To add a little more context to Hannes superb and really interesting post..Craft Guilds
It's important to keep in mind, a craft Guild is not exactly like a modern union, because it's members are actually all small-business men. The direct members of the craft Guild are all Guild-Masters, who have the right to be shop owners. This is why for example the craft Guilds spend as much time effort, and litigation to ensure the quality of their product or service as they do ensuring pay (proffits) and benefits. If they don't remain competetive, particularly in the export markets, the Guild will decline. There was a hierarchy of craft Guilds in each town, based on the most important industries economically. In Bruges for example I think the weavers and the dyers were the most important. Masters from the biggest Guilds and from the luxury Guilds (goldsmiths and so on) could be very rich and very powerful, often on the city council at least in the German towns. The rank and file of the craft Guilds were made up by apprentices and journeymen who were not directly part of the Guild, but were sponsored by a particular Master who had full Guild membership. More on journeymen in a minute.Merchants Guilds
There are also Merchants Guilds, whose members have the right to trade. In the German-speaking parts of Central Europe, there was a clear distinction between Merchants Guilds and craft Guilds. The Merchants would buy raw materials (like say, wool or iron ore) and sell them to the craft Guilds, who wouild process them into finished products, and then the Merchants would buy the finished goods back and re -sell them, sometimes locally, often in some distant market very far away. Bruges for example had strong direct trade relations with England, Scotland, Scandinavia, Prussia, France, and as far away as Spain and Italy.
Merchants Guilds were usually made up of Patricians and were often very exclusive. For example in the Artus Court in Danzig, artisans (craft Guild members) were denied entrance into the building.
But there is a very important distinction between Western and Central Europe on this. In England and France, the craft and Merchant Guilds appear to have been mixed. This is the basis of the so called "Livery Companies" in England for example. This put the political and sometimes military struggle one saw in the German speaking towns between the merchants and the artisans way on the back-burner. It made the artisans much weaker politically. I'm not sure what the situation was in the Low Countries. I know in Liège they had a craft Guild administration until Charles the Bold managed to capture the town and put most of the burghers to the sword in 1468. I'm not sure if the larger towns like Ghent and Bruges had an English / French model of Guilds or a German.Journeymen
The Journeymen were technically part of the Guilds, but only indirectly through the patronage of the Master they were working for. So to protect their rights the Journeymen had their own 'benevolent' organizations. These seem to have taken much more active social role in the sense of the 'True' Guilds Hanne mentions. The Catholic Church refers to these types of organizations, which still exist in some places, "Sodalities
" here in New Orleans they are referred to as 'Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs'. Their purpose seems to combine charity, as party organizers during major annual events (usually religious feast-days and saints-days like Carnival and Corpus Christi), and as a means of boosting the prestige and political power of the sponsoring organization.
These type of groups seem to have sprung up in large numbers in the 15th Century. Town records from Frankfurt am Main document the typical pattern of the formation of these groups in the Central European towns: The banner-bearers benevolent association was founded in 1440, that of the shoemakers and tailors in 1453, that of the painters in 1455, the butcher-boys in 1455, the cotton weavers in 1460, and many others were founded about the same date. The journeymen often had direct conflict with the Guilds, and sometimes these came to blows. To ensure their rights were respected both the Guilds and the Journeymans associations used to display their arms and abilities, apparently engaging in the sword dances and similar antics, as well as marching with bared swords for example in the Corpus Christi parade in Krakow.
Mostly the activites of these groups involved sometimes comical celebrations and charity. For example on Carnival day the companions of the shoemakers Guild in Nuremberg held a 'bath-walk.' Meeting at the Guild-inn they marched in white bath cloaks and hats, accompanies by fife and drum, through the city to the public baths and back to their inn, where they regaled themselves. Costumes were carefully designed to uphold the glory of the association. The coopers Guild danced their 'hoop dance' dressed in red cotton stockings, fine white shirts, and green Hungarian caps with bands on the side. In Hamburg the brewers celebrated every two years what they called the 'Hoge', which lasted full eight days, and consisted of public processions, dancing, and sports. On New Years Day the bakers of Friburg went in procession through the town carrying an enormous cake (bresel). A beautifully dressed Christmas tree was shaken by the oldest member for the poor, who gathered up the cakes and fruits that fell from it. Wine was distributed to everyone, and the day was closed with dancing.
There were often labor tension between the Guilds and the journeymen and even strikes. In most cases they would be settled amicably by arbitrators, for example when the shoemakers of Emmerich went on strike in 1469, the city authorities mediated a settlement, and the two groups (journeymen and masters) had drinks: “after much discussion, through mutual concessions peace was reestablished, much to the joy of masters and workers, who drank together and were as good friends as ever." A strike of journeymen of the tailor’s guild in 1503 in Wesel am Rhine over better food, pay and conditions was arbitrated by the Burgomeister. His noted that 'the journeymen of the tailors are more restless and more inclined to disturbance than others, but the masters are also to blame because they overpower the journeymen with work and do not give them three good meals in a day.' He also threatened fines to the Guild masters if they slapped or pulled the hair of journeymen who had refused to work on Sunday or on a Holy Day.
But it wasn’t always that easy. An unresolved dispute between the journeymen and masters of the tinsmiths Guild in Nuremberg in 1475 after a wage cut resulted in the eventual decline of the tinsmiths industry in that town. A group of journeymen tailors on strike in Metz in 1505 were blacklisted and banished from the trade. 19 towns were on the look-out for an agitator named "Henry Ruffs of Worms" who was stirring up journeymen in several towns. A lot of the labor trouble was about food. A coordinated strike by the powerful association of watermen in several cities of the Rhine in 1469 left us a rather amusing complaint from ships masters made to the Margrave of Baden: "…although receiving a florin a day, they are not contented at their meals with a soup, a good vegetable, together with meat, bread and cheese, but demand also a roast and dessert. This seems unreasonable, we cannot afford to give all this." Whether this represents the actual situation or just poor-mouthing by the Guild masters is hard to say.
Labor disputes and clashes between urban clubs could get nasty. Journeymen like all free men carried arms, and there is evidence that they knew how to use them. Both the shoemakers journeymen in Frankfurt am Main and the smiths journeymen in Nuremberg danced the ‘sword dance’ during carnival. The journeymen of the shoemakers Guild in Liepzig was offended by some members of the University, and challenged the doctors and masters to “show the reason why they carried arms and to defend the honor of the profession.” It is unclear if the scholars took up the challenge. We also have a Frankfurt city council regulation in 1511, stating "on account of the riots, hereafter no master or journeyman belonging
to the shoemakers' guild shall carry a sword or dagger longer than that which was designated on the Roemer*."
*The Roemer is the town-hall in Frankfurt.
This is all stuff I dug up doing my Baltic book, I have sources if anyone wants them. Most of it is from a book called History of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages, by Johannes Janssen, (1896) and from another more modern study of Guilds called “Craft guilds in the pre-modern economy" Epstein Stephan. R. (2008)