By Maryanne Kowaleski and Judith M. Bennett
Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 14 (1989)
Introduction: Of the many forms of community life in the Middle Ages, urban gilds were among the most common and most influential. Gilds joined together persons engaged in the same trade or craft for their mutual economic, social, and religious benefit. As a rule, only persons involved in skilled work, merchants or artisans, formed gilds, and they controlled access to their work through these organizations. Only members of a gild could engage in the trade or craft supervised by that gild. Although the main purpose of merchant or craft gilds was economic (they provided training for apprentices, regulated wages and prices, and stipulated trade practices and quality), they also exercised important social, religious, and charitable functions. They held annual feasts, buried the dead, cared for the families of deceased members, and participated in religious processions. Gilds often accrued political clout as well; in many towns, membership in certain gilds was a prerequisite to civic enfranchisement.
The treatment of working women by medieval gilds is a complex and varied story. On the one hand, gilds can be seen as positive forces in women’s lives. Gild membership allowed women to participate in a vital form of community life that offered its members economic security, spiritual comfort, and social privilege. No doubt, many townswomen enthusiastically sought gild privileges, and insofar as they were successful, they enjoyed a type of community unique to their urban milieu; gilds and their privileges were seldom part of the lives of either peasant women or women of noble birth.
On the other hand, the history of working women and gilds is often a disheartening tale. First, most trades and crafts were dominated by men, and the gilds formed by these occupations tended to treat women as second-class workers and second-class members. Second, most “women’s work” in medieval towns was either too low-skilled or too low-status to merit a gild. Most women in medieval towns worked as domestic servants, petty retailers, spinsters, midwives, prostitutes, and the like, all occupations never recognized as skilled, much less organized into gilds. Third, even skilled women’s occupations often failed to organize into gilds. This is the situation described by Marian K. Dale in the study of the silkworkers of London presented here; although they worked at skilled and valued tasks, they never gathered together into a gild. Despite some notable exceptions-particularly the few female-dominated gilds found in Rouen, Paris, and Cologne-most skilled “women’s work” never came under gild structure and supervision. The silkworkers of London, then, provide one example of a general trend. Their story is both specific to their own situation and exemplary of the experiences of all; for most medieval townswomen, gilds were male communities in which women had little or no role.