In the A-Z this year, I’m looking at fragments of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Today, I want to look at guilds. Fantasy fiction is full of thieves guilds, mages’ guilds and so on, but what was it really like?
Well, the obvious point is that guilds tended to be more about crafts than anything like that, controlling standards within a particular city and driving people out of work who didn’t meet those standards. Interestingly though, there’s a case for saying that this wasn’t how they started out, since the earliest mentions of guilds I’ve found were all in a religious context. My father and I once argued about this when I mentioned them in the course of doing my PhD, since his essentially Marxist take on history couldn't accept the possibility that they were about anything other than workers banding together to fight against their oppressive employers.
Instead, at least some of them were about banding together to meet the medieval requirements of the Good Death (for which, see D) and fighting against Purgatory. The ones I’ve seen started life as a kind of funerary club, with members putting money in to see to their funeral arrangements, but also to pay for the celebration of masses for their members’ souls. I’m not saying that this is definitely how guilds started, or that they were all about this, but I do think it’s worth bearing in mind that they had a function beyond the jobs of their members. Mostly because, in too much fiction, that’s forgotten and supporting characters get pushed into these neat little boxes where they are nothing but their role in life.