The Medieval Review 16.02.24

Rosser, Gervase. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 235. ISBN: 978-0-19820-157-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Alan Kissane
University of Nottingham

From the early work of scholars including Joshua Toulmain Smith and Herbert Westlake to the more recent work of David Crouch and Ken Farnhill, the emergence and popularity of guilds has long gripped the imagination of medieval historians in both England and in Europe. [1] Emerging during a period when attitudes towards Purgatory were becoming increasingly dogmatised by the Church, guilds have primarily been seen as a means through which medieval men and women were able to express collective acts of piety and charity ("good works") which, in turn, provided a framework through which members could receive financial aid and moral support. The perceived benefits of this communal system of support were that members were able to receive a fitting burial and prayers of intercession on their behalf once they had died, all the while enabling them to fulfil their Christian duty to the local community. Given this focus, it is perhaps unsurprising to note that some historians have come to characterise guilds as a type of surrogate family, in particular in the years after the onset of plague as men and women suffered from dislocated kinship ties, with others still seeing guilds as "poor men's chantries" given their spiritual focus and widespread appeal. [2] Implicit within this characterisation of guilds, however, is the idea that, as communal organisations, they subsumed the needs and desires of individual members under the yoke of the common weal in order to project communal values. It is the purpose of Gervase Rosser's book to challenge this idea by explicating the various processes of their foundation, their motives, aims, and functions, and to move beyond "essentialized notions of 'community' or 'the individual' explore...the dynamic of their inter-relationship" (30). In so doing, Rosser aims not only to provide a depoliticised narrative of English guilds--free from notions of communism, liberalism, and the weakness of the state (viz. crown) as catalysing forces in their foundation--but to demonstrate how individual fulfilment could be attained both through the interaction with guilds and through the participation in communal works and the dissemination of Christian values.

Divided into six main chapters (chapter 1, "Immunity," being to all intents and purposes the introduction), Rosser's study begins by outlining these debates, beginning with the early works of scholars including Wilhelm Wilda, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and J.M. Ludlow, many of whom saw guilds within a framework of modernity and the entrepreneurialism of the nineteenth century, before considering the works of Otto Gierke, Karl Lamprecht, Helmuth Plessner, and, more recently, Roberto Esposito, each of whom proffer more nuanced discussions about ideas of community and individualism. The thrust of Rosser's argument is that a binary understanding of "individual" and "community," or "individual" versus "community," is unhelpful in identifying the motives behind the foundation and function of medieval guilds, in particular as these ideas have often been seen through a prism of contemporary political ideologies. Individualism, Rosser argues, should not be seen as a product of the early modern period, as Ferdinand Tonniës, Max Weber, and Jacob Burckhardt have argued, nor as a product of the imagination of political actors, as antiestablishment, but as an integral component in the "mutual exchange" with notions of community, neither of which "could survive" without the other (35). Individuals in the Middle Ages, he points out, then as now, did not live in a vacuum and it was their continuous interaction with others--groups, individuals, and institutions--which helped define them. Their relationship to and as part of a guild thus remains central to understanding how and why they took the form they did.

Moving away from ideological concerns, chapter 2 ("Ethics") begins by analysing the "new ethical literature" of the twelfth century, which prompted medieval scholars to refocus their attention from the consequences of actions or deeds, towards "the actor's inward intentions" (40), an important development in the Latin West. Rosser considers Peter Abelard's Ethics (which Abelard also called Know Thyself) as one of the major catalysts to this new way of thinking, providing inspiration for later scholars, including Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, to see goodness as a way of living, a development which found its genesis in Seneca, Cicero, and Aristotle. Aristotle's Ethics, in particular, finally translated in the 1240s, was central to this: "The just person needs other people as partners and recipients of his just actions..." (42). The significance of this paradigm shift was that the guilds came to be founded not only as cradles of piety and charity, but as a means to create "a social environment which would be conducive to the practice of Christian virtues in regular interaction between the members themselves and also with others" (44), a trait Rosser describes as "the practice of moral behaviour" (58). This was the driving force of guilds and came to reflect many of the later recorded ordinances. The role of the individual came to be that they were actively encouraged to constantly review their sense of "what was virtuous" (60), a process which, in turn, influenced the collective thinking and practices of the guild on the one hand, and the moral worth of its members on the other. By understanding guilds in such a way it becomes possible to recognise how charity, seen as a staple motif of guild practices, sought to "cultivate, in the members themselves and potentially in those outside the society who were inspired by their example, habits of compassion and generosity in relationship with others" (80).

Chapter 3 ("Friendship") begins with a discussion about medieval ideas of friendship, focusing in particular upon the Augustinian tradition of human relationships, which understood friendship in terms of an individual's relationship with God. As Augustine explained, when a friend died or was absent, the loss experienced was mitigated by understanding that these emotions were ultimately directed towards God, the "one who cannot be lost" (93). As Rosser sees it, "the spiritual, psychological, emotional, and corporeal understanding of the power of love and friendship" as expressed by guilds within this Augustinian tradition had "transformative potential" for members, who were, much like in the previous chapter, encouraged to acquire "habits of affection through the practice of loving gestures," all of which brought them closer to God (96-97). Rosser identified the kiss of peace, offered to new members, as well as the communal drinking cup, during feasts and other celebrations, as a fundamental expression of this transformative process though he remains equally keen to caution modern historians against an overly suspicious reading of these practices. As he argues, sincerity in such matters was fundamental to the concerns of guilds.

Chapter 4 ("Sacrament") is the shortest of the book and is, in many ways, the most straightforward. Exploring the practices of guilds and how they reflect the processes detailed in previous chapters, it details the importance of the guild feast and processions, and the interplay between the mass and the Eucharist on the one hand, and the benefits of networking on the other. It is noteworthy that his emphasis on the feast builds directly upon his earlier work, doubtless familiar to some readers, [3] though these are not simply regurgitated: drawing upon a broad base of evidence from the continent, much of which offers unilateral support for many of Rosser's earlier arguments regarding the importance of the interplay between community and the individual, this broader focus moves discussion beyond the shores of England towards European fraternal values.

The role of guilds within local political society forms the basis for chapter 5 ("Trust"), and it is Rosser's contention that the so-called "craft guilds" were invested primarily with the will and power of its members not municipal authorities. As Rosser argues, this interplay between the crafts can be seen to be driven by a careful interplay of masters and craftsmen, both of whom "inhabited essentially the same economic and cultural environment" (168). The adaptability and inventiveness of these men and women, moreover, prompted guilds to join together to form partnerships of mutual interest; a development which should not be assumed as "the capitalistic extension of a managerial monopoly," nor representative of the "enfeeblement of the weaker craftsmen" (173). In fact, as Rosser argues, the formation of informal networks stood as a central tenet of urban life, evidence of which can be seen by the often repetitive and hostile legislation forbidding unofficial associations (178-179), and practices which saw credit dispensed both between members and, on occasion, by guilds (157). Taken together, these conclusions not only question the previous assumption that craft ordinances were more or less imposed from above by municipal authorities, [4] but they demonstrate that by exploring these networks it becomes possible to attain a fuller understanding of work within medieval industries.

The final chapter ("Community") explores the "good works" of guilds, including their acts of charity, the building of hospitals and bridges, contributions to the parish, and so on, all of which is considered within the framework of ethics explored in chapter 2. Bound by a form of communal obligation, guilds came over time to see their aid as redemptive acts which ought to be publicly celebrated. While it is possible to argue that this was for some members a means of bargaining for the soul, this is highly reductive, as Rosser implies, and disregards the process of involvement by poorer members in physically administering these "good works" through "sacrifice and service" (203). To conclude, the chapter explores the relationship between guilds and the state, arguing that they grew in sophistication in tandem with the expansion of "regnal activity" (211), before discussing the importance of c.1200 as the key date in the formation of guilds (216-225): whilst traditionally the Black Death has assumed something of a position of importance in the history of medieval guilds--it being seen as a catalyst for the rapid development and proliferation of guilds all over Europe--Rosser sees the development of new thinking on Purgatory as more significant. As he argues, by taking upon themselves greater responsibility for their own lives, the laity not only began to establish new ethical boundaries but, in some respects, began to emerge from the shadows of the Church. By shifting the commemoration of the dead "from the arbitrary peculiarity of the family" towards "the universal community of all Christendom" (220) guilds expressed communal obligation by the most fundamental means possible. As Rosser states with his usual clarity, "individual commemoration was understood to be fulfilled within the community of the living and the dead" (224), with guilds acting as the medium through which to do so.

As this outline suggests, Rosser's book is fascinating in its reappraisal of the genesis and development of guilds in medieval England, more so for its broad concerns over European fraternal culture. In adopting this approach, he has not only laid bare the processes inherent in the conception and foundation of guilds and presented a more sophisticated narrative of their place within medieval society than hitherto, but has also shone considerable new light on the motives of medieval men and women in their understanding of their own world. Despite this, it is necessary to draw attention to two interrelated points which were perhaps deserving of more attention. One is that Rosser often assumes that all guilds bound themselves by the complex ideals explored throughout the book. It is apparent that many did, but, as recent work on the certificates of 1389 have made plain, some guilds almost certainly did not, [5] and the informal nature of the relations discussed in chapter 5 may in some respects have undermined some of these motives. Moreover, what exactly constituted a guild? An ancillary issue relates to Rosser's implication that all guilds were solemnised upon their foundation, with all processes being put into place from the beginning, such as a guild feast (120), or indeed processions (125-128), though not all guilds undertook these events. While it is likely that such problems stem from the politics and limitations of surviving written material, some discussion of these issues would have been useful. The largely one size fits all approach, while persuasive, is perhaps guilty of overemphasis at times. Despite these relatively minor issues, this book remains essential reading for any scholars working on guilds or towns, and in a broader sense those studying charity and piety. It also provides a useful counterpoint to works on Purgatory, as it seeks to move existing debates beyond a strictly theological understanding of the evidence, seeing the contemporary interaction with the dead and the afterlife primarily in terms of social structures and human relations.



1. J. Toulmain Smith and L. Toulmain Smith (eds.), English Guilds (London, 1870); H. Westlake, The Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England (London, 1919); D. Crouch, Piety, Fraternity and Power: Gilds in Late Medieval Yorkshire (Woodbridge, 2000); K. Farnhill, Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia (Woodbridge, 2001).

2. For example, C. Barron, "The Parish Fraternities of Medieval London," in C.M. Barron and C. Harper-Bill (eds.), The Church in Pre-Reformation Society (Woodbridge, 1985), 23-25; Westlake, The Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England, 32, 44.

3. G. Rosser, "Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England," Journal of British Studies 34:4 (1994):430-446.

4. H. Swanson, Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England (Oxford, 1988), 8; R. Britnell, The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000-1500 (Manchester, 1996), 175.

5. A. Kissane, Late Medieval Lincoln, 1289-1409: Civic Community in the Age of the Black Death (Woodbridge, forthcoming 2016), chap. 5.

Copyright (c) 2016 Alan Kissane

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login