Guild markings in Transylvania

82659, 82668, 47421, 47423, 39315, 69929
Middle Ages
XVth - XVIIIth century
carving, cutting, fret sawing, sculpting, painting


    Alexandra Mărășoiu, Cornel-Constantin Ilie


    Towards the end of the 9th century, a large part of the rural craftsmen moved to cities, where they organised themselves in corporations or guilds. These were professional and economic self-defence associations, characterised by a strict organisational system, a clearly-defined hierarchy and endowed with certain privileges. In the Middle Ages, corporations/guilds were called: metiers or guildes in France, arti in Italy, ghilds or mysteries in England, Innungen, Gilden, Aemter or Gewerke in Germany. The first acknowledged corporation with its own statute was the tallowers’ guild in Paris (1061). In 1099, the weavers of Mainz form officially acknowledged guilds; in 1106, the fishermen of Wörms; in 1128, the cobblers of Wurzburg; in 1149, the quiltmakers of Köln.

    At the beginning of the 12th century, all the tanners in Rouen had to be part of a guild. Guilds appeared due to several reasons. On the one hand, the craftsmen were interested in defending themselves against the competition from the newcomers in their city or the ones dwelling in other cities; on the other hand, they were driven by a desire to help each other, to provide all the guildsmen with equal opportunities to work and earn money, and, generally speaking, to defend their professional interests. The guild’s aim was to obtain the right to hold for its members exclusive rights for the exercise of the respective profession. The guilds were subject to the control of the city administration. The aim of this control was to ensure the quality of products and the quantity necessary to the population, the correct use of the materials and work procedures, the setting of fair prices. The guild needed the city authority in order to coerce all the craftsmen to join the corporation. In exchange for this “help”, the guilds paid the city an annual fee. The guild was run by a college of “jurors” (as in Northern France; in Southern France, they were called “consuls”, in Italy „priors”, in Germany “Meister”). A head of the guild was elected from among those (annually or every other years). Each guild had: a reciprocal welfare fund, constituted by the membership fees; a judicial college, for judging the infringements of the regulations; its own seal (since it was a legal entity).

    In certain cases (as in the Italian cities), the guilds provided funds to subsidise an army corps. Two large professional categories can be distinguished in this guild regimen: the ones indispensable to daily life (which existed in all the cities) and the ones connected to a massive production, meant to be commercialized across long distances. The first category included all the guilds whose activity was related to food supply. These were controlled by the city authority (as shown above). The producers were obliged to sell their merchandise only in the market or in their shops (which could always be controlled) and only for the inhabitants of their city. All the food products were thoroughly inspected and the unsuitable ones or those hidden or sold for a speculative price were confiscated or destroyed, and the offenders were severely punished. The guilds outside the food sector were divided into two categories: the ones that existed even in the smaller cities (smiths, cobblers, tailors etc.), whose members owned the workshops, the tools and the raw materials and who sold their products directly to the client, and the ones in the bigger cities, engaged in a vast cycle of production and commercialization of items over long distances (e.g. the textile industry).

    In some cities, the political role of the craft guilds was not acknowledged, as it was played by merchant guilds (Venice, Vienna, Nürnberg, Lübeck); in others, the guilds were part of the leadership structures (Basel, Strassburg, Augsburg). In Florence, in 1267, the seven major corporations (arti), which represented an extremely important economic and political force, were constituted: the great textile merchants, the silk merchants, the drapers, the furriers, the apothecaries and the physicians, the money exchangers, the judges and the notaries. In 1287, other five “middle corporations” are formed (butchers, hatters, smiths, stonemasons and woodworkers, tatters and mercers). In 1294, the nine “minor corporations”, formed by modest merchants and craftsmen (tanners, armourers etc.), emerge. The representatives of the 21 guilds constituted the collective signoria of the city. The ones from the former category formed il popolo grasso, while the rest represented il popolo minuto. The organization and the expansion of the guilds continued throughout the centuries. At the end of the 17th century, Paris had 1551 craft corporations (guilds), counting 17,800 masters, 38,000 journeymen and 6,000 apprentices.


    In Transylvania, the first attestations of craft guilds date from the second half of the 14th century, when the tanners’ guild of Sibiu is mentioned in a document dating from 24 February 1367, and the furriers’ guild of Cluj, in a document dating from 24 March 1369. Towards the end of the century, the first information on how guilds were organized and functioned appears, in the act on the 9th November 1376, by means of which all the guilds in Sibiu, Sighișoara, Orăștie and Sebeș renewed their statuses, with the approval of King Louis I and of the representatives of the six German seats. This document mentions guilds of butchers, bakers, leather dressers, tanners, cobblers, smiths, furriers, glove-makers, cutlers, cape-makers, hatters, ropers, wool-weavers, cloth-weavers, cooper/tubbers, potters, bow-makers, bag-makers. The guilds were professional associations specific to the urban areas, which brought together all the masters in a certain city practising the same craft in order to protect their economic interests.

    From an economic point of view, the main attributions of the guilds were: supplying all their members with raw material, ensuring a production that met the demand of the population in the cities where they worked, controlling the end-product quality so that they would not stand to lose anything in favour of the guilds in other cities, setting prices, avoiding disloyal competition between members (by forbidding and punishing the inobservance of the non-working days or by taking measures such as increasing the wages of the journeymen or extending the working day). However, the guilds also had a welfare role (their income helped the masters with financial problems, the crippled, the sick or the elderly, the widows or the orphans of the masters, and it also paid for the masters’ funerals) and a military role (in each city, the guilds had to defend a part of the inner wall and a tower or bastion – where garrisons and weapons were kept – and they had to outfit and to maintain a band of fighters). They also had an important religious component: each guild had – up to the Reformation – a patron saint; guilds also had their own altars and lecterns in churches, and guildsmen had to take part in all the religious services and processions. Last but not least, guilds represented a means for socialization, as all the masters, with their wives, had to take part in the festivities organized on the occasion of the patron saint day, on name-days, or when apprentices or new masters were allowed into the guild.

    Each guild had its own statute, approved by the king and the city authorities, which contained the leadership regulations, the means to be accepted in the guild and to obtain the title of master, the ranks, the rights and obligations of the guildsmen (apprentices, journeymen, masters), the contraventions and the sanctions. The guilds were led by guildmasters, whose responsibilities were: controlling the products, convoking and chairing the guild meetings, administrating the wealth of the guild (whose income was represented by the fees for entering apprenticeship, for issuing various certificates, the annual membership fees, fines), assessing the masterpieces of the journeymen, settling various issues appearing within the guild, keeping the statutes, the books (e.g. for incoming and outgoing expenses, for taking on and discharging apprentices, for punishments and charged fees, for deaths), the letters and the guild seal, assigning apprentices and journeymen to masters, caring for the altar of the guild (for example, by buying candles), maintaining in good condition the tower (or bastion) and the wall section that the guild was in charge with, representing the guild in the relations with the city authorities. For important decisions, the guildmasters would advise with a masters’ council consisting of two of the most experienced masters. Guildmasters would receive a fee annually and had the right to be the first to choose their apprentices and journeymen. Initially, there were two guildmasters, but in time, as the guilds got larger, their number reached four or even five. The oldest of them, called the old guildmaster or the father of the guild held the utmost authority. Under the rule of the guildmasters were the father of the journeymen (he supervised the activity of the journeymen, punished or fined them according to their errors, found workplaces for travelling journeymen, ran the meetings of the journeymen associations) and the supervising masters, who controlled the masters’ workshops once a month.

    Guilds also had a notary, who issued different certificates (e.g. to end apprenticeship, to testify for the good character of the itinerant journeymen), took care of the accounts and the correspondence. Both the guildmasters and the other officials of the guilds were elected for one year by the assembly of the masters of the guild, whose roles also included debating and approving everything related to the activity of the guild, including its statute. The assembly would gather four times a year, at the beginning of each trimester, and the masters were summoned by means of a wooden or metal shield-shaped calling board, bearing the sign of the guild and inscribed with the year and the names (or initials) of the masters and, sometimes, of the notary in the respective year. The board was carried from one master to the next by two apprentices or two journeymen. Throughout time, guilds bought or built houses where the assemblies and the celebrations would take place and where reserves of raw materials, the masterpieces of journeymen, objects – such as cups and glasses – used for feasts, as well as the wooden chest holding the guild documents, seal and money would be deposited. Such a chest had two locks, the old and the young guildmaster (or the second, if there were three or four guildmasters) keeping a key each.

    Each guild had its own sign, which appeared on its building, chest, seal and flag, on the masters’ workshops, on their tombstones, on the boards for convening the assemblies, on the church lecterns. Although different as to their appearance, the same symbols (specific tools or products, such as a boot or a shoe for cobblers, a key for locksmiths, a loaf of bread for bakers, a shuttle for weavers, scissors for tailors) appeared on the signs of the guilds in the same line of business.

    In order to become a master and thus a guildsman, one had to go through two stages. The first was apprenticeship. Although it is not definitely known, it is believed that a boy could be hired as an apprentice to a master when he was 10-12 years old. Besides the male gender, another mandatory condition was to have been born out of a legitimate marriage (initially proven by producing two witnesses, and later on by presenting the birth certificate). In German cities, for a long period of time only Germans could be part of guilds, and up to the Reformation only Catholics were allowed in some guilds in Transylvania. Following a trial period of 2-4 weeks, the apprentice – if he proved to be hardworking and skilled – was hired by a master, having to pay an admission fee and a payment in kind (wax and wine) and to provide a meal for the guildsmen. For three to five years, the apprentices lived in the house of the master, who had to provide them with food and clothing, while they owed him obedience and had to commit themselves to learning the trade. At the end of their apprenticeship, they would receive a certificate which attested their learning a trade (a fee had to be paid for issuing it) and they became journeymen. Heretofore, during the next 2-4 years they could continue working for the master who had trained them (or for another one) or could go on to travel around Transylvania and/or Western Europe, working for different masters of the guild they belonged to, usually in the cities in which their trade was highly developed. For example, such a centre was Nürnberg for armourers (makers of fire arms). Like the apprentices, the journeymen lived in the houses of the masters they worked for, but, besides the fact that their living expenses were taken care of, they also received a pay.

    The status of a master was obtained after an exam, which meant producing a masterpiece. If it was not considered good, it had to be redone, and a fee was paid in case of minor flaws. In order to become a master, an oath was taken, and the new master had to offer a meal and gifts to the guildmasters. Also, he had to get married as soon as possible (marriage was forbidden to journeymen). Afterwards, he would open a workshop, starting to produce goods that he would sell. He could hire apprentices after three or four years. There could also be masters that were not part of a guild and who, being considered unapproved guildsmen, worked especially on the outskirts of the towns and villages. Throughout time, the guilds took measures and turned to local authorities in order to deal with the competition from the masters that were not part of a guild. For the same purpose, since the end of the 15th century, first in the German seats and then in the entire Transylvania, interurban guild associations were formed, comprising guilds with the same line of business in several cities.

    Among the main guilds from the Middle Ages, there are the guilds of the butchers (they handled the killing of the animals to be consumed and the selling of meat), the bakers (they baked bread, pies, cakes), the millers (they produced flour, by milling cereals), the brewers (they produced beer), the tanners (they processed animal skins using substances designed to make them waterproof; the fat and the hair were removed from the skins meant for shoes, while the latter was preserved for fur coats), the furriers and the skinners (they made fur coats and sheepskin coat), the cobblers (they produced boots, clodhoppers, shoes and, later on, slippers), the weavers and the drapers (the former produced flax and hemp linen, as well as silk, velvet, quilts, carpets, while the latter produced felt by ravelling and spinning wool; up to the end of the 16th century they made up one guild in some cities), the tailors (they made clothes – cassocks, trousers – out of felt, silk, velvet or linen, either on commission or to sell in markets, but they also made canonicals and altar cloths for churches), the locksmiths (they made locks, bolts, keys, latches), the armourers (they produced fire arms: cannons, cannon balls, arquebuses, guns), the coopers/tubbers (the ones that made or fixed barrels), the carpenters (they produced wooden furniture for houses and benches, lecterns, sacristies for churches), the wheelers (they made wheels, carriages, carts), the woodworkers (they made the woodwork of buildings), the potters (they produced vases, cups, pots, goblets, ceramic tiles), the ropers (they made ropes to be used for household use, but also for ringing bells, moving cannons and for ships), the masons (they built castles, fortresses, towers, churches, houses, some of these buildings being adorned with sculptures; they also made tombstones, sarcophaguses, sacristies), the goldsmiths (they made – out of silver, gold or gold-plated silver – jewellery, buttons, belts, goblets, glasses, dishes, book bindings etc., as well as church items: chalices, vessels, icon bindings, crosses, candlesticks). The guilds started to lose their power due to the emerging manufacturing industries, and in 1872 they were abolished and replaced with handicraft corporations.