Monday, January 29, 2007

The Social Order Before and After the Protestant Reformation

by William Stang

In my last article, I charged the Protestant Reformation with the main responsibility for the social evils of modern times. I propose to substantiate the indictment in the present paper, by contrasting the social order before the great upheaval in the sixteenth century with the subsequent changes in the different classes of society as the result of the Reformation. My thesis is this: A higher degree of civilization existed among Christian nations before the Reformation than at any time since; the social deterioration of which men complain is the direct result of the Reformation.

It will be well at the outset to define our terms. What is civilization? Not many years ago an American ambassador to a foreign court defined civilization as perfectly symbolized by the two words "a railroad station and a telegraph pole." There is truth in the definition, but it is not one that might be put in a dictionary.

By civilization we mean a condition of social well-being. That society or nation is civilized in which the universal welfare is recognized and respected, and where trades and arts and sciences find an orderly and natural development for the moral and physical benefit of the people at large. Civilization is based on morality. When men of the twentieth century speak and write about civilization, we suppose them to mean the Christian civilization, the highest in the history of mankind—a civilization founded on Christian morality as proclaimed by the divinely appointed teacher, the Church of Christ.

Christian morality demands such distribution of wealth that all may live comfortably; it moderates the desire for riches, because it looks upon wealth not as an end to be aimed at for its own sake, but as the means to a higher end; it teaches the right and proper use of wealth, and enjoins the giving of assistance to the poor by teaching that the superfluities of wealth are the patrimony of the needy. The maxims of Christian morality, underlying all Christian civilization, are: men are brothers; labor is the duty of every one, and has a purifying and elevating effect upon all; idleness is a vice; talents must not be buried, they should be employed for the good of all; we must have the oil of good works in our lamps, if we wish to be admitted into the kingdom of heaven. The diffusion of such moral principles among men is the greatest benefit that can be bestowed on society. The Catholic Church had inculcated these principles among the nations which she formed and truly civilized in the Middle Ages; her doctrine was the very foundation on which the whole structure of mediaeval society was reared. He who ignores the constitution and history of the Catholic Church can not comprehend how the Christian religion is both the keynote of mediaeval intellectual life, and the basis of the entire mediaeval system. All social unions, whether for agricultural pursuits or for trade and commerce, all guilds and convivial fraternities were of a religious character and part of the Church system. "A higher, spiritual side was thus given to the most everyday transactions of both business and pleasure. It was the Church which formed a link between man and man, between class and class, between nation and nation. The Church in the Middle Ages produced a unity of feeling among all men, by fostering a certain cosmopolitanism which is hard for us to conceive in these days of individualism and strongly marked nationalism. So long as the Church was powerful, so long as it could make its laws respected, it stood between workman and master, between peasant and lord, dealing out equity and binding oppression."1

A healthy and happy condition of society is utterly impossible where two things are lacking, namely (1) stability of work, and provision for the temporal wants of the future; (2) a moral conviction that we shall enjoy a blissful eternity after life's troubles are ended. Nothing will satisfy the individual or society but the assurance of temporal and everlasting peace, and this boon was extended by the Church, and accepted by society of the Middle Ages. Men could surely perform their daily task, and confidently look into the future, fully convinced that ample provision was made by Holy Church for all possible wants of soul and body. Their transgressions were blotted out by priestly absolution, and their last hours Were brightened with the consolation of religion, and a safe landing in the haven of eternity was promised to the faithful servants of Christ.

Those blessed with an abundance of earthly things were not regarded with jealousy as the fortunate rich, but as trusted stewards of the good things which God had given them for distribution among the needy. The care of the helpless poor was considered to be the sacred duty of all. The benefices and goods of Holy Church belonged, as a birthright, to the poorer classes. The members of the Church were imbued with the principle that all are the children of the same Father in heaven, all are descended from a common stock, all are members of the mystical body of Christ, who came to unite us all in one grand brotherhood. The Angel of the Schools, St. Thomas of Aquin, was not merely theorizing, but stating a living, actuating principle, when he taught: "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty, when others are in need."

Another living principle which influenced the daily life of the rich in the ages of faith, was the bounden exercise of Christian charity in the service of the sick, and poor, and helpless, according to the new commandment of the Lord: "Love one another." Through the observance of this precept, the Church became the greatest charitable organization in the world; her history is the history of Christian charity. She abolished slavery, ransomed captives, sheltered widows and orphans, built hospitals and asylums for the sick and abandoned, erected homes for the aged poor, —in short, she provided means for the relief of every human misery. In the third century there existed in Alexandria a brotherhood for nursing the sick.2 Fabiola erected the first large hospital in Rome. St. Basil opened the first hospital in the East, near Caesarea. St. John Chrysostom was also the founder of a hospital for the sick poor. St. Zoticus, a wealthy Roman, first a senator, then a priest, founded an orphanage at the beginning of the fourth century. St. Pachomius founded a hospice for pilgrims in the episcopal palace at the mouth of the Tiber; his example was followed by St. Augustine, who also ransomed the slaves. And as the Church progressed, she established innumerous orders of men and women to serve the sick in hospitals and at their homes. Monasteries and episcopal residences, colleges for chapters, were always built with provision for the pilgrims and the sick. The hospital of Santo Spiritu in Rome has done more for the sick poor than any other institution of its kind in the whole world. Such an institution is worthy of the great white father of Christendom, in whose heart is ever alive the fire which the Master came on earth to kindle.

It will not be out of place to mention here the Military Orders of the Church, such as the Knights of St. John, the Knights of the Cross, and the Knights Templar, who rendered an immense service to humanity by deeds of the most touching and sublime charity. They were not instituted to propagate the Gospel with the sword, but they became soldiers of Christ and marched under the protection of our Lady to safeguard the holy places and shrines, to clear the highways of brigands, to guard the pilgrim on his journey, to help the sick, the poor, the orphan, and the widowed. "It is beyond all doubt that chivalry has never appeared more worthy of admiration than in the military religious orders, in which it was necessary to make a sacrifice of all the affections, to renounce the glory of the warrior and the solitude of the cloister, to assume the responsibility of two states of life, to serve in the camp, and to discharge the duties of a monk, to be the terror of the enemy and the consolation of the afflicted. The Knights in Europe went in search of adventure; the religious Knights, in the name of poverty and misfortune. The Grand Master of the Hospitalers styled himself the guardian of the poor of Jesus Christ. The poor were called by the Knights 'our masters.' Wonderful power of religion, which, at a time when the sword was everywhere victorious, taught the valiant to be humble, and showed that pride was not, as commonly believed, an essential element of bravery." So far the Italian historian, Cesare Cantu, whose words carry the weight of profound learning. The celebrated German historian, Frederic Hurter, maintains that all the institutions of beneficence which mankind today possesses for the solace of the unfortunate, all that has been done for the protection of the indigent and the afflicted in all the vicissitudes of their lives, under all kinds of suffering, has come, directly or indirectly, from the Catholic Church.

This beautiful charity of the Church is not to be confounded with our modern philanthropy, that noisy counterfeit of Christian charity." Philanthropy," as Ozanam said, "is like a woman admiring herself; Charity is a mother with a child in her arms."

One factor which essentially contributed to the social well-being in pre-Reformation times, and which has been lost sight of in our days, is the moral value and high esteem in which labor was held by all classes. It was firmly and universally accepted that all men are born to labor,—some with their hands, in fields and workshops; others, in learning and art; others, in war for the protection of home and country; again others, as servants of Christ and His people. All men were supposed to be laborers. Werner Rolewink, a learned Carthusian friar, wrote on the eve of the Reformation: "God and the laborer are the lords of all that serve for the use of man."

A prayer-book, used by the people in the fifteenth century and called The Christian Monitor, says: "Let the societies and brotherhoods so regulate their lives according to Christian love in all things that their work may be blessed. Let us work according to God's law, and not for reward alone, else shall our labor be without blessing, and bring evil on our souls. Men should work for the honor of God, who has ordained labor as our lot. Man should labor to earn for himself and his family the necessaries of life, and for what will contribute to Christian joy and also assist the poor sick by the fruits of his labor." That this admonition was generally heeded, may be inferred from the prosperous condition of industry and the total absence of pauperism. Guilds and trades unions were flourishing, while peasants were continually acquiring land and rising to the state of freeholders. There were none of the extremes of wealth and poverty that presently cause so much strife and discontent and engender dangerous class hatred. Let me now describe more in detail, though briefly, the condition of the three branches of industry: agriculture, handicraft, and commerce.


Janssen draws from authentic sources a charming picture of peasant life in Germany toward the close of the Middle Ages.3 He tells us that in the farmer's house the hearth was built in the middle; and the farmer's wife, from her elevated seat behind it, could keep her eye on the whole establishment at once, and could survey at a glance, children, servants, horses, cows, garret, cellar, and dwelling rooms. The seat by the hearth was the best in the house. The fire was kept burning on the hearth all day long, and smouldered on through the night, being put out only, according to an old custom, at the death of the head of the house.

