How Lincoln was dominated by craftsmen during the Middle Ages...
Trading in Lincoln in the Middle Ages was dominated by guilds of craftsmen. James Baggley takes a look at how the guilds have shaped the city...
In the Middle Ages, Lincoln was prosperous and thriving. Within only a few years of the Norman Conquest of 1066, King William I had embarked on building Lincoln Castle and the foundations of the cathedral had been laid.
This effectively turned the settlement into a flourishing city known throughout the country.
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As the two structures were built, rebuilt and extended over the following centuries they attracted travellers, pilgrims and soldiers to the city.
They also attracted architects, designers and artisans. In fact, extremely skilled craftsmen came to Lincoln to work on these monumental buildings.
The cathedral was to become the tallest building in the world for more than 200 years and it was built by the leading experts in stonemasonry, metalwork, glazing and carpentry of the age.
These craftsmen would have typically spent most of their lives working in Lincoln.
Craftsmen, such as stonemasons and carpenters, directly involved in the building of the castle and cathedral (together with the buildings which would have been built to serve the expanding populace) formed associations.
So did the practitioners of other crafts which would have served the residents of Lincolnshire, such as metalworkers, blacksmiths, cutlers, cloth makers and leatherworkers.
Their activities would have been expanding in the area at this time and all would have similarly needed some form of protection from exploitation in working conditions and the wages they could expect to earn.
The expanding population would, in turn, have attracted more merchants and traders to the city all looking to make profit. In time they also formed merchant guilds.
Guilds were actively encouraged by the king, who granted them certain privileges, most importantly the exclusive right to produce the particular craft in question within a given geographical area.
This benefited not only the guilds but also the king. The guild held a monopoly in the region and could set rates for its members work, while the king could limit the places where such work was carried out.
This meant that his tax collectors had an easier task of collecting those taxes, which such work attracted, as they only needed to call on the guilds in order to collect payment.
The guilds during the medieval period had a variety of functions. They were part religious organisation, part social club, part charity and part professional body.
There were guilds in Lincoln covering a wide variety of crafts and occupations, including stonemasonry, carpentry, metalworkers, together with weavers, fullers, shearers and dyers which were all associated with the production of woollen cloth.
Anyone wishing to follow one of these professions would first have to apply to become a member of the guild covering that particular work.
If accepted they would then become an apprentice, spending several years working under the guidance of a master.
Once they had become proficient in the basics of their craft they would then be promoted to the rank of journeyman and would go out into the world, travelling to other towns and cities in order to carry out day-work and to further learn from other craftsmen.
In this way learning was spread across the country and the world.
After several years as a journeyman, the craftsman would return to Lincoln and produce a piece of work which would be presented to the grandmasters of the guild in order to prove that he was so proficient in his craft that he could now be elevated to the rank of master craftsman. The piece of work he produced for this was known as his "masterpiece".
Members paid subscriptions to their guild and this money was used in a variety of ways. Firstly, it was used to pay taxes to the king, as the work they produced would have been taxed. Secondly it was used for charitable purposes.
For example, subsistence payments might be made to craftsmen who had been injured, or to the widows of members who had died in poverty as well as paying for a decent burial for such impoverished members.
Guilds would perform charitable functions for the population at large, including holding annual feasts in which the poor of the city were fed.
Guilds were responsible for certain religious functions in the city, such as the putting on of mystery plays in which biblical stories were enacted in order to teach the largely illiterate population.
One such guild in Lincoln was St Mary's Guild, part of whose hall is still standing on Lincoln High Street, at its junction with Sibthorp Street.
The merchants guild was run on similar lines to the craft guilds but with membership consisting exclusively of the traders and merchants of the city.
By being granted privileges to trade in Lincoln this guild became extremely powerful: they set the prices for goods in the region and controlled the import and export of goods.
Foreign merchants coming to trade would first have to be admitted as a member of the merchants guild and pay the appropriate subscriptions.
The merchants often fell into dispute with the crafts guilds over prices for their members' work, as the merchants guild would seek to keep the wholesale price of goods low while inflating the retail price to generate greater profit for the merchants.
The members of this guild became so rich and powerful that when a royal charter was granted to Lincoln in 12th century, it was from their ranks that the first mayors and elected councillors of the city came.
Indeed, the Lincoln Guildhall, which forms the upper storey of the Stonebow in the High Street and which would once have been the premises of the merchants guild, is still used on formal occasions by the City of Lincoln Council as a council chamber and meeting room.
While the guilds remained dominant during the high Middle Ages, nothing lasts forever and their power eventually waned. The city was decimated by the outbreak of the Black Death in 1349.
Then in 1369 Lincoln lost its monopoly to trade in the region when Boston was given this privilege by the king and it took over as the region's trading centre.
Boston's location on a navigable river nearer the coast made it far more appealing for foreign merchants to carry out their business there.
This had a direct impact on the crafts guilds in Lincoln, as the market for their work had now moved, and they in turn shrank.
By the late Middle Ages Lincoln, once such a prosperous city, had declined in size and status and had become a poverty stricken shadow of its former self.
Even though the guilds eventually lost power, they were important to the development and protection of the craftsmen of the region at a time before any legislation was in place to offer security for their earnings or working hours and conditions.
The influence of these guilds can still be felt today, in the form of trade unions, governing bodies for professions and trades, registered charities, and even technical colleges and universities.