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Medieval Guildhalls as Habitus

Medieval Guildhalls as Habitus

By Kate Giles

An Archaeology of Social Identity: Guildhalls in York, c. 1350-1630. British Archaeological Reports (BAR 315). John and Erica Hedges Ltd and Archaeopress (Oxford, 2000)

The Guildhall in York facing onto the River Ouse. The Guildhall is Grade I listed and the current architecture dates from the 15th century. Photo by Kaly99 / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: This chapter will be concerned with the archaeological and theoretical interpretation of York’s medieval guildhalls. It will present an analysis of their topographical location, chronology, form and function framed by the research agenda set out in Chapter 2, and the theoretical position outlined in Chapter 1. Bourdieu’s idea of habitus will be used to suggest that their spatial organisation was part of a wider understanding of the ways in which architecture could be used to structure individual and communal identities in medieval society. Giddens’ structuration theory will inform the interpretation of the reflexive and recursive nature of the social practices which occurred within the guildhall, as well as the analysis of the multiple ways in which dominant religious discourses were used to underpin the structuration of social and political power by particular levels of society. After considering these issues in relation to the halls, hospitals and chapels of guilds, the chapter will briefly consider their implications for the wider study of medieval urban space and civic architecture.

Chapter 2 has suggested that existing typological approaches based on the form of medieval guildhalls do not explain why they were built in the first place, nor do they take account of their complex construction and use over time. An alternative, contextual approach will be developed in relation to York’s medieval guildhalls. This highlights their important connections with the occupational topography of the city, and suggests that their construction was bound up with the desire of particular fraternities or mysteries to construct or emphasise their corporate identity during periods of expansion, amalgamation or crisis.

Religious fraternities and craft mysteries in York commonly sought two or three different modes of expression through which they channelled their social, religious and charitable functions. These were a place where they could meet to discuss their administrative business; a devotional focus (often an altar, light or image within a parish church or monastic chapel); and increasingly during the fifteenth century, some form of charitable focus (usually a maison dieu or hospital). Although these spaces were linked by the guilds’ activities, they were often located in different topographical contexts. The construction of a guildhall enabled both types of guild to bring together two or more of these elements, quite literally, under one roof.

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