,
morality and miracle plays, the forerunners of our modern drama. These plays
were staged on wagons drawn in a "procession" from one exhibition point to
another across the town, and always it was a day of excitement when they were
shown, and vast crowds gathered. Expenses were divided among the gilds and parts
allotted, as at Norwich, where the mercers, dra pers and haberdashers presented
the creation of the world; the grocers, Paradise; the smiths, the fight between
David and Goliath; or as at Hereford, the glovers gave Adam and Eve; the
carpenters, Noah's ship; the tailors, the three kings, etc. It is of record that
on a few instances parts were taken by gilds of Masons. I am of the opinion that
the drama of our Third Degree may very probably have been originally an old
mystery play, which may have found its way to us through some Masons' gild that
partici pated in it.

It used to be the fashion to say that the gild corporation and the town
corporation were identical, or that the former gradually metamorphosed into the
latter, a view given a very wide circulation by Brentano; this idea has been
abandoned. There was always a close connection between town government and gild
government, but the two were always distinct, except possibly in two or three
negligible instances. In many cases a man had to be a gild member before he
could become a citizen, but the gild ordinances were always subordinate to the
town authority. The manner in which the gilds governed themselves will be
described later.

It is a remarkable fact, and one worthy of especial remark to us Masons, that
many gilds accepted men not at all engaged in the craft as patrons or as a means
of bestowing an honour or some special privilege. "Indeed," writes one of the
best authorities, E. Lipson, "the members of many London companies frequently
came to have only a very faint connection with the business of the company to
which they were attached," a fact that makes it easier for us to understand how
non-operatives came to be admitted int o the old Masonic gilds, or lodges. "They
included in their membership," writes another authority, "most of the wealthy
men of the nation, and the great [gild] halls now standing in the city of London
testify to the proud names with which they are so generously decorated that the
men who made England what she was, the men who built her commerce, won her
wealth and risked their lives and fortunes in extending England's commercial
supremacy, were mighty i n the gilds." Henry IV, Henry VI and Henry VIII were g
ild members, so also Edward III, who belonged to a gild of armourers. There is
therefore nothing extraordinary in the fact that Elias Ashmole and other
worthies of his time sought membership among the operative masons.


The gild system in general had two grand periods of development, the first of
which culminated in the merchant gilds, as were called those associations formed
in all the towns (save a few, among which was London) for the purpose of
managing and controlling trading and commerce. Such a gild included all engaged
in a given kind of commerce, including wage-earners as well as proprietors, and
the object was to enable the merchants to maintain a monopoly of, and an
efficient organization of, all the merchandisin g in a given community. These
organizations grew apace and waxed powerful and became in time the foster
parents of English commerce; more than 100 towns in England and seventy in
Ireland and Wales had them. They reached their zenith in the twelfth century,
began to disappear in the fourteenth century and were almost completely
superseded by craft gilds in the fifteenth century.

Merchant gilds engaged in so many activities, some private, some public, that it
is impossible to describe them in full; among the most important of their
functions was the control of import and export of wares; the limiting of the
number permitted in any trade; the regulation of wages and prices, and the
inspection and standardization of goods. Every member had to pay "scot" and
"lot", as the general taxes were called, and take oath to obey the rulers and
ordinances, as well as contribute his annual dues. As a reward for his
membership he was privileged to share in business transactions and in bargains,
and was given a "status" in the community very much coveted. If he fell ill he
was cared for; his family was looked after in case of his death; in unemployment
he was helped to find a position, and he was protected against quarrels and
unjust dealings. The gild was governed by an alderman ("elder man") and his
associates, two or four in number; it had it s own treasury; passed its own
ordinances; could fine o r otherwise punish its members; and in some instances
had its own court. At periodical meetings - called "morning speeches" - the
brethren passed or revised ordinances, admitted new members, feasted and elected

As industry developed in scope and complexity it became increasingly difficult
for these gilds merchant to retain their monopolies; gradually there grew up a
new system to supersede the old, known as craft gilds, in which not commerce but
a handicraft was the unit; there was a struggle between the new system and the
old, but the old at last gave way and in the fifteenth century ceased to be.
Craft gilds were not, as has often been alleged, the offspring of the merchant
gilds, for there was no organic conne ction between them; they were variously
two similar but quite distinct and separate developments of the gild principle
due to economic changes.


