Smallness and Insularity of the Towns

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Smallness and Insularity of the Towns

All these towns, even London, were tiny places compared with ours to-day, and were much smaller than the great trading towns of the Continent. The population of the towns listed on a Poll Tax Roll for 1881 has been calculated. London at that time is thought to have had between 35,000 and 40,000 inhabitants. York and Bristol come next, with rather more than 10,000. Six towns (Plymouth, Salisbury, Norwich, Lincoln, Coventry, Lynn) had between 5,000 and 8,000; eleven (Colchester, Beverley, Newcastle, Canterbury, Bury St. Edmunds, Oxford, Gloucester, Leicester, Shrewsbury, Yarmouth, Hereford) between 8,000 and 5,000; and nineteen (Ely, Cambridge, Exeter, Worcester, Hull, Ipswich, Northampton, Nottingham, Winchester, Stamford, Newark, Ludlow, Wells, Southampton, Derby, Lichfield, Chichester, Boston, Carlisle) between 1,000 and 3,000. Allowing for women and children and for clerics, whose numbers, everywhere high, must have been higher still in the towns, particularly in the cathedral towns, we can realize how small must have been the scale of the average gild merchant's activities.

Not only were the towns small, but their population grew but slowly; the medieval town killed men, with its crowded houses, its dark and dirty streets, its total lack of sanitation which exposed it to frequent and destructive plagues, its liability to disastrous fires. Probably, though on this subject we are deplorably ignorant, it was only through constant immigration from the country that its numbers could be even so much as maintained. This may account for the inducements, like freedom from bondage, offered to new- comers. Moreover, in the earlier centuries many burgesses were farmers as much as they were traders; each town had its common fields. The thirteenth century saw a mighty dispute over those of Coventry. Even in sixteenth-century Norwich, a great city with over a score of parish churches within its walls, it was still the rule that all should leave their looms to assist in the harvest, under penalty. The medieval English town was part and parcel of the country which surrounded it; and many of the members of the gild merchant were engaged in production as well as trade. Butchers, bakers, brewers, weavers, smiths, joiners, far outnumbered, in the thirteenth century at least, the mercers, drapers, corn brokers, who were later to become dominant. So the obsession with local interests was natural, though it cannot but have been a brake on economic development.

The Craft Gilds: Organization and Functions. The gild merchant attained its greatest importance in the first half of the thirteenth century, and seems thereafter to have declined fairly rapidly. Its functions were taken over on the one hand by the corporation (with which by this time it had, in most places, become practically identical) and on the other by the separate craft gilds. These had existed for a long time in certain towns, notably in Norwich and London, neither of which had even a gild merchant. In London, indeed, the Fishmongers' and the Weavers' gilds had existed before the city as a whole received its Charter, and kept special privileges afterwards. Their rise coincides with a general industrial development, particularly in the cloth industry, which we shall speak of later. At the same time there was a general multiplication of crafts which the gild merchant was unable to supervise adequately or which it was unwilling to admit to membership. The special function of the craft gilds was to guarantee the standard of workmanship in their particular industries and to control entry into them, in addition to carrying out social activities much the same as those of the gild merchant. It was the craft gilds, for instance, which developed and took part in the vernacular Mystery Plays of the later Middle Ages.

The craft gild consisted, theoretically and ideally, of small masters producing goods for a limited local market. A member of the Shoemakers' Gild, for instance, would produce shoes to the orders of his customers, perhaps from the customers' own leather, or would expose one or two pairs for sale in his shop. In order to become a shoemaker, it was necessary to serve a term of years (ranging from four to ten, but most often seven) as apprentice to a master shoemaker. The aspiring shoemaker would be bound by a legal document, known as an indenture, to obey his master in all things, in return for being taught the trade or mystery, as it was called. Apprentices were given all sorts of menial tasks to do, and their masters stood, to them as parents, having charge of their behaviour, morals and education. On completion of his term, the apprentice became a journeyman, who would now assist his own or another master for wages, until he was possessed of the small capital and stock-in-trade needed to set up as a master himself. He then became a member of the gild, with the right to take part in the election of its officers or wardens. These were charged with the enforcement of the gild regulations, which, like those of the gild merchant, aimed at securing equality between its members. They fixed the wages of journeymen and the length of apprenticeship, prescribed the proper materials to be used in manufacture, and carried out inspections of members' goods to see that they were of the prescribed quality. A craftsman who produced inferior or fraudulent wares was not only bringing disgrace upon the craft as a whole, but was likely to bring down the price; and therefore he was fined.


Examples - The Chartered Companies

The Gild Merchant

One of the earliest of the rights is one which we have not yet mentioned, and which the burgesses of Burford acquired as early as 1085: the right to have what was called a Gild Merchant. The gild merchant was an association of merchants and artisans for mutual economic support; it could be described, roughly, as the corporation in it economic aspects. Corporation and gild were not always exactly the same thing; most commonly they were not, if only because they were founded at different times. It was possible for a man to be a gildsman without being a burgess, and vice versa, and there is some evidence... see: The Gild Merchant


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