Wage & Labor Guilds in Medieval Europe

Wage & Labor Guilds in Medieval Europe

Wage & Labor Guilds in Medieval Europe

Wage & Labor Guilds in Medieval Europe

Synopsis

Epstein takes a fresh look at the organization of labor in medieval towns and emphasizes the predominance of a wage system within them. He offers illuminating comment on a wide range of subjects-- on guilds and guild organization, on women and Jews in the work force, on the value given labor, and on the sources of disaffection. His book presents a feast of themes in medieval social history. David Herlihy, Brown University

Excerpt

This book is my answer to two simple questions--why did wage labor appear in medieval Europe, and what sort of rules and traditions governed the causal and dynamic relationship between employer and employee? At first glance wages might not seem to rank with the Gothic cathedral or the university as important legacies to us from the Middle Ages. Yet everyone who has received a pay envelope, eaten in the company cafeteria, punched a time clock, taken a paid or unpaid holiday, and witnessed unfairness on the job has occasionally wondered how this strange inheritance--wage labor--came into being. Wage labor is an old idea, and its roots are deep in a society not traditionally credited with shaping its essential and durable features. Medieval employers devised an institution with a long and tangled history--the guild--as well as a system of regularly obtaining extra hands and defining their own status--wage labor. Hence this history of labor must treat wages and guilds as two sides of the same coin, subjects comprehensible together but incomplete when studied separately.

The reader is entitled to know what is in this book and what is not. I have not attempted to write a general history of the medieval guild, but this abstraction merits a preliminary definition. the medieval guild was an association of employers who banded together to foster their self-interest. These guilds existed in various political, regional, and economic settings, had a wide range of standings in law, and contained members who pursued almost every conceivable means of earning a living. Generations of intelligent people across Europe applied themselves to elaborating upon or changing whatever original rules guided the masters in the earliest years of the guild's existence. a biologist might see the medieval guild as a rapidly spreading organism with a high mutation rate and also be surprised at its spontaneous generation in different places. Historians try to account for parallel development by seeking a common cause, and the self-interest of employers is an obvious one. Yet as will be seen below, this self-interest, even among the payers of wages, was by no means self-evident.

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