The Example of the Guild
a. The nature of the guild
The term “guild” is largely dead, or is at least devoid of historical meaning where it is still employed. The guilds were not “clubs” of individuals with similar interests, as we might find a “quilting guild” today; nor were they analogous to modern labor unions. In fact, the phrase “labor union” signals the difference: for while modern unions are formed exclusively of workers who have nothing but their labor to bargain with, the guilds were formed by “working owners” whose strength lay in their ownership as much as in their labor. Thus, in this respect, we can see that modern unions have been rendered necessary precisely due to the division between ownership and work, or capital and labor, a division which does not make any sense in the guild context.
The guilds, thriving primarily throughout the Middle Ages, were cooperative associations. Neither private nor public, they served the role of the “intermediate organizations” mentioned earlier. By serving as this link between individual and State—a link which no longer exists in contemporary society—craftsmen were able to wield political strength while nonetheless retaining their independence from a distant political authority. As such, they were able to provide for their membership in ways that are unthinkable today.
In his massive survey of history, Will Durant described how incredibly diverse the divisions were among the crafts, and how organized. He found that the leather industry, for example, had separate guilds for “skinners, tanners, cobblers, harness makers and saddlers.” Likewise, among carpenters there were “chest makers, cabinetmakers, boatbuilders, wheelwrights, coopers, twiners,” and so on.
As to the functions and features of the guilds, Durant reports that:
“Guild rules limited the number of masters in an area, and of apprentices to a master; forbade the industrial employment of women except the master’s wife, or of men after six P.M.: and punished members for unjust charges, dishonest dealing, and shoddy goods. In many cases the guild proudly stamped its products with its ‘trademark’ or ‘hallmark,’ certifying their quality… Competition among masters in quantity of production or price of product was discouraged, lest the cleverest or hardest masters become too rich at the expense of the rest; but competition in quality of product was encouraged among both masters and towns. Craft, like merchant, guilds, built hospitals and schools, provided diverse insurance, succored poor members, dowered their daughters, buried the dead, cared for widows, gave labor as well as funds to building cathedrals and churches, and pictured their craft operations and insignia in cathedral glass.” A guild would also often “provide for its members insurance against fire, flood, theft, imprisonment, disability, and old age. It built hospitals, almshouses, orphanages and schools.”
Now consider for a moment the astounding level of autonomy exhibited here in this massive project of cooperation. Consider how socially competent these organizations much have been. Notice also that while these groups regulated themselves, they did not do so by verdict of anonymous and far-removed legislators, but of their own accord based on the principles of justice they perceived. Needless to say, such an accomplishment would be completely impossible under the aegis of self-interest, competition, and maximized profit.
The guilds not only regulated the conditions of work, wages, quality control, and the just price within the trade, but provided equivalents to modern insurance, social security, public works and philanthropy.
b. The Catholic call for a return to the guild principle
We are justified in offering this somewhat detailed examination of the guild system for two reasons:
First, the social teachings of the Church refer repeatedly to this institution by name, so we are assured that whatever it was, the Church generally approved of its existence. Second, the guild system lends itself so well to a point by point application of the principles of CST. Thus, we mention it here not because it was perfect or because we expect the guild system to be resurrected precisely in its historical form—rather, we offer it as an illustration in order to show that the principles defended by the Church have been successfully applied in the past. Therefore they could be applied again, even if the new applications do not manifest themselves in precisely the same form as the guilds of the Middle Ages. Our goal is not to transplant an extinct institution into alien soil—for again, CST offers principles and not technical solutions—but to offer a very developed solution that is capable of exemplifying our ideal and proving it as a legitimate possibility.
“In any case…some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”
Shortly afterward, St. Pius X would echo a similar call, and for precisely the same reasons, emphasizing the value of history and its examples when it comes to our efforts at solving contemporary problems:
“…since in the clash of interests, and especially in the struggle against dishonest forces, the virtue of man, and even his holiness are not always sufficient to guarantee him his daily bread, and since social structures, through their natural interplay, ought to be devised to thwart the efforts of the unscrupulous and enable all men of good will to attain their legitimate share of temporal happiness, We earnestly desire that you should take an active part in the organization of society with this objective in mind…be convinced that the social question and social science did not arise only yesterday; that the Church and the State, at all times and in happy concert, have raised up fruitful organizations to this end; that the Church, which has never betrayed the happiness of the people by consenting to dubious alliances, does not have to free herself from the past; that all that is needed is to take up again, with the help of the true workers for a social restoration, the organisms which the Revolution shattered, and to adapt them, in the same Christian spirit that inspired them, to the new environment arising from the material development of today’s society.”
And finally, in perfect unison with his predecessors, Pius XI would make the same call at great length and detail in the celebrated Quadragesimo Anno:
“The social policy of the State, therefore, must devote itself to the re-establishment of the Industries and Professions. In actual fact, human society now, for the reason that it is founded on classes with divergent aims and hence opposed to one another and therefore inclined to enmity and strife, continues to be in a violent condition and is unstable and uncertain.