"The primary purpose of the craft gild was to establish a complete system of
industrial control over all who were associated together in the pursuit of a
common calling." The merchant gild, working usually in the smaller towns,
organized a whole industry; the craft gilds, springing up everywhere, from
London to almost every hamlet, organized each separate part of every industry,
or vocation, as an independent entity. For example, where the merchant gild had
organized the leather business as a whole, craft gilds broke it up into
specialties, so that tanners, saddle makers, harness makers, bridle makers, shoe
makers, slipper makers, boot makers, etc., had each their own fraternity. This
high degree of specialization was extended to the arts, to social interests,
amusements and education; it was even extended to religion, so that in one
church might be a gild of priests, of musicians, of singers, of actors in the
mystery play, and a gild to look after the altar besides to see that it was
properly dressed with rich cloths and its candles always burning.

The gilds devoted wholly to some one handicraft performed an astonishing number
of functions and became a little family world to each member in which he found
his social fellowship, his school, his business, his hospital, his sick, health
and life insurance, protection against enemies, employment bureau, a court to
which to be responsible for his conduct and laws and ordinances for controlling
his conduct. The old debate among Masonic writers as to whether the medieval
operative Masonic gilds possessed any "speculative" elements would seem to be
singularly beside the point; every gild was full of "speculative" elements, even
the pig drivers and sheep herders, who, like the rest had their patron saints,
their religious festivals and burned a candle at the altar.

"Many free grammar schools were founded and maintained by the gilds," writes
Lipson, in his excellent Economic History, "which formed one of the main sources
of education in the Middle Ages; and one gild, that of Corpus Christi,
Cambridge, perpetuated its memory by founding the famous college that still
bears its name. In this way the gilds contributed to the spread of learning, and
the voluntary efforts of artisans helped to keep burning the lamp of knowledge."
He could have added many more examples. Dea n Colet turned over to a gild the
management of his St. Paul's school. William Shakespeare secured his "little
Latin and less Greek" at a gild school in Stratford-on-Avon.

Many writers have described craft gilds as "the trade unions of the Middle
Ages", but this is most inaccurate. As Sidney and Beatrice Webb have stated so
clearly in their magnificent History of Trade Unions there was no connection
whatever between the two, and only a superficial resemblance. The craft gild was
a quasi-public body, often so interwoven with municipal government that learned
writers have confused the two; it controlled trade not in the interests of
workmen merely but of all, the public inclu ded; membership in it was
compulsory, and so recognized by local and national laws; its ranks included
employers as well as employed, and these two groups did not come into conflict
until later, with the rise of journeymen's gilds; it accepted into membership
only trained men, all others, servants, etc., being left outside and considered
as "cowans"; it was a purely local institution, with a territory limited by the
community boundaries; and in addition to the reg ulation of wages, hours and
general trade co nditions, it was also engaged, as described above, in many
activities of a purely social character, and unrelated to the trade itself.

At the head of the typical gild were the wardens, two or four, usually elected
by the assembly but sometimes appointed by the mayor, holding office for one
year, whose duty it was to supervise the work turned out by the craft and to see
that certain standards were maintained. The assembly usually met once a year,
but sometimes four times, and at stated intervals. The gild often had its own
court and members were admitted on oath. The general membership was divided into
the three grades of masters, journe ymen (fellow crafts) and apprentices, but
any journeyman might become a master so that, so far as skill was concerned,
there were only two classes. Women were admitted into many gilds and were
permitted to take apprentices and to hire journeymen.

