The word gild, guild, or geld, from the Saxon gildan, to pay, originally meant a tax or tribute, and hence those fraternities which, in the early ages, contributed sums to a common stock, were called Gilds. Cowell, the old English jurist, defines a Gild to be “a fraternity or commonalty of men gathered together into one combination, supporting their common charge by mutual contributions. ” Societies of this kind, but not under the same name, were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and their artificers and traders were formed into distinct companies which occupied particular streets named after them. But according to Dr. Lujo Brentano, who published, in 1870, an essay on The History and Development of Gilds, England is the birthplace of the Medieval Gilds from whom he says that the modern Freemasons emerged. They existed, however, in every country of Europe, and we identify them in the Compagnons de la Tour of France, and the Baucorporationen of Germany.
The difference, however, was that while they were patronized by the municipal authorities in England, they were discouraged by both the Church and State on the Continent.
The Gilds in England were of three kinds, Religious Gilds, Merchant Gilds, and Craft Gilds, specimens of all of which still exist, although greatly modified in their laws and usages. The Religious or Ecclesiastical Gilds are principally found in Roman Catholic countries, where, under the patronage of the Church, they often accomplish much good by the direction of their benevolence to particular purposes. Merchant Gilds are exemplified in the twelve great Livery Companies of London. And the modern Trades Unions are nothing else but Craft Gilds under another name. But the most interesting point in the history of the Craft Gilds is the fact that from them arose the Brotherhoods of the Freemasons.
Brentano gives the following almost exhaustive account of the organization and customs of the Craft Gilds: The Craft Gilds themselves first sprang up amongst the free craftsmen, when they were excluded from the fraternities which had taken the place of the family unions, and later among the bondmen, when they ceased to belong to the Namibia of their lord. Like those Frith Gilds, the object of the early Craft Gilds was to create relations as if among brothers; and above all things, to grant to their members that assistance which the member of a family might expect from that family. As men’s wants had become different, this assistance no longer concerned the protection of life, limbs, and property, for this was provided for by the Frith Gilds now recognized as the legitimate authority; but the principal object of the Craft Gilds was to secure their members in the independent, unimpaired, and regular earning of their daily bread by means of their craft.
The very soul of the Craft Gild was its meetings, which brought all the Gild brothers together every week or quarter. These meetings were always held with certain ceremonies, for the sake of greater solemnity. The box having several locks like that of the Trade Unions, and containing the charters of the Gild, the statutes, the money, and other valuable articles, was opened on such occasions, and all present had to uncover their heads. These meetings possessed all the rights which they themselves had not chosen to delegate. They elected the presidents, originally called Aldermen, afterwards Masters and Wardens, and other officials, except in those eases already mentioned in which the Master was appointed by the King, the Bishop, or the authorities of the town.
As a rule, the Gilds were free to choose their Masters, either from their own members, or from men of higher rank though they were sometimes limited in their choice to the former.
The Wardens summoned and presided at the meetings, with their consent enacted ordinances for the regulation of the trade, saw these ordinances properly executed, and watched over the maintenance of the customs of the Craft. They had the right to examine all manufactures and a right of search for all unlawful tools and products. They formed, with the assistance of a quorum of Gild brothers, the highest authority in all the concerns of the Gild. No Gild member could be arraigned about trade matters before any other judge. We have still numerous documentary proofs of the severity and justice with which the Wardens exercised their judicial duties. Whenever they held a court, it was under special forms and solemnities; thus, for instance, in 1275 the chief Warden of the masons building Strasburg cathedral held a court sitting under a canopy.