“Labor, as Our Predecessor explained well in his Encyclical, is not a mere commodity. On the contrary, the worker’s human dignity in it must be recognized. It therefore cannot be bought and sold like a commodity. Nevertheless, as the situation now stands, hiring and offering for hire in the so-called labor market separate men into two divisions, as into battle lines, and the contest between these divisions turns the labor market itself almost into a battlefield where, face to face, the opposing lines struggle bitterly. Everyone understands that this grave evil which is plunging all human society to destruction must be remedied as soon as possible. But complete cure will not come until this opposition has been abolished and well-ordered members of the social body – Industries and Professions – are constituted in which men may have their place, not according to the position each has in the labor market but according to the respective social functions which each performs. For under nature’s guidance it comes to pass that just as those who are joined together by nearness of habitation establish towns, so those who follow the same industry or profession—whether in the economic or other field—form guilds or associations, so that many are wont to consider these self-governing organizations, if not essential, at least natural to civil society.
“Because order, as St. Thomas well explains, is unity arising from the harmonious arrangement of many objects, a true, genuine social order demands that the various members of a society be united together by some strong bond. This unifying force is present not only in the producing of goods or the rendering of services – in which the employers and employees of an identical Industry or Profession collaborate jointly – but also in that common good, to achieve which all Industries and Professions together ought, each to the best of its ability, to cooperate amicably. And this unity will be the stronger and more effective, the more faithfully individuals and the Industries and Professions themselves strive to do their work and excel in it.
“It is easily deduced from what has been said that the interests common to the whole Industry or Profession should hold first place in these guilds. The most important among these interests is to promote the cooperation in the highest degree of each industry and profession for the sake of the common good of the country. Concerning matters, however, in which particular points, involving advantage or detriment to employers or workers, may require special care and protection, the two parties, when these cases arise, can deliberate separately or as the situation requires reach a decision separately.
“The teaching of Leo XIII on the form of political government, namely, that men are free to choose whatever form they please, provided that proper regard is had for the requirements of justice and of the common good, is equally applicable in due proportion, it is hardly necessary to say, to the guilds of the various industries and professions.
“Moreover, just as inhabitants of a town are wont to found associations with the widest diversity of purposes, which each is quite free to join or not, so those engaged in the same industry or profession will combine with one another into associations equally free for purposes connected in some manner with the pursuit of the calling itself. Since these free associations are clearly and lucidly explained by Our Predecessor of illustrious memory, We consider it enough to emphasize this one point: People are quite free not only to found such associations, which are a matter of private order and private right, but also in respect to them ‘freely to adopt the organization and the rules which they judge most appropriate to achieve their purpose.’ The same freedom must be asserted for founding associations that go beyond the boundaries of individual callings. And may these free organizations, now flourishing and rejoicing in their salutary fruits, set before themselves the task of preparing the way, in conformity with the mind of Christian social teaching, for those larger and more important guilds, Industries and Professions, which We mentioned before, and make every possible effort to bring them to realization.”
c. On adaptation
We wish to remind the reader once more, because the point is easily forgotten, that the Church does not attempt to transplant technical solutions from one period to another, but to defend principles which are timeless. Thus, the popes return again and again to the institution of the guild because of its exceptional value as an illustration. As Leo XIII implored so long ago in Humanum Genus:
“[T]here is a matter wisely instituted by our forefathers, but in course of time laid aside, which may now be used as a pattern and form of something similar. We mean the associations of guilds of workmen, for the protection, under the guidance of religion, both of their temporal interests and of their morality. If our ancestors, by long use and experience, felt the benefit of these guilds, our age perhaps will feel it the more by reason of the opportunity which they will give of crushing the power of the sects. Those who support themselves by the labour of their hands, besides being, by their very condition, most worthy above all others of charity and consolation, are also especially exposed to the allurements of men whose ways lie in fraud and deceit. Therefore, they ought to be helped with the greatest possible kindness, and to be invited to join associations that are good, lest they be drawn away to others that are evil. For this reason, We greatly wish, for the salvation of the people, that, under the auspices and patronage of the bishops, and at convenient times, these guilds may be generally restored. To Our great delight, sodalities of this kind and also associations of masters have in many places already been established, having, each class of them, for their object to help the honest workman, to protect and guard his children and family, and to promote in them piety, Christian knowledge, and a moral life.”
The observant reader will have noticed that, by entering a discussion of the guild and its organizational structure, which is largely extra-economic, we have moved beyond the realm of economic activity and into the political. At this point, then, we can take up that sphere more explicitly.
 Section IV, part 5b; section VI, part 10.
 Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York, 1950), p. 635.
 Ibid., pp. 635-636.
 Pius X, Apostolic Mandate.