The most admirable feature in the whole gild system was the institution called
apprenticeship, which was a method for training youths in their vocation never
since surpassed and not often equalled. A boy was "indentured", or contracted,
to some master for a term of years, which in earlier times might last from one
to ten years, but in 1563 was everywhere (in England) fixed at seven years. The
master furnished bed and board, technical training, sometimes a small salary,
sometimes schooling, supervised his conduct, and generally stood to the boy in
loco parentis; the boy in his turn was obliged to be no bondsman, of good
physique, a faithful workman and alive to his master's welfare. The beginnings
of this system have been traced to 1260; it became a vital part of the whole
economic system in the thirteenth century. Apprentices were usually registered
with the town authorities and otherwise given a recognized status in the
community. The terms an d experiences of his position passed into popular
speech, rema ining in use until the present day, coloured all social thinking,
and often was celebrated in literature, as in Goethe's Wilhelm Maister.

The apprentice custom, as the reader will already have discerned, remains
imbedded in our own Masonic system to remind us that a candidate for our
"mystery" stands as much in need of training as the youth of old times who
knocked at the door of a gild; if our statesmen and rulers ever come to
understand Masonry as they should, and its possibilities in the world, the
reconstitution of the apprentice system in our Fraternity, and a more thorough
and intelligent use of it, will be one of their first concerns. To expect a man
to be able to understand or practice Freemasonry without adequate preparation is
a ridiculous now as it was when Masonic gilds were devoted to architecture and
the building crafts. We are not called on to raise fabrics of wood and stone
into the sky, but ours is an even more difficult task, for it is our duty to
build manhood and to reorganize the whole world into the forms of brotherhood,
surely a high calling, and demanding skil led workmen!

The time of his indenture completed, the apprentice graduated into the ranks of
the journeymen, becoming thereby a fellow of the craft, i.e., entitled to its
liberties and privileges on equal terms with all others. This passing to a
higher grade was signalized by some proof of his skill a "masterpiece" in many
cases or an examination before the wardens. (Wardens were known as "deacons" in
Scotland, whence some of our Masonic nomenclature was derived.) In Europe the
young journeyman went out on a "wander to ur" in order to see something of the
world and of the practices of his craft in other places, but this custom never
secured a foothold in England; usually (in some cases compulsorily) a journeyman
(sometimes called yoeman, "young man") hired himself out to some master for two
or three years at wages and then, with a little money of his own, set up in his
own shop, hired journeymen, indentured apprentices and became a master.

In the course of time the masters, being the moneyed class, tended to arrogate
to themselves more and more power and to adopt legislation in their own
interests, and the journeymen, as their numbers increased, learned to combine to
secure their own interests, especially after a permanently wage earning class
was developed. Upon this journeymen began to form gilds of their own, often in
despite of the authorities, a thing that became quite common by the fifteenth
century. On the continent, especially in the industrial centers and in Germany,
this conflict between masters and men often broke out into pitched battles with
much shedding of blood (the Medici family emerged from such a welter to the
control of Florence), but in England the struggle was more quiet. By the sixteen
seventeenth century journeymen gilds were quite subdued and content to remain
subordinate to the masters who grew more and more oligarchical. In many of the
large cities the masters secured all control in their own hands, and gradual ly,
with the coming of modern capitalism and manufacturing and the whole gild system
gradually rise of nationalism the whole gild system broke up and quietly passed
away. Some of the craft societies still survived so late as the latter half of
the eighteenth century, but their privileges were formally and finally abolished
by parliament in 1835.

The study of the medieval Masonic gilds from which Freemasonry evolved, or at
least with which it has at least a certain amount of historical continuity, must
be reserved for another chapter, as demanding more space reserved than is here
available. In the present connection it is not necessary to call a Masonic
reader's attention to the fact that whatever that historical connection may have
been and to what extent our modern craft is indebted to the old gild system,
Freemasonry was in its beginning of a pi ece with that system and inherited many
things from it, so that it is quite impossible to understand our Fraternity
today apart from the craft gilds of old in which apprentices, fellow crafts and
masters united in the one hand, toiled and lived together in brotherhood to the
end that the word might be served and themselves enabled to earn masters' wages
and to perfect themselves in their mystery.


A. Abram, English Life and Manners in Later Middle Ages. J. DeW. Addison. Arts
and Crafts in Middle Ages. Ars. Quatuor Coronatorum, II, 159; II, 165; V, 125;
IX, 28; XV, 153; XV, 197. F. Armitage, The Guilds of England. W. J. Ashley, An
Introduction to English Economic History. E. Bain, Merchant and Craft Gilds. L.
Brentano On the History and Development of Gilds. H.M. Chadwick, Studies of
Anglo-Saxon Institutions. E.K. Chambers. The Medieval Stage. Jas. Coiston,
Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh. H.C. Coote, The Romance of Britain. W.
Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce. W.Denton, England in the
Fifteenth Century. O.J. Dunlap, English Apprenticeship and Child Labour.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol XII, 14. E.A. Freeman, History of the Norman
Conquest of Freemasonry; R.F.Gould, Concise History of Freemasonry; History of
Freemasonry. N.S.B. Gras, Introduction to Economic History. A.S. Green, Town
Life in the Fifteenth Century J.R. Green, Short History of the English People.
C. Gross, Biblio graphy of British Municipal History; Gild Merchant. J.L. and B.
Hammond, The Village Laborer. M.D. Harris, Story of Coventry. James Hasting,
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VI. W.C. Hazlitt, Livery Companies of
City of London. K. Hegel, Stadte und Gilden. F.A. Hibbert, Influence and
Development of English Gilds. A. Jessop, Coming of the Friars. J.J. Jugseiand,
English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. S. Kramer, English Craft Gilds and
the Government. J.M. L ambert, Two Thousand Years of Gil d Life. Lethaby,
Medieval Art. E. Lipson, Economic History of England. A.S. McBride, Speculative
Masonry. Machiavelli. Florentine History. Mackey, Revised History of
Freemasonry. A.L. Miller, Notes on the Early History and Records of the Lodge,
Aberdeen 1 ter. H.B. Morse, Gilds of China. A.W. Pollard, English Miracle Plays.
M.B. Reekitt, Meaning of National Guilds. George Renard, Guilds in the Middle
Ages. J.E.T. Rogers, Economic Interpretation of History. H.G. Sel fridge,
Romance of Commerce. L.T. Smith, York Mystery Plays. T. Smith, English Gilds.
Edgcumb Staley, The Guilds of Florence, J. Thomson, An Essay on English
Municipal History. G. Unwin, Gilds and Companies of England. L.Vibert, Story of
the Craft. P. Vinagradoff, Edtr., Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History.
A.E. Waite, New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. Ward, Freemasonry and the Ancient
Gods. S. and B. Webb, History of Trade Unionism. H. Zimmern, The Hansa Towns.


Supplementary References Mackey's Encyclopedia (Revised Edition)

Adoptive Masonry, 24-30; Apprentice, 70-72; Architecture, 75; Assembly, 83;
Cowans, 183; Craft, 184; Craftsman, 184; Deacon, 197-198; Fellow Crafts,
261-262; Female Masons, 262; Foreign Country, 269; Gilds,. 296-297; Journey,
373; Journeyman, 373; Master, 473-476; Mysteries, 497-500; Roman Colleges of
Artificers, 630-634; Wages, 834.


I have recently encountered a note on the Comacine Masters which should be
included with the chapter on that subject published in this department last
month. It was contributed by A. L. Frothingham to "Dictionary of Architecture
and Building", edited by Russell Sturgis; the article is headed "Guilds" and is,
so far as I could discover, the solitary reference in that work to Freemasonry.
Having no competence in etymology I am unable to pass judgment on Mr.
Frothingham's theory, but am under the impression that etymologists in general
would not agree with him. Further light on the point will be appreciated.
Students will do well to read the article in its entirety; in the present
connection there is space for only one paragraph:

"A great deal of grave nonsense has been written by grave authorities on these
magistri commacini; chapters and even volumes have been based on the supposition
that Commacine means 'a native of Como,' and that this region was so
specifically the center of the revival of architecture under the Lombards as to
give its name to the profession of architect; master from Como = architect. Such
a fact would be without a parallel and is, besides, an etymological blunder. The
word com-macinus is from the same stem as macio, the common Latin word for
stonemason, with the addition of the collective prefix, and may also be
connected with the current Byzantine word for practical architect, mechanicos."
- H.L.H.