14 Medieval Guilds You Didn't Know Existed

In medieval Europe, you couldn't just rent a hut and set up shop as a blacksmith, candle-maker or embroiderer. In most towns, you had no choice but to join a guild, which entailed apprenticing with a master practitioner for a number of years (without pay, but with room and board) until you became a full-fledged master yourself. At that point, you were expected not only to practice your trade, but to participate in the activities of your guild, which served double and triple duty as a social club and a charitable organization. Much of what we know about medieval guilds comes from the city of London, which kept the most extensive records about these organizations (which even had their own pecking order in the social hierarchy) from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Below, you'll learn about 14 typical medieval guilds, ranging from bowyers and fletchers (makers of bows and arrows) to cobblers and cordwainers (fabricators and repairers of footwear).

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Bowyers and Fletchers

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Before the invention of guns in the 14th century, the main projectile weapons in the medieval world were bows and crossbows (close-up fighting, of course, was accomplished with swords, maces and daggers). Bowyers were the craftsmen who fashioned bows and crossbows out of strong wood; in London, a separate guild of fletchers was created in 1371, the sole responsibility of which was to churn out bolts and arrows. As you can imagine, bowyers and fletchers were especially prosperous during times of war, when they could supply their goods to the king's armies, and when hostilities abated they kept themselves afloat by supplying the nobility with hunting gear.

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Broderers and Upholders

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Broderer is the medieval English word for "embroiderer," and you can bet that the broderers of the Middle Ages weren't knitting mittens for their cats or "there's no place like home" wall hangings. Rather, the broderers' guild created elaborate tapestries, often depicting Biblical scenes, for churches and castles, and also lavished decorative frills and curlicues on the garments of their noble patrons. This guild fell on hard times after the Reformation in Europe—Protestant churches frowned on elaborate decorations—and was also decimated, like other guilds, by the Black Death in the 14th century and the 30 Years' War two centuries later. Unfortunately, given that its records were destroyed in the great London fire of 1666, there's still a lot we don't know about the day-to-day life of a master broderer. (Based on the provenance of the word "broderer," can you guess what the guild of upholders specialized in? Turn your computer upside down for the answer: upholstery.)

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Chandlers

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The medieval equivalent of lighting technicians, chandlers supplied the households of Europe with candles—and also soap, as this was a natural by-product of the candle-making process. There were two different types of chandler in medieval times: wax chandlers, who were supported by the church and nobility (since wax candles have a pleasant smell and create very little smoke), and tallow chandlers, who fashioned their cheaper candles out of animal fat and sold their stinky, smoky, and sometimes dangerous wares to the lower classes. Today, practically no one makes candles out of tallow, but wax chandlery is a genteel hobby for folks who have too much time on their hands and/or live in unusually dark and gloomy castles.

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Cobblers and Cordwainers

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In the Middle Ages, guilds were extremely protective of their trade secrets, and also extremely averse to fuzzing the boundaries between one craft and the next. Technically, cordwainers fashioned new shoes out of leather, while cobblers (at least in England) repaired, but did not fabricate, footwear (presumably on the peril of receiving a summons from the local sheriff). The word "cordwainer" is so strange that it demands some explanation: it derives from the Anglo-Norman "​cordewaner," which designated a person who worked with cordovan leather sourced from (you guessed it) the Spanish city of Cordoba. Bonus fact: one of the most inventive science-fiction writers of the 20th century used the pen name Cordwainer Smith, which was much more memorable than his real name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

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Curriers, Skinners and Tanners

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The cordwainers would have had nothing to work with if it weren't for skinners, tanners and curriers. Skinners (who were not necessarily organized into specialized guilds in the Middle Ages) were the laborers who stripped the hides off cows and pigs, at which point tanners chemically treated the hides to turn them into leather (one popular medieval technique was to steep the hides in vats of urine, which ensured that tanners were relegated to the far fringes of towns). A step up in the guild hierarchy, at least in terms of status, cleanliness and respectability, were curriers, who "cured" the leather supplied to them by tanners to make it flexible, strong, and waterproof, and also dyed it various colors to sell to the nobility.

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Farriers

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In medieval times, if a town was ten miles away, you usually walked there—but anything more distant required a horse. That's why farriers were so important; these were the craftsmen who trimmed and maintained horses' feet and fastened crude metal horseshoes (which they either fabricated themselves or obtained from a blacksmith). In London, farriers secured their own guild in the mid-14th century, which also allowed them to provide veterinary care (though it's unclear if medieval veterinarians were any more effective than medieval doctors). You can get a sense of the importance attached to the farriers' guild by this excerpt from their founding charter:

"Now know yee that wee considering of what advantage the preservation of horses is to this our Kingdome and being willing to prevent the dayly destruction of horses both by provideing against the said abuses and by increasing the number of skilfull and expert Farryers in and about our said Citties..."

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Loriners

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While we're on the subject of horses, even an expertly shod stallion would have been of little use during the Middle Ages if its rider wasn't equipped with a professionally made saddle and bridle. These accessories, along with harnesses, spurs, stirrups, and other items of equine couture, were supplied by the loriners' guild (the word "loriner" derives from the French "lormier," meaning "bridle"). The Worshipful Company of Loriners, in London, was one of the first guilds in the historical record, having been chartered (or at least created) in 1261. Unlike some other medieval English guilds, which have gone completely defunct or function today only as social or charitable societies, the Worshipful Company of Loriners is still going strong; for example, Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, was created Master Loriner for the years 1992 and 1993.

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Poulters

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Bonus points if you recognize the French root: the Worshipful Company of Poulters, created by royal charter in 1368, was responsible for the sale of poultry (i.e., chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese), as well as pigeons, swans, rabbits, and other small game, in the city of London. Why was this an important trade? Well, in the Middle Ages, no less than today, chickens and other fowl were an important part of the food supply, the absence of which could prompt grumblings or outright rebellion—which explains why, a century before the creation of the poulters' guild, King Edward I fixed the price of 22 types of fowl by royal decree. As is the case with many other London guilds, the records of the Worshipful Company of Poulters were destroyed in the great fire of 1666, an ironic fate for an organization devoted to the roasting of chickens.

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Scriveners

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If you were reading this article in 1400 (presumably on a piece of stiff parchment rather than a smartphone), you can bet that its author would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Scriveners, or a similar guild elsewhere in Europe. In London, this guild was founded in 1373, but it was only granted a royal charter in 1617, by King James I (writers, hundreds of years ago as today, have never been the most respected of craftspeople). You didn't have to belong to the scriveners' guild to publish a pamphlet or a play; rather, the function of this guild was to churn out "scrivener notaries," writers and clerks specializing in the law, with "minors" in heraldry, calligraphy and genealogy. Amazingly enough, scrivener notary was a privileged trade in England until 1999, when (presumably at the urging of the European Community) the "Access to Justice" act leveled the playing field.