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Medieval Society


The term "artisan" is a term somewhat sloppily applied to those in cities who made things or provided services. It specifically does not include those who lived by trade (merchants) or day laborers and those who we would call "unskilled labor." The association with towns is so strong that when speaking of carpenters or wrights or smiths in the countryside, you will usually see them called "rural artisans." The skill might be the same, but the setting was different. For this section, I'll be using the term strictly in the urban setting.

Artisans in turn can be divided into two distinct groups: those who operated their own business, and those who did not. If organized into a guild, the former would be called masters, while the latter were the journeymen and apprentices (and sometimes hired help). If not organized as a guild, the owners were still owners: small businessmen, who may or may not have had a hand in actual production, and some of whom weren't all that small.

The chief misunderstanding many people have about this social group is that they picture them as "workers" in the modern sense: employed by someone. It's important to understand that by far the most influential group among the artisinate were the masters, the business owners. To put it another way, when speaking of artisans we are talking about management as much as about workers.

Position Within Urban Society

There were levels within the artisans, in two respects. First, there were the divisions between owners and employees, with the former having much the greater social status. Second, there were certain trades that were automatically more respectable that other trades. These positions in society were never written down, but they were reiterated socially in many ways and at several times through the year. Everyone knew quite clearly where they were, and where the boundaries were.

Probably the best-known place where social status was displayed was during feast day celebrations that had a parade or procession associated with them. At such events, the order in which each group marched was highly significant; it was a public statement of where you stood (literally) in the community. You might march at the head of your group, or bear a standard, or you might march further behind, or you might not be asked to march at all. Every nuance had significance. Moreover, your trade or guild might have certain honors, such as the right to bear a banner or even to carry a reliquary. That sort of honor was so precious that sometimes the reliquary or other saint's symbol might be borne by one guild from this church to that one, then another guild have the right to carry it to the next church, and so on. Everyone in the guild or trade shared in the honor, however indirectly.

Status was displayed in many other areas, too: the funding of a chapel or window at a church, for example, or the beauty of your guildhall. I'll talk more about guilds on the next page. I want to keep the topic separate because guilds were not universal in medieval towns, and a number of trades that weren't organized into guilds were nevertheless influential and with high social status.

In general, the status of the trade was in fairly direct relation to the prestige of the work itself, which meant the prestige of the customers. So, for example, a goldsmith sort of inherited the prestige of his customers and so had higher status, while a wheelwright or blacksmith had lower status simply because his customers weren't so high-class. Closely related to this was the quality of the materials. Expensive, quality materials tended to give a craft more prestige.

A second element in status was skill, and particularly fineness of skill. A good example is the difference between carpentry and joinery. The former was essentially a building trade, involving large pieces of wood and construction projects. The latter was focused more on furniture and cabinetry (joining means working without nails), and required more skill to execute. Somewhat related: newness mattered. Thus, a shoemaker had more prestige than did a cobbler, because the shoemaker made new shoes while the cobbler merely repaired old ones.

A converse dynamic was also in effect: certain trades were automatically lower-class, simply because of the materials involved. Fishmongers, for example, never were highly regarded because they smelled bad. The same was true for tanners. Butchers might get rich, but because they dealt in blood they could never be in high society. Bakers, on the other hand, could. Millers were rarely well regarded, but for a somewhat different reason: the local mill was in popular imagination a place where bandits might hide and where lovers might have a tryst. Moreover, the miller was chronically suspected of shorting his customers.

Every Community Unique

Do not think that just because you have identified the relative social position of a trade in one town, that it will be the same in the next town. Social position was also the result of the unique history of each community. Some things would be true very widely (e.g., goldsmiths were among the elite; fishmongers never were), but in the middling trades you will find much variety. This makes studying medieval crafts a good deal of fun, but it makes generalizing about them very difficult.