By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
At times of social upheaval and unrest, medieval guilds were at the forefront of political and economic movements. This was evident in Arras and the Low Countries, in the growing prevalence of labor strikes and uprisings in response to the dissolution of trade and craft guilds. In the course of the 1281 uprising, there was a pushback against rapacious landlords and royal officials alike.
The Jongleurs of Arras
Étienne Boileau was the first to codify—or attempt to codify—the structures that should govern each guild, establishing the divisions between apprentices, journeymen (a word for day laborers, from the French journée), and master craftsmen whose ‘masterpieces’ would have to be adjudicated by their peers before any man could establish his own independent shop. Each guild was thus tasked with controlling the quality of its products, fining those who did shoddy work, and ensuring that supply did not exceed demand. Sadly, most of these guilds were closed to women.
In Arras, the cradle of the confraternity, the hard-won liberties of the commune and its tradition of self-governance were being eroded over the course of the 13th century, after the region’s annexation by the French monarchy, and by the growing wealth and power of a small number of local families.
Arras was highly unusual in having fostered a banking system not organized by Jews or (in a newer development) the Lombards of northern Italy; but whereas many laypeople and clerics had been involved in finance since the early 12th century, the later 13th century witnessed a massive increase in the amount of credit being extended to kings, great lords, and entire cities, involving huge loans that could only be met by certain large creditors who had no guild affiliation.
Changes in Trade
Meanwhile, the region’s cloth industry was being threatened by structural changes in patterns of trade and manufacturing. By 1260, overland routes that had, for centuries, funneled merchandise through Arras were being rendered obsolete by an increase in mercantile shipping and the establishment of Bruges as the hub of the Mediterranean-North Atlantic-Baltic trade.
This shift toward the sea also reflected an increased reliance on wool exports from England and a decline in local wool production. Although Arras would continue to manufacture high-quality cloth, the sources of wealth and political influence that had enriched and enfranchised its citizens at large were drying up.
Monopolization of Civic Offices
Combined with the rise of super-wealthy financiers, these developments caused a rapid and destabilizing stratification of society, resulting in the monopolization of civic offices by a narrow oligarchy and weakening the power of the guilds.
The result of these trends, in Arras and throughout the Low Countries, was the increasing volatility of urban communities and the growing prevalence of labor strikes and uprisings that were an explicit response to the disenfranchisement of working-class citizens and the dissolution of trade and craft guilds.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Jongleurs’ Confraternity
In Arras, where the jongleurs’ confraternity was protected by the Blessed Virgin, this meant that Our Lady was directly implicated in a strike against the ‘great men’ and officials of the town which was, a later inquest acknowledged, ‘very badly governed in many ways’.
In the course of this 1281 uprising, the crowd had seized the banners of their guilds and waved them defiantly, and cried out “death to the officials and the rich men”. At least some ringleaders were eventually captured and executed, despite having sought sanctuary in the abbey.
Two of Adam de la Halle’s songs, contemporary with these incidents, beseech the Virgin to protect all victims of rapacity and oppression, expressing grief for the sufferings of his fellow citizens, deprived of their laws and rights, and lamenting that greed for hard cash had blinded counts and kings to the plight of the urban working classes.
After the Black Death of the mid-14th century, when massive depopulation made labor scarce—and newly valuable—both municipal and royal governments made desperate attempts to keep workers from moving around in search of better working conditions and higher wages. In England, in the midst of the pandemic, Parliament enacted a Statute of Laborers designed to address “… “the recent malice of idle servants, both men and women, who are not willing to serve after the pestilence without taking excessive wages”.
Beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury
In the generation that followed, there is evidence that even rural workers, who had never been able to organize previously, were emboldened to push back against rapacious landlords and royal officials alike.
In 1381, in a direct response to a series of poll taxes—levied equally on every individual, regardless of income—tens of thousands of peasant workers from England’s southeastern shires were mobilized by organizers and marched on London during the June feast of Corpus Christi: the feast celebrating the corporate ‘body of Christ’ as represented by the entire Christian community.
Rather than celebrating this occasion at guild celebrations, as they normally would, these laborers marked the occasion by breaking into royal archives and burning tax records, capturing and beheading the archbishop of Canterbury, and petrifying the adolescent king Richard II, who had taken refuge in the Tower.
To conclude, it all ended up, with a call for bloodshed. As one contemporary chronicler reported, “The commons of southern England suddenly rose … because of the exceptionally severe tithes and taxes … lightly granted in parliaments and extortionately levied from the poor people … to the great profit and advantage of tax collectors and the deception of the king.” As a result, “they proposed to kill all the lawyers, administrators, and royal servants” whom they held responsible.
Common Questions about Medieval Guilds and the 1281 Uprising
Étienne Boileau was the first to codify—or attempt to codify—the structures that should govern each guild, establishing the divisions between apprentices, journeymen (a word for day laborers, from the French journée), and master craftsmen
In the course of the 1281 uprising, the crowd seized the banners of their guilds and waved them defiantly, and cried out “death to the officials and the rich men”.
After the Black Death of the mid-14th century, both municipal and royal governments made desperate attempts to keep workers from moving around in search of better working conditions and higher wages.