The Gild Merchant

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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 to suggest that i in some of the early town charters, such as those granted by Henry I, the rights of trade within a town were reserved to the burgesses, while the gild was privileged only in external trade. In these cases the Gild's complete trade monopoly did not develop until the thirteenth century. But this distinction does not matter very much in practice. Anyone who is at all familiar with small-town government to-day knows that the same people run the show, whether in the capacity of town councillors, pieinbers of the Chamber of Commerce, or Justices of the Peace. In the same way what is important about the relations between gild and municipality is not the minor differences in their constitution and powers but the fliet that they were run by practically the saute people.

Functions of the Gild Merchant. In its fully fledged form the gild merchant had a. variety of economic functions. It regulated the trade of the borough and reserved it for its members. No non-gildsman might trade within the town without the gild's consent, and then only subject to tolls - and restrictions. Retail trade, for example, especially in such staple commodities, as cloth, leather, wool, fish, meat, and wine, was forbiddcn to iion-gildsmen altogether. Then again gildsmen often enjoyed the first right to purchase goods:

No simple inhabitant nor stranger shall bargain for or buy any merchandise coming to the town before burgesses of the gild merchant, so long as a gildsman is present and wishes to bargain or buy it.; and if anyone does it and is found guilty, that which he buys shall be forfeited to the king. (Ordinances of the Southampton Gild)

Cornering or speculation were frowned .upon; if a single gildsman bought any of a commodity, the others might claim a portion of his purchase at the same price, and sometimes the officers of the gild would buy commodities themselves on its behalf. Each gild also controlled the trade between its own town and others, and it always made an effort to get for its members the privilege of trading toll free in other parts of the kingdom while keeping the right to levy tolls on outsiders who came to trade within its own jurisdiction. This right of free trading, however, could only be granted by the King, a fact which for a long time handicapped those towns which had another overlord.

The gild merchant was not merely an economic institution; its members would worship and feast together and come to one another's aid in times of sickness or poverty. As between its members, it encouraged unselfishness and co-operation, and discouraged dishonesty and sharp practices. But as against the rest of the world it was, nevertheless, an exclusive and short-sighted monopoly. The gildsmen of every town sought to exclude all outsiders from its trade; and they tended to force up fees of entry to a height which would keep out new-comers. They did not conceive of a town's trade as being capable of expansion, so that every "foreigner" trading within its walls might bring it wealth; he must, according to them, be robbing a gildsman of an opportunity with every transaction he made, and should therefore be forced to pay. Commerce between the towns grew in spite of themselves, through the liberties granted to certain privileged towns - particularly London - in those less privileged, although they did from time to time conclude "commercial treaties ". The Crown did its best, as time Went on, to break down local privilege and exclusiveness, partly from a genuine desire to promote trade, partly from a wish to stand in well with the London merchants who lent it money. The provincials resisted at every step - for. which they can hardly be blamed, seeing that the Londoners were and remained quite as monopolistic in intention as they were themselves.

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Charter Rights

The chief rights which the charter usually gave them were the right to be governed by a Mayor and Corporation chosen from among their number; to be assessed as a whole for royal and seigneurial dues (this meant that as individuals they were free from the lord's steward or king's sheriff); and to levy such tolls as might be necessary upon inhabitants or strangers for the upkeep of their town.

Members of a corporate town, that is of a town having a charter, were free men before the law, holding their houses by what the lawyers called burgage tenure; justice was done between them in the Mayor's... see: Charter Rights

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