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Rise of the Medieval City and Guilds

By Jade Hermosillo

In medieval times, there was a lot more happening than what you might have seen in movies and television shows. Often, what you see is the drama between royal families and exaggerated battles between kingdoms. However, what is not shown many times is medieval life between castle walls and battlegrounds within the medieval city. Over one thousand years ago, around the 11th century , medieval guilds started to populate Europe. There were two kinds: merchant guilds and craft guilds.

As you can probably guess, merchants usually had the responsibility of traveling to different places to trade goods, and craft people were those who produced goods ranging from cloth to metal armor. What makes these guilds interesting is the ways in which they were organized and how responsibility was distributed among members.

In many cases, merchant guilds came to have a lot of influence within their cities because of how well they were able to defend themselves against greedy feudal lords who wanted to take advantage of their wealth. For example, when a lord or ruler tried to take more money than agreed upon from guilds, the guilds would threaten to boycott (withhold goods) from cities. Since this could lead to people not having enough food, the rulers would be forced to leave the guilds alone. Additionally, merchants had to be very responsible because each member represented the guild as a whole, and if one member failed to hold up their end of a bargain, then their entire guild would be held at fault until it was made right. Merchant guilds were also unique because they would use revenue from taxes to support the poor throughout the cities and provide them with food.

As merchant guilds grew, so did craft guilds. What is fascinating about craft guilds is how they ensure their quality standards are always maintained. First of all, as these guilds added more members, they also became more exclusive. Many of them required a membership fee that went towards their apprenticeship (aka training). These fees also went towards making sure the craftsmen had a place to work, emergency health services, and administrative costs. In the case a member was hurt or died, the money would go towards their funeral and supporting their family.

Similar to when you get “free time” to do work in class, and you could get in trouble if the teacher catches you not doing your work, craftsmen were subject to random check-ins by “guild masters” who made sure the products were good quality.

Guilds became, in a way, a form of a second family to their members because of how much members relied on each other to keep up good work ethic so that everyone could benefit from its organization. Guilds were, in a sense, very high stakes group projects. If everyone in a group project was told that their health insurance depended on how much work they put in, then everyone would probably pitch in rather than one person ending up doing all the work. Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.


Cartwright, M. (2023, March 30). Medieval guilds. World History Encyclopedia.

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Guild. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Richardson, G. (n.d.). Medieval guilds. EHnet.

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