The Guilds, the Fraternities and Medieval Society

Guilds are a very well-known feature of medieval society, on the surface, but what do gamers really know of the work they did and the vital place they filled in medieval society? And what of the fraternities that went hand -in-hand with them? They are largely conspicuous by their absence in most people’s fantasy tabletop RPG’s, despite their being a natural and perfect match for bringing the characters into the social fabric of the medieval world.

I have assayed here to provide the reader with a more complete definition and a better feel for the place and purpose of these organizations in the gameworld, in the hopes that it brings an additional facet of interest and enjoyment. They certainly shed an interesting light on every character’s beginnings and trade training. Including them can only enrich the background of the characters in any medieval fantasy.

So, what are the guilds? And what are fraternities?

When people start discussing guilds, they often either get confused between them and the fraternities that were commonly bound to them, or they never hear of the fraternities at all. A “fraternity”is a purely social organization based on religion. It is a group made up of people who practice a certain trade, or have some similar common interest between them, thus claiming a common patron saint. The members gather together at a certain chapel dedicated to their patron, more than one if their membership warrants it, or found a chapel(s) strictly for their own use, the annual dues of the members providing the funds to pay for the living of the priest. This is the church where all the members of the fraternity attend services.

Each fraternity is founded in the name of the patron saint, not in the name of a craft or trade. There may in fact be several fraternities of a given saint if that saint is a patron of more than one craft, or if the members of a given trade are particularly numerous, as many as are needed for the members of the trades to gather conveniently on a “per neighborhood” basis, since those practicing a common trade habitually gather to dwell in neighborhood communities. The fraternity is the social organ through which the members of a given trade or craft take care of their fellows and accomplish their good charitable works for the rest of the citizenry of the town or city.

Each fraternity’s members meet a requisite number of times per year (as stated in their charter), usually four times like the central royal law courts, to take care of internal business. They attend the funerals of their members as necessary and keep a box for dues and donations out of which the unemployed are relieved and widows and orphans of deceased members are cared for. Much of the business and policy pertaining to the craft or trade is arranged for and agreed on at these fraternity meetings.

True “guilds” are actually labor organizations based on specific types of commerce, crafts or industries, such as the guild of drapers, the guild of goldsmiths, or the guild of fishmongers. These guilds are similar in nature to the modern labor unions as far as general purpose, they are granted far broader powers and rights, however, more along the lines of a monopoly over their given field or area of trade or business. The guilds set (fairly high, generally) standards of excellence for the goods produced by those engaged in the craft they control and represent, and their charters often grant them the “view”, or power to over-see, the quality of goods being produced by all members practicing the craft or trade within the bounds of their town or city and the lands appurtenant to it. The guilds determine the number of apprentices that can be employed at any one time by each of the masters of the trade (that the wealthier and more prosperous not be able to take an unfair share of the market), the terms of the apprenticeships themselves (to protect the young and control the rate at which new craftsmen enter the market), standardize weights and measures used in the craft, regulate the hours of work (no night work, to maintain quality control), the accepted rate of pay for their labor and the acceptable prices that can be charged for finished goods (based on the formula defined by the Church for the “just price”).

The guilds usually meet on a monthly basis, and most also hold their own courts to settle differences within the trade.

The differences between the two types of organizations are obvious. While the trade guild has a social aspect, its main purpose is the regulation of the business or craft. All fraternities in a town supply part of the membership of the guild for the craft they represent, which is itself citywide, but not all members of a craft or trade are able to afford to join the guild, and so have no voice in its governance or operation.

When there are not enough members of certain crafts to make an effective suit to receive a charter to protect their particular interests, the crafts often band together on a regional basis for the strength their combined numbers bring, or a number of different crafts may band together in a single city or town. The grouping together of trades into guilds does not often have anything to do with common interests in business, except in general terms. The guilds are designed to take advantage of the power of numbers in presenting a united front in protecting the local market and their businesses and craftsmen from the competition of foreigners of other cities and towns or of other provinces and from aliens and their goods hailing from foreign countries. Only in the larger towns are there commonly enough people engaged in individual trades to make more logical groupings in forming the guilds. The advantages of the single craft or trade guild in accurately representing specific business concerns to the governing ruler are obvious (whether noble lord or the Crown).

In the 1300’s the cordwainers bought their leather as a group, those craftsmen in need of materials banding together to buy in quantity to get a lower price. The horners and pewterers companies of London both made joint purchases in bulk of the raw horn and tin for their respective crafts. This written evidence points to a regular practice, an additional benefit associated with being a member of a guild.

