The medieval guilds helped to create community by embracing three primal aspects of life: eating & drinking, death, and the work that fills up so much of our time. As the traditional workplaces of industrial society continue to fall into disrepair, the monetary rewards and benefit packages the middle-class has become dependent on will also erode their way into non-existence. Guilds helped their members navigate a world of limited resources, and offered tools that the collectives and workplaces of our own times could benefit from restoring. For those building new ventures, these can also be incorporated into the work culture from the beginning. Sharing food & drink and providing services for the dead also point to deeper Mysteries of Communion that exist on both sides of the veil. Sharing in these is a way to bring back a sacred element to the world of work.
In exploring the origin of guilds and the way they pointed towards the corporations and worker unions of today I am deeply indebted to Anthony Black’s Guilds and Civil Society. He points out that the word guild comes from the German, gild and meant a “fraternity of young warriors practicing the cult of heros”. (1) Later the word took on the meaning of a group of people tied together in friendship and ritual. Upon paying the entry fee, mutual aid was offered to the members. Furthermore the word gilda “signified a sacrificial meal. This was accompanied by religious libation and the cult of the dead. The sacred banquet, signifying social solidarity, was, and remained throughout medieval times an essential mark of all guilds”
Companies today may have an annual staff dinner or Christmas party. The people you eat with are your co-workers. Some of them may be close friends. Others, probably not. In this respect the corporate model of work organization has failed in the creation of tight-knit bonds between people of the same profession. Perhaps they are built instead at the golf outing, or during the power lunch. Maybe the bonds are celebrated with cigars and bourbon after a deal has been executed to continue screwing the middle-class, working-poor and downright-poor. Maybe mad men celebrate their kinship in work while destroying animals who live in an ecologically sensitive habitats. These types of jobs do not create community but schism and separation. Part of the work of reweaving our tattered world involves coming together in fellowship.
Barry Schwartz in Paradox of Choice writes, “Our social fabric is no longer a birthright, but has become a series of deliberate and demanding choices. What was once give by neighborhood and work now must be achieved; people have to make their own friends…and actively cultivate their own family connections.” (2)
THE FEAST HALLS ARE NOW EMPTY
The breaking of bread in communion with brothers and sisters at a sacrificial meal has a much more serious character than the power lunch. It partakes of the Mystery of communion. This was often done on the feast day of the Patron Saint associated with the guild, though also drinking and eating together were done on a regular basis inside the Guildhall.
Eating bread and drinking wine or beer together in a meal recalls not only the Last Supper of the Christian Gospels, but also the mystery of Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom. In Proverbs chapter 9, verses 1-6 it is written, “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who lacks sense she says, ‘come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (3)
This passage shows a form of communion with Sophia the Goddess of Wisdom. Fraternizing within a guild was a way of sharing the wisdom of work in a less formal manner at the dinner table. Here true learning, spiced with gossip and a tale or two, leavened the weight exerted in the preceding hours. While there is much to be learned under the guidance of a Master in the course of official duty, much more is often gleaned from the spontaneity arising when people are just hanging out. The sanctity of workshop or classroom can be balanced by cutting loose and letting it rip at dinner table.
Food and other alms were given to the poor from the larder of the guild as an act of charity to the community at large. The business association of today may make donations, but these are part PR spin and part tax write off. Guilds were not infallible by any means -older does not mean better-; they could have given to charity to keep up appearances just as much Coca Cola does. However, since guilds arose out of societies for voluntary mutual aid among strangers (i.e. not family or blood relatives) during in-stable times, and since they pledged support to each other and not to a CEO or a bottom line, it can be suspected that they gave to charities outside the guildhall from the heart, not out of the caprice that they may reap some future reward.
A FEAST FOR LIFE AND A GREATER FEAST FOR DEATH
Guilds are also related in origin to the Roman collegia. These “social clubs, burial societies, and cultic groups went back earlier than recorded history.” That both the German gild and Roman collegia have origins involving cults of the dead is noteworthy. The Medieval Guilds were becoming prominent in the twelfth century, the same time the Inquisition got rolling with its war on heresy. It is conceivable that practices otherwise frowned upon were preserved inside these fraternities. As each guild had a Patron Saint as a tutelary spirit of their work, the cult of the dead merely took another guise and fused with the dominant religious form.
Being a part of a guild offered distinct benefits in life and death. Providing the families of their members with sick pensions, burial funds, and pensions for widows was a common feature. This later was taken up in Freemasonry. An emphasis on providing burial grounds can be seen in the many cemeteries in America erected by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. “Burying the dead was taken very seriously by early Odd Fellows, and most lodges purchased land and established cemeteries as one of their first activities in a new town or city. In many areas all phases of burial (sometimes including services now provided by undertakers) were provided by Odd Fellows in the earlier days. Cemeteries were often open to the public, and plots were sold for a few dollars each. Many California lodges still own and operate cemeteries, and in some instances the major cemetery in the community is the Odd Fellows Cemetery.”  
I recently went to the funeral of a man who worked for many years in one of the largest manufactures of jet engines in the world. Nothing was said of his work and it did not seem like anyone from his work was at the funeral. This not only says something about the strength of friendships within the industrialized workplace, but also about Westerners attitudes towards the “greater feast” of Death in general. As the benefits associated with employment in industrialized “1st world” nations wane, workers will once again look to a place among fellows who can help them meet their basic requirements of burial, and the after care of those left behind. Health care itself is already long in the wane for Americans, the most costly procedures only being available to the highest bidder, or those whom the only choice is between Death and the indentured servitude brought on by debt. Just ask anyone you may happen to know whose job is to collect money from those who can’t pay their hospital bills.
A package which includes burial or cremation as part of the benefits of employment will be a boon to poor families facing a coming reality of lower life expectancy.
John Michael Greer has also pointed out that fraternal lodges also provided health care to their members. He writes, “the arrangement, once known as ‘lodge trade’ among doctors, makes an interesting contrast with the corrupt monstrosity masquerading as health care reform currently lumbering its way through the US Congress. Each lodge simply went out and hired a doctor, usually on an annual contract. The doctor received a flat monthly salary from the lodge, and in return provided whatever general medical care the lodge members and their families needed. If it had a large enough membership, the lodge might also hire a couple of visiting nurses and a dentist on the same basis. Notice that this arrangement gave the patients a meaningful voice in health care quality, and imposed an effective limit on prices: a doctor who provided substandard care or charged more than the lodge wanted to pay would simply find himself out of a job when his annual contract came up for renewal.” 
Fellowship among the living, caring for the sick, the dying, and the dead, giving alms to the poor, were all once part of the province of the guild. Those who are seeking to build new work collectives inside the cracked shell of our society can look to those models for guidance. People who are involved in magical lodges, and especially the larger orders, can look into setting up these kind of programs for the benefit of each other.
The communion shared in life can continue as a way of respecting and healing our relationship to Death.
The Library Guild Part I Apprentice and Journeyman
The Library Guild Part II The Master
1. Anthony Black, Guilds and Civil Society, Cornell University Press, New York, 1984
2. Barry Schwartz quoted in Sacred Stacks (below).
3. The Bible, English Standard Version
4. Catholic Encylopedia, Guilds article: www.newadvent.org/cathen/07066c.htm
5. The Three Link Fraternity by Don R. Smith and Wayne Roberts:
6. John Michael Greer: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/01/last-weeks-archdruid-report-post-on.html
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.