As European cities became important economic centers during the late Middle Ages, wealthy merchants and government officials were able to purchase not only expensive paintings, tapestries, and sculpture, but also beautifully made household items in leather, metal, wood, and other materials. These handicrafts—even the paintings were considered handicrafts in 1400—were created by artisans organized into guilds. In some cities each guild monopolized the production of one type of craft. In others larger guilds consisted of several groups of artisans, each group specializing in a particular craft. Joining a guild entailed working first as an apprentice (see chapter 11, on education), then as a journeyman, and finally as a master in one’s own workshop. The number of masters was often limited, to prevent undue competition within the guild. Although women were not permitted to join guilds, masters usually had to be married because the wife was expected to assist in the shop. Guild members helped support the economic welfare of their city, providing aid to masters who became too old to work, as well as to orphans and widows of masters. Guilds were also patrons of art. Several of the most impressive altarpieces were commissioned by guilds, which also paid for elaborate church funerals for their members. On feast days and during civil ceremonies, guild members banded together and paraded in uniform costume, similarly to members of confraternities (see Chapter 2, on religion). In fact, guild members constituted many of the confraternities, extending their contributions to the city’s social welfare beyond the immediate families of the guild itself. Thus some guilds became not only powerful commercial forces within the framework of European cities, but also notable political groups.
By the 16th century many guilds were producing goods via the “putting-out system,” as wealthier masters invested in the handicrafts produced by the poorer households. Instead of one artisan’s making an entire item in his workshop, the item might be passed from one workshop to the next, until all the steps of its production were complete. This system, somewhat like a mobile assembly line, could manufacture handicrafts much faster than the simple workshop system. The results, however, were less prestige and usually less income for the individual artisan.