When all is said and done, however, the guilds in the period of the game are elitist oligarchies, institutions in which the rich and successful quickly rise to the top, where they generally reign over their brothers for life. They are the means for achieving power and influence, great prestige, and eventually even (perhaps) the notice of the Crown. If this is what the player wants for his character, he should start laying the groundwork and developing contacts within the guild he has his eye on from the start of the game he is a part of by joining the fraternity of the journeymen of his trade, while also starting to save the money required to make his “master-piece” and enter that guild and to make a big noise with his success and “good cheer” for the masters when they (eventually) accept him.

The power of the greater guilds is one of the reasons that the player should be aware of the existence of the journeymen’s associations. Journeymen’s associations are commonly formed as auxiliary groups to the regular guilds because the membership requirements for the guilds are often too steep for journeymen to readily overcome. As such, they commonly form their own fraternities to look after the welfare of poorer journeymen and assert their rights and interests as a body within the guild against the overwhelming influence of the Wardens and Masters. They represent the only pool of skilled craftsmen available to employ in each of the given crafts, lending them a modicum of political strength. They are completely under the governance of their respective guilds, however.

The journeymen are likely to be the group with which the PC’s are most concerned at the start of play, but the player must be aware that these associations are only tolerated, in general, used by the guilds as a tool for governing and maintaining communications, summoned as necessary to the guild meetings as auxiliaries in the best of times, but in times of economic hardship and social unrest the journeymen and their associations are most commonly decried by the masters as a part, if not the root, of the problem – unlawful assemblies inciting to riot (since three or more gathering for unlawful reasons fits the legal definition of riot in the period of the game).

One man, one trade.


“Every man should keep and occupy his own proper craft or occupation wherein he hath been brought up so that by their doing so everyone of them may live by the other.”


This quote properly expresses the medieval view of business. Every man is allowed to make a reasonable living with a sufficient profit especially to support his household, but to pursue more than his need is avarice and brings repercussions from the community and even a dire reputation. No man is to expand or intensify his efforts to the point where he stands in the way of other men making a decent living, as well.

This also reinforces the rule allowing membership in only one guild, but the single guild rule is based on allegiance and responsibility. A man’s guild takes responsibility for him, provides surety for him at law and calls him to answer before the authorities when necessary. He can no more be sworn to two (or more) guilds than he can simultaneously swear allegiance to and serve the interests of two (or more) lords. One must be dominant over the other, taking priority. In practice over the course of a man’s life he might pass from one trade to another without raising a single eyebrow. Life in medieval English society was actually rather fluid, especially in the free air of the towns. In doing so, however, he would forever remain tied to his original guild and expect to participate in it and through it be called to answer before the law, as necessary, when he cannot be found.

This does not restrict the career a character can pursue for his living, but is intended more for the purpose of social and religious affiliations and in determining the manner in which the character interacts with society and is called before the law, should there be need.

This does not necessarily mean “one guild” in the sense of one guild in a single location, but can also be interpreted as meaning the guild(s) representing a single trade (throughout the country). The same is true of fraternities and journeymen’s associations. The character may belong to several in the same town or in several towns, but they must all represent the same trade, except in the case of travel fraternities, of which the character may be a member of as many as represent the routes that he has travelled, the people with whom he has accompanied on that road, so to be welcomed among them. Membership in a local guild that simply represents the general business interests of all craftsmen and merchants in a given town, common among towns whose population and economic standing do not warrant the formation of individual guilds, or in trade or travel fraternities does NOT prejudice the guild members against admitting the character to any specific trade guild when he does find one.

When belonging to many such groups, insofar as the law is concerned, that which has jurisdiction over the character’s location when called by the law has the responsibility to produce him in court.

The guilds only control the crafts of townsmen, which make up only 10% (or less) of the population. There are no guilds for warriors, knights, huntsmen/rangers/woodsmen, leeches, herbals, or troubadors, minstrels, diplomats and courtiers, scholars (except perhaps the Church itself), farmer, gardeners or herberers. Knighthood is a social fraternity all its own, whose domain is the arts of war. It is noble in nature and in need of no guild for protection or guaranty of law. The noble class can approach the Crown directly for its needs. The nobles and the Crown provide the law for the rural districts, so there are no guilds on their lands except where there are towns present that express a convincing need for a charter to form one and an ability to pay for that privilege. Merchants make up the only trade outside the smiths, manufacturing and handicrafts represented by a guild, and that is because they control the flow of goods between towns and cities where the guilds hold sway. Farming and husbandry are rural occupations pursued by the greatest portion of the population, the responsibility of rustic commoners and the landbound, overseen and governed by the signeurial system and the nobility. No guild would dare trespass on their prerogatives. Indeed, landbound status is a stiffly enforced barrier to involvement in the guilds and their appendant fraternities, regardless of whether villein, bordar, cottar or actual serf.

