Guild Sign (Zunftzeich) for Mittenwald Tailors – Schneiderei (Photo Wofgang Morscher, 2007)
Trade and merchant guilds were an important part of crafting and trading in Europe from the 11th - 16th centuries. Guilds were comprised of groups of men of common craft or trade formed to give mutual aid and protections to its members. In a major city during the Middle Ages, there could be as many as 100 different guilds.
Craft guilds represented weavers, dyers, bookbinders, masons, bakers, leatherworkers, embroiderers, cobblers (repair shoes) and candlemakers. Merchant guilds controlled the way trade was handled in the town. They could become very powerful and controlled much of the local economy.
Most citizens involved in craft and trades were members of their respective guilds. Guild membership was expected and highly-valued for both social and professional respect and good standing. Members paid dues to the guild and received prestige and power in return. A crafts/tradesman did not want to be kicked out of his guild.
A new craft or tradesman would apprentice, or learn under, a master crafts/tradesman for seven years. Boys and girls would be apprenticed at about the age of 12. Girls would be apprenticed to something like “housewifery” or pin making. Families paid a substantial fee for their children to be apprenticed, but the role came with room and board in the master's home and clothing.
Some apprentices opted to spend their entire lives in the same workshop and become partners with the master or inherit the business upon his death.
At the end of seven years, an apprentice was considered a journeyman, and was allowed to ply and sell his wares on his own from town to town. He could not own his own business or call himself a “master” unless he provided a piece of his work to the guild for approval. If he decided to work as a journeyman, he could seek employment at the inns and alehouses in town that acted as employment agencies.
Crafts/tradesmen’s guilds also included pewterers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. Silverware was a prudent investment for the wealthy. Glaziers, wood-carvers, cabinet-makers and glass-blowers, were also represented in guild memberships, as were, grocers, fishmongers and vintners.