Besides being brotherhoods for the care of the temporal welfare of their members, the Craft Gilds were, like the rest of the Gilds, at the same time religious fraternities. In the account of the origin of the Company of Grocers, it is mentioned that at the very first meeting they fixed a stipend for the priest, who had to conduct their religious services and pray for their dead. In this respect the Craft Gilds of all countries are alike; and in reading their statutes, one might fancy sometimes that the old craftsmen eared only for the well-being of their souls. All had particular saints for patrons, after whom the society was frequently called- and, where it was possible, they chose one who had some relation to their trade. They founded masses, altars, and painted windows in cathedrals; and even at the present day their coats of arms and their gifts range proudly by the side of those of kings and barons. Sometimes individual Craft Gilds appear to have stood in special relation to a particular church, by virtue of which they had to perform special services, and received in return a special share in all the prayers of the clergy of that church. In later times, the Craft Gilds frequently went in solemn procession to their churches.
Be find innumerable ordinances also as to the support of the sick and poor- and to afford a settled asylum for distress, the London Companies early built dwellings near their halls. The chief care, however, of the Golden was always directed to the welfare of the souls of the dead. Every year a requiem was sung for all departed Gild brothers, when they were all mentioned by name; and on the death of any member, special services were held for his soul, and distribution of alms was made to the poor, who, in return, had to offer up prayers for the dead, as is still the custom in Roman Catholic countries.
In a History of the English Guilds, edited by Toulon Smith from old documents in the Record Office at London, and published by the Early English Text Society, we find many facts confirmatory of those given by Brentano, as to the organization of these Gilds.
The testimony of these old records shows that a religious element pervaded the Gilds, and exercised a very powerful influence over them. Women were admitted to all of them, which Herbert (Livery Companies v, 83), thinks was borrowed from the Ecclesiastical Gilds of Southern Europe; and the Brethren and Sisters were on terms of complete equality There were fees on entrance, yearly and special payments, and fines for wax for lights to burn at the altar or in funeral rites. The Gilds had set days of meeting, known as morning speeches, or days of spekynggess totiedare for here commune profit, and a grand festival on the patron saint’s day, when the members assembled for worship, almsgiving, feasting, and for nourishing of brotherly love. Mystery plays were often performed.
They had a treasure-chest, the opening of which was a sign that business had begun. While it remained open all stood with uncovered heads, when cursing and swearing and all loose conduct were severely punished. The Gild property consisted of land, cattle, money, etc. The expenditure was on the sick, poor and aged, in making good losses by robbery, etc. Loans were advanced, pilgrims assisted, and, in one city, “any good girl of the Gild” was to have a dowry on marriage, if her father could not provide it.
Poor travelers were lodged and fed. Roads were kept in repair, and churches were Unstained and beautified. They wore a particular costume, which was enforced by their statutes, whence come the liveries of the London Companies of the present day and the clothing of the Freemasons.
An investigation of the usage’s of these Medieval Gilds, and a comparison of their regulations with the old Masonic Constitutions, will furnish a fertile source of interest to the Masonic archeologist, and will throw much light on the early history of Freemasonry (see Gilds, Encyclopedia Britannic, also the Hole Craft and Fellowship of Masonry, Edward Conder Jr.. and the Liber Albus, the White Book of the City of London, compiled in 1419 A.D., and reprinted in 1861).
As showing the spirit of the old Brethren we give here the pledge or oath of the Masters and Wardens of the Crafts or Mysteries, as then they were called, from page 451 of the Liber Albus, presumably the one ape proved by law in the reign of Henry IV of England but probably in use even before that time, 1367-1413: You shall swear, that well and lawfully you shall over look the Art or Mystery of which you are Masters, or Wardens, for the year elected. And the good rules and ordinances of the same Mystery, approved here by the Court, you shall keep and shall cause to be kept.
And all the defaults that you shall find therein, done contrary thereto, you shall present unto the Chamberlain of the City, from time to time, sparing no one for favor, and aggrieving no one for hate. Extortion or wrong unto no one, by color of your office, you shall do- nor unto anything that shall be against the estate and peace of the King, or of the City, you shall consent. But for the time that you shall be in office, in all things pertaining unto the said Mystery, according to the good laws and franchises of the said city, well and lawfully you shall behave yourself. So God you help, and the Saints.
the source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry