“How Could You Recognise a Member of the Merchant Guild in Saint-Omer around 1100?”

SESSION II: Who Do They Think They Are? 

“How Could You Recognise a Member of the Merchant Guild in Saint-Omer around 1100?”

Jeff Rider (Wesleyan University)


This paper is the beginning of a project, done in partnership with the University of Ghent, on High Mediaeval urban settings and focuses on how people recognised this new group – the guild. This paper is not about how guilds came about in terms of economic formation but how they were perceived by others, and how their performance demonstrated belonging to a guild. There has been a fair amount of research in urban settings and the project focused on a few case studies in areas they knew about. For Saint-Omer, two documents were used; a document copied later in 1318 (but discussing the period of 1083-1127 A.D.) and another document from 1127-28 A.D.

There were several ways to know whether or not someone was part of a guild. An extensive hand-out on customs that indicated membership was shared with the audience; it listed customs such as:

‘If anyone hits anyone else with his fist or a loaf of bread or a stone, no other arms being involved, he will pay two ounces’

‘If anyone who does not deserve to have a guild comes to the drinking ceremony and is caught drinking there furtively, he will pay 5 shillings or will buy a guild on the spot. We exempt clerics, knights, and foreign merchants from this.’

It was important to be able to identify members because they had special privileges; i.e., they did not pay certain fees and also received different sale prices. How were guild members recognised? A guild member’s name was written in a special register. If there was a dispute, the member could go to the town register and show their name in the book. The guildhall stood on the edge of the market place so that it was easy to go and consult the register. This book was the ultimate reference.

There were other less officials ways to know who belonged to the guild: women were not members of the guild. Residents of the town were not solely members of the guild, some members did not live in the same town. In the charters, there are clear distinctions made between residents and guild members – being guild member was not synonymous with being a resident. Being a merchant also did not automatically bestow membership, it was much more complicated. If you saw someone consistently at a chapter meeting and drinking ceremony, they were most likely a member of your guild.

Guild members also were characterised by an “emotional regime”. They called their meetings “chapter meetings”, they held them at Prime, and their drinking ceremony ended with a Vespers service with the inclusion of relics and rules. It appears clear that they were modelling their guild on the chapter of Saint-Omer. This was also demonstrated in the customs hand-out:

‘If anyone does not report to his chapter when 6am (Prime) is rung, he will pay 12 pence. Whoever leaves without permission, unless he is forced to do so by sickness will pay 12 pence.’

‘The sexton of Saint-Omer, who rings the bells at 6am (Prime), by which we are brought together in our chapter, and who gets the relics ready for us, will receive a portion each night’

‘Finally, we admonish in Christ all those who come after us to take pity on the poor and lepers’

Rider mentioned that there were fines associated with breaking the rules. “These were controls to reign in unruly, recalcitrant behaviour”.

The drinking ceremonies of the guild were not limitless Mediaeval frat parties. They drank 3-6 glasses of wine in a 5 hour period. It was a test of their ability to control themselves emotionally and part of the performance of the “emotional regime”. Lastly, if you were a guild member, you knew who the other guild members were, and you shared that information with the town inhabitants. Guild members were observed to see how they acted because their behaviour identified them and confirmed belonging to the guild.


~Sandra Alvarez

medievalverse magazine