Since the shock of the financial crisis and a general reappraisal of ‘values’ there has been a move to revisiting some older traditions. People are interested in buying locally, knowing the maker and trusting in the small scale. Perhaps these sentiments, together with the Internet connecting artisans working in the same field though geographically remote, are factors that have contributed to a mini revival in the idea of the Guild.
Guilds, whether merchant or craft, were an essential aspect of European medieval life. They were the groups of organised craftsmen or merchants who collectively provided assistance for their members as well as setting standards for trading or production within their profession. There is evidence of guild activity from as early as the 12th century, and from the 13th to the early 18th centuries guilds wielded significant economic and civic power in their communities.
A guild could represent one or more trade sometimes named for their profession such as Carpenters’ Guild or sometimes named after a saint such as the most powerful merchant guild in Norwich, the Guild of St George.
In 1388 in England King Richard II required all guilds to record their membership details and activities. The returns for Norwich showed there were 19 guilds including the Dyers’, Weavers’, Fullers’, Mercers’, Drapers’ and Merchants’ guilds. By 1444 the Norwich based Worsted Weavers’ Guild was so influential they gained the power to regulate the woollen cloth industry throughout East Anglia.
Nowadays there are a couple of active textiles guilds in the Norwich area. They are the Broderers’ Guild at the Cathedral and the Eastern Region of the Embroiderers’ Guild. Although they are interested in maintaining craft standards they no longer wield commercial power or support their members with alms or perform Mystery Plays, but nevertheless they continue working within the handmade and craft traditions. I, myself, have recently joined the Guild of Silk Painters.