If the guild is general, for all craftsmen in a municipality or shire, nearly any craftsman or tradesman will be readily accepted into the corporation on application and paying the requisite fee, especially if there are no others or only very few practicing that same trade or craft. The fees will also be more reasonable under these conditions than for a specific trade guild in a large city or town.

While a man is expected to ply the trade for which he is a guild member, he is welcome to engage in any other trade for which he has skill to supplement that living. The one guild, one man, law was instituted for the simplicity of bringing the townsmen before the law, in the same manner as frankpledge and tithing groups in the rural districts.

A character can enter “the freedom” of a corporation or liberty of a town or city for the purposes of practicing a given trade without joining a guild, however. He is still be subject to the rules, regulations and oversight of the guild controlling his craft or trade, he simply has NO say in what those are, or what they change to if they should be amended at some point. Those who are members of the guild are not likely to help him out or do business with him, either. Joining the appropriate fraternity for the trade might help, or it might give them more of an opportunity to isolate and ostracize him, depending on how closed that guild is. If the character neglects to join the guild solely out of lack of funds, they may be willing to work with him as any other journeyman, otherwise, not so much.

To many people already familiar with guilds, apprenticeships are believed solely the province and concern of the guilds, but this is not so. Apprenticeships are simply the traditional medieval social mechanism for the transfer of the knowledge of skilled trades. The process of apprenticeship is designed to protect those already engaged in a line of work and also to protect the knowledge of the processes of each trade from entrepreneurs and other interlopers, as a guarantee that the standards set by those first established in it continue to be met as time passes.

Where a character follows a trade that has a connection with a guild (as applicable) or not, the player should consider what sort of apprenticeship his character served. Not all apprenticeships are created equal. Especially as those within the strong and powerful guilds of the cities and towns would have it.

There are several different types or standards for apprenticeship:

Common apprenticeship is fine if a player only wants his character to be able to practice some trade or craft for his own, his family’s and/or the PC party’s benefit. This bears the cheapest fee to enter into, just the customary fee to the master who takes the student on. After completion, the character is employable as a Journeyman-Improver in the trade in question, but only in the district where he took his training, where any letter of reference from his master can easily be verified.

Registered apprenticeship requires the presentation of the applicant upon entering to apprenticeship and the presentation of the Journeyman upon completion of the apprenticeship in the baronial court before the bailiff, steward or other governing official of the lord in whose demesne the apprenticeship was served, or in the Chamber of the town, as applicable. After completion, the character will have documents from the lord or town bearing the official seal attesting to his training and skill, good character and social status. A Journeyman coming out of a registered apprenticeship will be assumed to be staying in that same locale to make his way by that craft, or at least to return to it after he has completed his wandelbarwerk or Improvership (3 to 5 years). A full registered apprenticeship will also allow a guild to be approached for membership at a later date, if desired.

The certification provided for completing a simple registered apprenticeship is the minimum documentation accepted as proof of training when applying for admission to a guild, should a character choose to pursue that in an area where the guilds have a controlling interest and as such stand as a force with which to be reckoned.

This sort of apprenticeship is the most usual when the would-be craftsman is learning and will be practicing in an area where there is either only one big guild for all crafts and merchants combined, or where the is no guild present at all, but all trade and crafts governed directly through the court of the lord-in-residence.

Alternately, where there is a guild connection to a character trade, the player will have to consider whether the character actually went through a formal, guild-ruled apprenticeship.

Guild apprenticeships will be registered not only in the Chamber of the town, like the registered apprenticeship above, but also in the Chamber of the Guildhall to which he is applying as an apprentice. Only a master of the guild, examined and approved and in good standing can be engaged for a guild apprenticeship. Guild apprenticeships are very prestigious and sought-after, for the guild will only admit a certain number of new apprentices in any given year, so to keep from being run out of business by a flood of competition.

Whether this option is taken will likely hinge on whether the player wishes to leave the character the option of being able to have a say in his local town government (town residents only) or whether he wants to be able to get involved in the politics of one or the other of his crafts later on, after the character has grown some, especially if the PC has any wish to have any ability to influence the guild’s practices. Where there are guilds, they will be the only means of exercising any voice in government, and only from within their ranks can they be influenced or changed. Entering a guild by having come up through the ranks from apprentice to journeyman to master in it will give the character all the background knowledge he desires about the members of the guild and their habits and politics, which may turn out to be vital in the course of play with a GM savvy enough to tap such a rich plot resource.

