What was a guild

The merchants' associations, called guilds, had existed since the 9th century. The word "guild" comes from "gilden", which means "pay". The guild system had its heyday between 1,000 and 1,300. There was always only one guild per city, in which all merchants were united. At first it formed a protection association to protect common interests, but like the guilds it soon became a monopoly organization. Every merchant had to give her at the end of the 11th century. to join. In principle, the guilds were similar to the guilds in terms of organization and function. They also had the feast, the cult of the dead, a special court, obligations to help and revenge and loyalty to their brothers. They met once or several times a year, elected the chief and discussed guild matters. You were accepted into this organization if you belonged to the upper class of society, had a respectable lifestyle and could pay the admission fee. Members of the middle and lower classes were excluded in principle.

The Hanseatic League existed since the 11th century. It represented the association of merchants who headed for a specific destination on their trade trips. There were, for example, the England drivers, the Gotland drivers, the Flanders drivers, etc.

The association of England riders from Cologne first referred to itself as the "Hanseatic League". In the late Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League, which now numbered more than 70 cities, had a trading monopoly on the North and Baltic Seas. Gilden and Hansen were corporations with legal capacity and were therefore allowed to receive privileges, set up foundations, keep seals, conclude contracts and acquire assets, property and rights of use. The Stahlhof, the Hanse-Kontor in London, for example, consisted of several neighboring houses with quays on the banks of the Thames and was shielded from the outside world by walls and towers. Only three gates, which were always closely guarded, connected this merchant fortress with central London. This fortification was necessary because, for reasons of jealousy, attacks by the local population could be expected at any time. The young merchants lived within the walls like monks in a monastery. They received their individual cells, were not allowed to marry and had to "steal" the cloth imported from Germany and Flanders in the Stahlhof, i.e. to check them and to apply a lead seal. In 1552 the Hanseatic League in England was deprived of its privileges, which it received back only once for a few years with the support of King Philip II of Spain, the husband of Queen Maria Tudor of England. In 1558, Elizabeth I revoked the Germans' privileges forever.

The merchants' commercial products ranged from common foods such as grain, beer and wine to the most coveted gemstones such as diamond and ruby, the most precious materials such as silk and the most exquisite spices that were loaded in India, on the Sunda Islands and even in China . In 1453 this trade in the Orient suffered a severe blow from the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. A replacement had to be sought as quickly as possible, which ultimately prompted Columbus to go on his "West India trip".

But the slave trade was still in full bloom. The Italian naval powers such as Venice, Genoa and Pisa had begun a lively import of slaves from the eastern Mediterranean - especially from the Crimea - from the early 13th century. collapsed with the advance of the Turks. In Venice, for example, around 10,000 slaves - most of them women - were relocated at the beginning of the 1420s. The Church - incidentally - expressed no objections to this seemingly obvious practice!

As far as the merchants' wives were concerned, they were legally like the other women in town, but since they had to supervise the business and the sometimes large household by themselves during the long absence of their husbands, they became more and more emancipated over time more confident. Merchants and traders were finally able to enter into financial obligations and give court certificates. Your financial statements thus became binding without restriction. These women also went on business trips. Their sphere of activity was usually more limited than that of their spouses, but with their qualifications they had now acquired and their many years of experience, they were quite able to take over the business in the event of a widow. Anna Rem successfully continued his large trading company, contrary to the testamentary provisions of her husband Lucas Rem.

Elisabeth Gfattermann († 1436), the second wife of Hans Fugger († 1408/09), outlived her husband by 28 years and also proved to be very enterprising. She prevented a fragmentation of the family fortune by dividing inheritance and gave her descendants the city property and the rural property. Her daughter-in-law, Barbara Bäsinger († 1497), who outlived her husband Jakob Fugger († 1469), also by 28 years, not only kept the assets together, but also protected them against inheritance and increased their possessions by 15,000 guilders in 1469 to 23 293 guilders per year of their death.

With the beginning of the modern age, however, there was a renewed decline in the area of ​​career opportunities and with regard to the legal status of women. As a result of the socio-economic changes that began in the 16th century, women were increasingly pushed out of their jobs and forced to do household chores such as taking care of clothing, preparing meals and raising children.


Reading tips:
  • Everyday Life in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Harry Kühnel. Graz, Vienna, Cologne 19863
  • Borst, Arno: Forms of Life in the Middle Ages. Frankfurt a. Main, Berlin 1985 (very good)
  • Borst, Otto: Everyday Life in the Middle Ages. Frankfurt a. Main 1983 (very good)
  • Goetz, Hans-Werner: Life in the Middle Ages. Munich 19873
  • Graus, Frantisek: Marginal groups of urban society in the late Middle Ages, pp. 385-437, in: Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung 4, 1981
  • Maschke, Erich: The lower layers of the medieval cities of Germany (1967), p. 345-454, in: The city of the Middle Ages, 3rd volume: Economy and society, edited by Carl Haase. Darmstadt 1976

Worthwhile excursion:

  • a visit to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, where you can get to know patricians and their wives as well as wealthy merchants and their families from medieval Cologne through paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries!