Trade guilds: Initiation through work - Andre Nataf

'The genius of the trade guilds going around the globe'

The origins of the guilds, their beliefs and practices. An informative brief survey, despite its conservative conclusion.

"The secret of the guilds is, then, a skill, but this only comes through practice. As he worked to fashion a stone, the guild member was working on a fragment of the universe to fit it into the designs of God; art, according to the alchemists, was the way of perfecting Nature. The task of workers in the Middle Ages - a tiny minority of the population, it must be remembered - was not merely to contemplate God; they were making Him visible to all. This is why the trade-guilds were impregnated with mystic knowledge. This explains the human phenomenon and the role of man in the creation of the world..." [...]

"The guild movement also had a purely social side. The various chapters were, at one and the same time, trade unions, recruitment agencies and the forerunners of the modern employment exchange."

From; "The Wordworth Dictionary of the Occult"; Andre Nataf, Wordworth, 1991.

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TRADE GUILDS - Initiation through work


Initiatory associations of builders have been influential throughout history.

From the earliest times right down to the Renaissance, work constituted a mystery, and the fact that it was seen to be in part holy is stressed by anthropologists. Quite naturally, the legends of the guilds contain allusions to a mythical - that is to say mysterious or holy - origin. In history, from the earliest times, professional groupings are known; far from being mere pressure groups, these usually group round a patron god. Thus, the Greeks had associations of builders (the Hetairies) and in Rome, about 715 BC, King Numa codified the rules for the collegia ('colleges') of craftsmen such as the tignarii, who were carpenters and builders.

The 'challenge'
Ritual questions and answers, accompanied by ritual gestures, allowed a guild member to know whether or not the person to whom he was speaking was a fellow member. A special kiss was a way of recognizing another initiate, and a ritual greeting.

From the collegia to the guilds
Every collegium, or 'college', had a house where it held the agapae, or brotherly feasts, presided over by the magister cenae, and the ceremonies dedicated to the tutelary god. The collegium was the guardian of professional secrets and, in a way, these were its capital. The members made ritual use of gestures, signs and touches which, quite apart from their religious meaning, enabled the initiates of different colleges to recognize one another and to establish common solidarity. The Roman collegia were influenced by the Greeks who, in their turn, had been influenced by the Egyptians, Persians, Syrians aud Jews. They followed in the footsteps of the legions, growing as the empire expanded. Evidence of the existence of these collegia can be found in towns throughout Europe.

When the empire collapsed, they disappeared from northern Gaul and from Britain, but they remained in the Eastern Empire and in parts of Italy which were attached to it; here they became scolae. In France, the continued existence of the collegia to the south of the Loire is shown by the buildings of the fifth and sixth centuries However, since the developing feudal society had no use for them, the scolae became absorbed by monasteries, so that from the sixth century onwards monastic associations arose as guardians of the secrets of the builders. The most famous architects of the period therefore were clerics: Leo and Gregory, bishops of Tours; Ferreole, Bishop of Limoges; Fructueux in Spain and so on. In the 11th and 12th centuries, though, brotherhoods began to be established outside monasteries. At the same time as the influence of Gothic art was being felt, this new secularism grew in the free town. Famous French lay builders of the period were architects such as Villard d'Honncourt, ,Jean d'Orbais and Pierre dr Corbie. This, too, is the period of the Bauhutte in Germany - the federation of the guilds of stone carvers in the Holy Roman Empire.

This growing lay influence led to the replacement of the religious associations by genuine trade organizations. These were the crafts regulated by the free towns or the lords. The Templars were particularly important; each commandery had its own architect, and in Paris, for example, where the mother-house occupied a third of the surface area of the town, the freedom of the city was accorded to the craftsmen towards the end of the 12th century.

How are we, then, to understand these different types of organization? Paul Naudon explains that:

"The terminology demands some explanation. When the craft was being organized, the orginal word used to describe it in France was canfrerie ('brotherhood'). Later on, the brotherhood in its religious and social sense, was distinguished from the craft as a purely professional organization. However, the two always existed together. Later on, the craft became known as the 'craft community', and finally in 18th century France it became the 'corporation'. In Great Britain, there was first of all the general term 'guild', then 'company' and then 'brotherhood'; we hear of the company of masons of London in 1376, and of the brotherhood of masons in 1742. In Germany, the word used is Bruderschaft, or 'brotherhood'. As for 'companionship' (the French compagnonnage), this is an incorrect term as the compagnonnage did not appear until the 16th century. As the name shows, they only included journeymen and workmen (from the French compagnon, 'journeyman'); these were essentially associations which defended the interests of their members. The birth of freemasonry owes nothing to them, although they both arose from a common origin."

Differences of vocabulary are of little importance. The essential point is this, that from earliest antiquity right down to the Renaissance, a desire to stress the sacred nature of work can be identified in most of these spiritual movements. This is a type of holiness which, far from being concerned with religious devotion, transcends it. The religious dimension is quite exoteric; the heart of the member, esoteric. He gives his heart not in prayer alone, but essentially through his work, in a welling-up of the self and the universe which is the stage for his 'praxis'. This is all revealed through ceremonies incorporating myths, the handing down of secrets and the work on the raw material.

The Passport

The letter of introduction carried by guild members went under all sorts of different names. On death, it was burnt on his coffin.

Secret and praxis
We have already discovered that the secret comprised a certain skill and we have already said that this, in a certain way, constituted the capital of the society. As far as building work is concerned, this was basically a technique founded on the golden mean [1]. The golden mean is not a simple formula which, when applied, produces a work of art; it is merely a tool, and a tool without inspiration is nothing at all. The golden mean only works when used by true artists. We shall not concern ourselves here with the question of whether the skill is only available to those who have been initiated. We must note, however, that the brotherhood was historically the first - and probably the only - society to produce a collective work of art (in the Middle Ages, people were probably less self-conscious in producing 'art' in the sense in which we understand the word).

According to Mircea Eliade, all ceremonies restate a founding myth. This is true of both the reception and initiation ceremonies for example. The guild in Christian times evidently saw the world in terms of a biblical mythology. The legend of Hiram, architect of King Solomon and builder of the temple in Jerusalem, dates back a very long time and is still its emblem. Some writers, such as Guenon and Corbin, finding themselves unable to date the origin of the guild, have proposed a 'primitive tradition', whose initiates handed down the sacred trust through the ages. Without accepting this theory, which turns the mythological side of the phenomenon into a dogma, it is possible to state that the origin of thc guild constitutes a mystery which can be explained through its practice, which 're-creates' it by making it visible in ceremonies. In its moments of glory, the guild was an institution where the worker rediscovered his place in the universe. It is easy to see how, in such a framework, the question of history, in the modern sense of the word, just does not arise; history is no longer a chronology, but becomes an insight into something much more profound.

The secret of the guilds is, then, a skill, but this only comes through practice. As he worked to fashion a stone, the guild member was working on a fragment of the universe to fit it into the designs of God; art, according to the alchemists, was the way of perfecting Nature. The task of workers in the Middle Ages - a tiny minority of the population, it must be remembered - was not merely to contemplate God; they were making Him visible to all. This is why the trade-guilds were impregnated with mystic knowledge. This explains the human phenomenon and the role of man in the creation of the world; according to the Gnostics, the demiurge is an artist and the faithful, that is to say the workers, have their part to play in the creation of the world.

Compasses

Compasses are the'Lord's tool' but, when opened to 90", they become a 'false square'. Using compasses, the worker can carry out nearly all the operations of his trade.

The Companions of the Duty of Freedom
The Companions of the Duty of Freedom sign their membership with their own blood. Nowadays, they do so symbolically, pricking themselves with a quill.

From the Renaissance to modern times
At the Council of Avignon in 1326, in the pontificate of John XXII, the banning of the builders' guilds was reaffirmed; they had already been banned at the Council of Rouen in 1189 because of their secret language and customs. There is supposed to have been a huge gathering of builders' guilds from all over Europe around the cathedral at Strasbourg at Ascension in the year 1315; it should be noted, however, that this is the same date given for the symbolic founding of modern freemasonry.

A social power
The guild movement also had a purely social side. The various chapters were, at one and the same time, trade unions, recruitment agencies and the forerunners of the modern employment exchange. Initiation remained at the heart of the secret societies but we must not forget that the guild was able to call strikes, that it was frequently persecuted by the public authorities, that it was a vehicle for an opposing culture and was also a potential power throughout Europe. The trade guilds clashed not only with feudal overlords, but also with the bourgeoisie. Their whole history is a struggle to free themselves from oppression and to declare their autonomy.

Have the trade-guilds, then, been overtaken by modern developments, such as microtechnology and mass production? Or are they simply lying dormant? Luc Benoist states that 'the new humanism, to which everyone aspires, will not be reached through intense production and competition, but by the work of an artist, such as the craft guilds fostered.' Perhaps this might mean that the spirit of the craft guild might arise, once again, from its ashes.

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Footnote

[1] "The Golden Mean - the lost secret of the builders; the golden mean, supposed to have been discovered by Pythagoras, was a secret handed down in ritual.
The golden mean is a manifestation of the invisible, which is derived from a mathematical formula. One may well be wondering what link there is between philosophy and mathematics, and how it can be revealed in concrete terms. The answer given by many writers is that the two disciplines, however different, come together in the occult without in any way losing their individual identies. Such writers remind us that every account of Creation presents a mythological picture, in which appear gods, and that every figure may be symbolized by a number, which is his unique cipher or seal. The mythological account is peppered with numbers. So there is a hidden link between statement and number. To convert, or so pass from one to the other, all we need to know are the laws.

The music of the spheres
This hypothetical link has given rise to much speculation and some have sought a sort of Cabala which might produce a total fusion of philosophy, painting, music and so on. However, beyond this type of conjecture, the golden mean can be seen, expressed in physical terms. To take three examples: cathedrals, pyramids and Greek temples are all built according to the principle of the golden mean. These monuments echo, encapsulate and embody the mythological story of the creation of the world, of the coming of a god, or of his death and resurrection." [...]

"Numerically, the this golden mean or golden section, is calculated as the ration 1:Φ, (ie 1:16180339), which is roughly equivalent to 8:13.

The golden mean has been extensively applied to art and architecture. Leonardo da Vinci used this 'Canon of proportion' in his drawing of 'Vitruvian Man', recalling its use by the Roman architect, Vitruvius Pollio. Widely discussed during the Renaissance, this proportion forms the basis of, for example, Piero della Francesca's 'Baptism of Christ', which can be seen in the National Gallery, London."

Posted By

Red Marriott
May 6 2007 23:32

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terry-raggett
Nov 14 2008 14:56

i dont know if this is a comment or not but i was just interested whether or not there was any local groups of the Trade Guilds that i could get in contact with, as i have been interested in the subject for quite a few years now and thought that it would be of benifit to meet some people with similar interest as myself.
My trade that im indentured in is as a Shipwight with the Portsmouth Dockyard, and that is where im based at the moment.
Any help in this matter would be greatley appreciated.
Many thanks.
Terry Raggett.