A guild apprenticeship or even simple registering is by NO means required, however. The great majority of masters of various handicrafts and especially those with a scholarly bent will be able to provide the character with affidavits attesting to the legitimacy of any apprenticeship served, to be kept along with letters of recommendation among his bona fides if he should travel out of the area where his training or education was taken. These credentials will not be as eagerly received as a lord’s or town’s certification documents in the marketplace by clients unless the craftsman using them stays within the district where the master who penned the recommendation is known.

However, if a PC intends to use his trade as a means of entering the social arena, including the circles controlled by the guilds, then a registered apprenticeship, if not an actual guild apprenticeship, is a must.

Of these three types, the character may only have gone through either a registered or full guild apprenticeship, not both, with only one trade, which must be one established by the GM as being a trade organized as a guild in the first place. The apprenticeships served for any other types of trades are assumed for the purposes of gaming to have been “common” in nature.

Having served an apprenticeship, even a properly registered one in the town in which he is practicing his craft/trade, does NOT make a character a member of the guild, able to practice his trade or craft publicly for a profit wheresoever he pleases. It does , however, put him under the authority of that guild. Even his freedom to practice a craft privately can come under attack if doing so cuts to any provable degree into the business of guild members legitimately engaged in that trade.

All journeymen spend no less than 3 years polishing their skills before they are allowed to apply for master status and attempt to establish shops of their own. Under the auspices of a formal guild, this period is often as many as 5 years. Some of the guilds stipulate that the journeyman is to travel about during this time serving other masters besides the one under whom his apprenticeship was served, learning other perspectives and approaches to round out his experience. During the period of his travels the Journeyman is called a “Journeyman Improver”. The Germans called this Wandelbarwerk. Traveling from one town to another to gain experience of different workshops in this way is considered an important part of the training of a journeyman aspiring to be a master. While doing so, the journeyman is expected to collect written reports from his clients attesting to his skill and the manner in which he discharged his craft and conducted himself, recommendations that together are called bona fides (BOW-nah FEE-days).

Once the 3 to 5 year period of wandering is completed, he is known as a “Journeyman Proper”. The (written) acknowledgement of the master (common apprenticeship) or formal guild with which his apprenticeship was originally registered is required to officially pass from improver to journeyman proper. The character’s bona fides and letters of recommendation accumulated during his improver-ship are requested for inspection before he is approved and acknowledged as a Journeyman Proper.

Once the character is accepted as a full member of his guild, his previous master will accept him as a peer, but not before. He may be invited to guild meetings and celebrations, be able to take advantage of lodgings in the guild house and other facilities like weights and measures, access to the guild library to study advanced techniques and theories of the craft, and also band together with his fellows to make purchases of raw materials in bulk for a break in price. He can then also start choosing and cultivating allies to aid him in accomplishing any political aims. A guild can be the character’s prime source of knowledge and wisdom when he seeks further training in the craft. Locating a mentor would be a prudent measure, though he must be carefully chosen according to political sympathies and general character. If the relationship with the master to whom he apprenticed is good, this is a natural candidate for mentor and ally in guild politics. The bond between master and apprentice among the crafts is familial in nature, as strong as that between a knight and the knight for whom he squired. It was not uncommon for it to result in a wedding with the master’s daughter (as applicable), so the tools, materials and fortune remained in service to the trade/guild.

IF a character is neither a member of an applicable journeymen’s association or guild at large (as applicable, GM’s discretion), no guild member can or would teach him any further secrets of the trade, including the master under whom he served his apprenticeship, and certainly not any master who has not had any such close acquaintance with him. In addition, whether the player likes it or not, the trade the character follows and the apprenticeship he served to achieve that knowledge (whatsoever the form it took), represents an oath the character has sworn not to reveal his master’s secrets nor to betray the secrets of the craft. If the character violates his oath and the trust of his fellows in the trade, or gives them reason to think that he intends to, he can be severely punished at law by his master, the guild, and also by the Church for violating his oath.

Historically, outsiders have been stabbed to death by guild members for revealing that they had knowledge of the mysteries of a guild and trade they had no right to have, regardless of how exalted the interloper’s social class. The PC could well make himself a target for similar reprisal if he does not honor his oath of secrecy.

