Who, then, organized the gilds of Western Europe? (It is not one of the theories advanced by this dissertation that the gilds of western Europe sprang directly from Italian models, although there was much of Roman flavor about every aspect of the medieval system, and much knowledge about economic behavior was diffused from the south to the north.) It is quite probable that the uniformity of northern gilds resulted from discussions with the early merchants who came, definitely, from the Mediterranean, being Greeks, Syrians, Arabs, Jews, Italians. 25 The first members of the craft gilds were "artisans [who] had collected in these embryonic urban communities, and had begun to work for the traders under non-servile conditions . . . . Craftsmen in increasing numbers copied the goods which commerce brought in . . . . " 26Next Page
Such was, in essence, the origin of the craft gilds. How much personal contact with outsiders and suggestions by merchants aided the formation of these organizations is not known. However, it is clear that those people who learned how to work, to organize, to manage, and to administer were trained by experienced masters to do so -- in those centuries when there was no "school of commerce!"
The craft gilds were early monopolized by those who possessed the valuable industrial knowledge referred to above. There was early established a burgher class of aristocratic workers, as will be shown. Particularly true is the idea that the gilds early prevented rather than promoted social class mobility. Particularly doubtful, even erroneous, is the notion that when "the medieval economic system was at its height, entrance into the various craft gilds was restricted by little except the merits of the candidates." This notion is a very persistent schoolbook fiction.
Entrance into gilds open to talent. The idea that the gilds were open to all who could produce a masterpiece which would fulfill objective standards is of great importance to the sociology of social class -- if it be true. If it is a valid idea, one would have to believe that serfs and non-gild townsmen knew of these objective standards and were allowed to compete for them. That they did not, in general, break into the class of master craftsmen would, under this theory of open opportunity, be attributable to their lack of talent, enterprise, or aptitude. The idea that the gilds left competition open infers that the early masters, and even the later and more powerful ones, were not solicitous about the future of their own sons. Both of these ideas are incredible. What were the facts? Who did become apprentices and masters in the early days of the gilds? When and how soon after the start of the gilds did the "freezing up" process set in?
So far as the early gilds were concerned (the ones which may be said to have fathered the gild system as it spread over western and northern Europe) there was no semblance of equal opportunity in their make up. One reads: 27
Since Italy was fast becoming a trading rather than an agricultural country, with its nobility living largely in the towns, large-scale commerce such as importing and exporting was accounted respectable. Even men of noble blood engaged in it . . . . Thus the great commercial gilds of the Italian cities were not democratic in any modern sense, any more than were their prototypes at Constantinople or their still more remote antecedents in the older Rome on the Tiber.
. . . The gilds in the great industries were likewise aristocratic . . . .
Italian bankers' gilds, serving both commerce and industry, were fully as aristocratic as the ones mentioned above.
25. Ibid., p. 95.
26. Ibid., p. 219.
27. Ibid., pp. 110 - 111.