When one thinks of guilds, one usually thinks of trade or craft guilds composed of men who are devoted to producing or selling a particular product. However, the historical records tell a different story, craft guilds began as Christian fraternities (religious guilds) and then due to political pressures, they were transformed into being solely craft guilds. This paper looks at the institution of religious guilds: why they started, who were members, benefits of membership and their fall due to political changes in England.
What were Religious Guilds?
The religious guilds, or fraternities, in England were voluntary associations of men and women of differing ages and marital statuses who venerated the same patron saint (Richardson, p. 36). The majority of the guilds were formed in the period right after the ravages of the Black Death (French, p.404) and they were an active force in England until they were disbanded with the Chantries Act in 1547 when Edward VI dissolved all intercessory institutions (McClendon, p. 17). They were part social club, part religious society and most of the way ordinary people could hope to achieve eventual salvation and release from Purgatory (Richardson, p. 30).
Belief in the doctrine of Purgatory was at the foundation of the reason for religious guilds (McClendon, p. 18). Purgatory, is defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, as:
Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.
The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is an intermediate place between this life and God, where souls of those who are not estranged from God, yet not completely dedicated to Him are cleansed through punishment before going to heaven (Hardon). The Second Council of Lyons which was convened in 1274, declared that:
“If those who are truly repentant die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments . . . The suffrages of the faithful on earth can be of great help in relieving these punishments, as, for instance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, almsgiving, and other religious deeds which, in the manner of the Church, the faithful are accustomed to offer for others of the faithful.” (Hardon)
Therefore, the only way a soul could have its suffering diminished and eventually released from Purgatory was for those remaining alive to offer prayers, Masses, alms and other good works to secure the soul’s relief and release from the punishments of Purgatory. A person could also improve their chances in Purgatory by providing “suffrage” for the souls already in Purgatory, and by offering special prayers, fasts, almsgiving, pilgrimages and other pious deeds during life for their own soul (Ozment, p.216).
A rich person could leave money to fund Masses to be said in their honor, Henry VII ordered 10,000 masses to be said for him at 6 pence apiece (Ozment, p.205), and others funded churches or chapels as payment in advance for their soul’s salvation (French, p. 401). People with means spent two year’s income on their burial and prayers for their soul after death (Richardson, p.13). However, such expensive bequests were beyond the reach of the common individual, so they formed into groups, or guilds, devoted to achieving salvation and relief from Purgatory through the collaborative group effort of a guild (Richardson, p. 30).
Religious guilds of all sizes were comprised of a diverse group of individuals which had something in common: vocation, sex, social status or location. In fact, new migrants to the city may have seen them as an easy way to build a social network in a new place (Rosser, p.440). Usually the guilds were mixed sex, although there were specific women’s only and men’s only guilds devoted to particular saints or for a particular parish (French, p.404).
Guilds collected a large sum when the person joined the guild and regular yearly sums afterwards at the annual feast on the day of their patron saint. Guild members were required to attend the funerals of fellow guild members. Forty masses were said to be the amount needed to release a soul from Purgatory (Richardson, p.11), one mass cost a quarter of a craftsman’s daily wage (Richardson, p.12). A small fee was collected from the member’s at the funerals of guild member’s to pay towards burial and intercessory mass expenses (Richardson, p.13).
The monetary cost of joining a guild was small compared to the amount of time that a guild member spent on religious activities required by their guild. Besides the obligatory church on Sundays, there were noon and evening masses other days of the week, and services for special holy days and festivals (Richardson, p.14).
In return for these dues, the guild promised you a Christian burial, intercessory prayer for your soul after death to release you from Purgatory, a social network for this life and an annual feast with plenty of ale (Rosser, p.435).
The Annual Feast
The annual feast on the day of the guild’s patron saint was one of the most visible marks of the guild (Rosser, p. 431) and attendance at the feast was required of guild members. However if a member could not make it for reason of illness or travel out of the area, they were understandably excused from attendance (Rosser, p.438).
The day started with attendance at the mass of the guild’s patron saint, followed by a procession of guild members in their liveries to the place of the feast, usually a member’s house or the guildhall (Rosser, p. 434-435). Once at the hall, prayers would be offered for the deceased guild member’s, ale would be drunk; collections would be taken for the feast expenses and for any projects that the guild was sponsoring (Rosser, p 444).
The food served at depended on the wealth of the guild, ranging from meals of bread, vegetables, meat or fish (Rosser, p.436) to more elaborate feasts requiring 16 cooks, 13 spit winders and 120 fattened geese and smaller amounts of fish, chicken, rabbit, pigeons, pork, lamb, beef and veal. But all guilds served copious amounts of ale, usually made by the female members especially for the occasion (Rosser, p.446).
The feast was also a chance to make business deals, catch up with friends and do a little matchmaking. Guilds gave single women a respectable way to meet eligible men and expand their social circle without reproach. In some guilds, single women were given a discounted membership fee, with the full fee to be paid when they got married, presumably to another guild member (Rosser, p. 443).
Fall of the guilds in England
By the middle of the 15th century, there were an estimated 30,000 religious guilds (Rosser, p.431), by 1548, the last of them would be disbanded or converted into craft only guilds (French, p.17). The fall of the religious guilds in England began when King Henry VIII drastically simplified the liturgical calendar, abolished most saint’s days and ordered all saints images to be removed from the churches in 1536.
Without an annual day for feasting and a physical manifestation of their patron saint in the local church, many guilds just slowly died away (McClendon, p. 16). The final blow came in 1547 when Edward VI published the Chantries Act, which abolished all intercessory institutions and guilds and confiscated their property (McClendon, p.17).
French, K. (1998), Maiden’s Lights and Wives’ Stores: Women’s Parish Guilds in Late Medieval England, Sixteenth Century Journal, v29, n2, p. 399-425
Hardon, Fr. J.A. (2001), The Doctrine of Purgatory, The Catholic Faith, Nov/Dec 2001, retrieved from http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=4677
Johnston, A.F. (1975) The Plays of the Religious Guilds of York: The Creed Play and the Pater Noster Play, Speculum, v, 50, n. 1, p. 55-90.
Knight, K. (2004) The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII, chapter on Purgatory, retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm
McClendon, M.C. (1999), A Moveable Feast: Saint George’s Day Celebrations and Religious Change in Early Modern England, The Journal of British Studies, v. 38, n. 1, p.1-27
Ozment, S. (1980), The Age of Reform (1250-1550), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-02760-5
Richardson, G. (2005), Craft Guilds and Christianity in Late-Medieval England: A Rational-Choice Analysis, Published in Rationality and Society, v. 17, n 2, p.9-189 (2005) Retrieved from http://orion.oac.uci.edu/~garyr/papers/papers.html
Rosser, G. (1994), Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England, The Journal of British Studies, v. 33, n. 4, p. 430-446.
Originally written 2005