Nobles have absolutely nothing to do with the guilds, except perhaps in the case of greater nobles who have the capability to provide charters by which they may be formed in towns (boroughs) within their domain or feofdom. The nobles are simply above these organizations socially. They are forbidden to toil by the sweat of their brow for their daily bread. The nobility are Those Who Fight, and are limited to earning their bread by the sword, by the use of their martial skills and knowledge of war on the battlefield, in military service to some lord or the king, which can include working in some domestic capacity as a minister of that lord’s household, however, rendering that lord chivalric service. This is the source of their identity, authority and privilege.

Eldest sons inherit all, and either employ or subinfeudate their brothers, or find posts sufficient to the dignity of the family for them from among their allies. Careers in the Church are also common in lesser sons of noble families. If separated by time and circumstance, no doubt they will have kept in touch by letter (assuming they parted well). The dignity of the family must be upheld, and posts of sufficient station for the family will always be found for younger sons of noble blood, and then the sons are encouraged to apply for them.

Any other skills such a character might have aside from those of a warrior, courtier or courtesan, diplomat, huntsman/ranger, troubador/trouvere and scholar can only be deemed hobbies, of which their class tolerates whatever pleases them (as long as it does not place them in a servile position, such as common cooking for others, whereas puttering about as a gourmand can be perfectly acceptable). Such interests as these are only meant to be pursued in filling times of leisure , and certainly not for profit, to provide their “livelode” (livelihood).

Any nobleman discovered working for his bread by the labor of his own hand with any tools other than those of battle, especially by his peers, can be summarily stripped of rank and privileges, reduced to the state of a simple freeman.

Noblemen have no more to do with crafts and merchants than they do their own money, except as a diversion at a faire, because that is what servants and agents are for. There was a famous king who delighted in making clocks, however, but this was a personal passion that was practiced at leisure, and certainly not for sale, although one might certainly be sent as a gift to honor a friend or political ally.

Those of the Clergy really have very little to do with the trade and commerce represented by the guilds, except insofar as the lords and princes of the Church also have the capability to provide charters by which they may be formed in towns (boroughs) within their domains or feofdoms. The Church also benefits from the religious fraternities spawned by the guilds which provide a focus for their religious activities. If a character from a clergy background (or Scholar trade) doesn’t take the tonsure and at least follow some sort of Scholarly trade, he will be bucking his family’s expectations, but any honest craft or trade might be accepted with equal grace – depending on the original class to which the Clergy parent had been born. If the character comes from gentle or noble blood, more will be expected, as spelled out in the previous passage concerning nobles and the trades. Any character coming from a Clergy background will truly be executing a 180° turn in social direction from his family’s traditions if he engages in commerce, the pursuit of “filthy lucre” as a merchant, even moreso if he joins one of the powerful merchant guilds of the great towns or cities. For the purpose of eligibility, those from the Clergy class are just as eligible as any freeman to be trained for and engage in craft or trade.

Freemen are the ones to whom guilds truly belong. Guilds are the quasi-feudal creations of these men, the thoroughly medieval institutions through whose officers they stand up to the power of the great lords and treat with them, or with the king of the realm in person, presenting their petitions for dispensations, protections and humble petitions for redress of grievances, where as individuals they would otherwise get quashed, or be overlooked and ignored – regardless of how wealthy they might be as individuals. Only as a group are they to be accounted for. the great towns have no monopoly on the access to charters, however. In regions where there are no great towns, or sometimes a group of smaller towns will band together, or a group of larger hamlets or villages, and present a petition to their lord for a regional charter to protect their commercial interests.

Player should think the whole guild and especially the fraternity situation over carefully, and discuss them with their GM’s. If incorporated into the game, the player should choose carefully how deeply he gets involved. Once the choice of a guild or journeyman’s association is made, changing his mind is going to problematic. That is the trade for which he is best known, with which he is publicly/socially associated, and what is more, it is the political party to which he is then tied.

The decisions incorporating this information into a game requires of the player do NOT need to be made during the character generation process. Indeed, they probably should not be made at that time (except perhaps by seasoned players who understand what the consequences are and are prepared for them). Membership in a journeyman’s association is the first step in the character’s public life, where he begins to work on establishing and building his reputation, but it doesn’t start in earnest until he actually joins the guild. If he waits until that time to start forging contacts and associates with his colleagues, however, the character is likely to have an uphill battle for reputation. While the decision can be put off allowing time for careful consideration, it should be decided while the character is still in the Journeyman phase, whether Improver or Proper.

In the medieval milieu, the associations formed earliest, especially back during the apprenticeship, are the ones that are most trusted across the board and likely to serve the character best in regards to building and maintaining reputation and even achieving renown or fame (depending on the nature of the trade). The associations that have endured the longest are always the best trusted by the people of the period the medieval period.