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Ordinances of the Guild Merchant of Southampton

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A common provision of early town charters was the privilege of possessing a "gild merchant" (or hanse house). It was an institution which embodied the trading monopoly of a chartered city or borough. Few ordinances of such gild's survive, although over 100 towns had them.

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Guilds existed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Guilds were groups of individuals with common goals. The term guild probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon root geld which meant ‘to pay, contribute.’ The noun form of geld meant an association of persons contributing money for some common purpose. The root also meant ‘to sacrifice, worship.’ The dual definitions probably reflected guilds’ origins as both secular and religious organizations. The term guild had many synonyms in the Middle Ages

These included association, brotherhood, college, company, confraternity, corporation, craft, fellowship, fraternity, livery, society, and equivalents of these terms in Latin, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Romance languages such as ambach, arte, collegium, corporatio, fraternitas, gilda, innung, corps de métier, societas, and zunft. In the late nineteenth century, as a professional lexicon evolved among historians, the term guild became the universal reference for these groups of merchants, artisans, and other individuals from the ordinary (non-priestly and non-aristocratic) classes of society which were not part of the established religious, military, or governmental hierarchies. Much of the academic debate about guilds stems from confusion caused by incomplete lexicographical standardization. Scholars study guilds in one time and place and then assume that their findings apply to guilds everywhere and at all times or assert that the organizations that they studied were the one type of true guild, while other organizations deserved neither the distinction nor serious study. To avoid this mistake, this encyclopedia entry begins with the recognition that guilds were groups whose activities, characteristics, and composition varied greatly across centuries, regions, and industries.

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Similarly, merchant guilds also believed building a strong community was more important than the happiness of the individual. The Gild focuses on making the whole Gild richer as opposed to making the individual member richer. Each member must make sacrifices in order to help the Gild. For example, “no one of the Gild ought to partner or joint dealer in any of the kinds of merchandise” with anyone not part of the Gild (“Ordinance of the Gild Merchant of Southampton” 328). Although a Gild member could make a huge profit partnering with someone else, they must refuse the offer. The goal of this rule is to keep members from becoming significantly richer and more powerful than other members. They must avoid this to strengthen the Gild. They need to focus on strengthening the Gild rather than making themselves richer. Members of the Gild also help each other out when they are faced with adversity. No matter what a member did to get into poverty, “if any gildsman falls into poverty and has not the wherewithal to live … he shall have one mark from the Gild to relieve his condition” (“Ordinance of the Gild Merchant of Southampton” 329). Even if the member made poor choices and lost all his money, the Gild must help him out. Although the members must give up some of their money to help, they are not hesitant because they know the Gild would do the same for himself if they were to face the same predicament. Knowing that the Gild is always there to help each other out strengthens the relationships between each member, and the strength of the Gild will grow. The Gild is always there to help any of their members. Even if a gildsman is ill, “two approved men of the Gild shall go to visit him and look after his condition” (“Ordinance of the Gild Merchant of Southampton” 328). By helping and supporting each other, the Gild grows stronger and more prosperous.

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Generally speaking, the ordinances of the Gild Merchant were set out at various times in the documents of the town. The earliest version is contained in the Oak Book, dating from c.1300

The Oak Book, written in Anglo-French, was translated by William Overey, town clerk in 1473, and presented to the Gild in 1478. Davies states that this version was to become known as the ‘Paxbread’, but P Studer in his introduction to The Oak Book of Southampton thinks it more likely that this name was applied to the original Anglo-French version. The origin of the name Paxbread (or Paxbred) is not obvious, but Studer believed ‘bred’ means board or tablet, while ‘pax’ could refer to the Easter meeting of the Court Leet, at which the Oak Book would have been used.

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St. Benedict. “Rule of St. Benedict.” Weber 257-262.

“The Ordinance of the Gild Merchant of Southampton.” Weber 327-330.

Weber, Eugen, ed. The Western Tradition, Volume 1: From the Ancient World to Louis XIV.

Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995. Print.

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