A book on agriculture, written shortly before the Reformation, says: "The true farmer has no greater blessing than his house and wife and children. He loves his work and holds his calling in high esteem, for God Himself instituted it in Paradise." A popular song runs thus: "Said the Knight to the farmer, 'I am born of a noble race.' The farmer replied proudly, 'I cultivate the corn; that is the better part. If I did not work, you could not live on your heraldry.'"

Closely united and acting on their motto—" All for one, one for all," the farmers of those days were conscious of their dignity and importance as tillers of God's earth who furnished daily bread for all. Two principles prevailed everywhere among them on which their liberties, claims and responsibilities were based: one taken from the Church (Canon) law: No man belongs to another; the other, borrowed from the imperial law: The people are God's and the tribute is the Emperor's.

At the close of the Middle Ages the soil belonged chiefly to nobles, monasteries, and institutions of education and charity. There was, however, a respectable number of landed peasant proprietors. And as the land was constantly increasing in value, so the number of free farmers was steadily rising. The law of heredity protected land properties from being broken up: the eldest son inherited the farm, with the obligation to support the rest of the family. Tenant farmers of those times should not be confounded with serfs, for serfdom no longer existed. Besides the farmer there was the so-called house tenant, who was provided with a small cottage and garden and worked on the farm.

Tenant farmers, or those who paid rent on the land, could not leave the farm without the permission or knowledge of the landlords. But the leases of land were perpetual, and thereby secured one of the greatest boons to the agricultural classes—stability of existence. The rents were small, often nominal, especially on land owned by monasteries, which let their property simply to provide the people with shelter and work. Thus, in Austria, the payment of rent consisted in performing twelve days' service annually in the employ of the proprietor. During this kind of feudal service the landlord had to support the tenant farmers "with good cheer," so that the time of service frequently became a season of merriment and feasting, at which the tenants acknowledged the vested rights of the landowners and enjoyed their paternal bounty.

Peasants, as a rule, were well housed, finely clad, and abundantly fed, so much so that certain popular preachers of the time called them proud and luxurious, and denounced their dressing in silks and velvets, pearls and gold, their eating of dainty viands, and their drinking of strong and costly wines. Farm hands were well paid and fed. From labor contracts between farmer and helper we learn that the servants had two courses of meat for dinner, and were entitled to meat at supper.

The same condition of things among farming people prevailed in England before the Reformation, whence the country received the well-deserved title of "Merrie England." Domestic relations were still of a patriarchal character and sustained by religious fervor. Woman was the helpmate of her husband, his constant companion at home, the queen of the household. She looked after the maids, instructed them in housekeeping, and taught them embroidery and spinning. She had to see to all the servants, keep her own keys, attend to the sick, and—spare her tongue, but not spare the rod.

The dissolution of convents, monasteries, and other ecclesiastical institutions, and the subsequent wholesale confiscation of Church and lands, to which we shall shortly advert, threw the peasant class into a state of unprecedented pauperism. The monks, who had been easy and indulgent landlords, were succeeded by selfish despots who introduced rack-rent for the tenants and brought them to that pitiable state of serfdom in which the nineteenth century—to the eternal shame of Protestant England!— found the tenant farmers of Ireland.


Guilds, as societies of artisans and tradesmen for mutual aid and protection, were organized even in pagan times, as we learn from the Roman historians. A sense of insecurity as to the means of obtaining a livelihood and the fear of being pressed down to a slave-like condition have driven men, at all times, to the formation of associations for mutual assistance. The guilds of the Middle Ages, however, were not merely beneficial or mutual aid societies; they were essentially of a religious character, the product of the Church; they originated in the spirit of Christian charity and brotherly love which then flourished among the nations of Christendom.

L. Brentano, a most erudite and well-equipped scholar on this subject, in his masterly essay on History and Development of Guilds, is of opinion that the guilds of the Middle Ages, and as they still exist in Catholic countries, have their origin in a connection with monasticism, and in an imitation of it on the part of men who, though wishing to accumulate merits for the next world, yet would not renounce the present; and that this origin is to be sought in Southern lands, in which Christianity and monasticism were first propagated.

There were guilds for every trade and profession: guilds of jewelers and workers in metal, bakers and butchers, tailor and cobblers, carpenters and masons, tanners, drapers, hatters, linen-spinners and wool-weavers, and many others. They were bound together by the strictest rules and customs, and had their special uniforms, corporate seal, and place of meeting. In many cities they lived together on the same street, or in the same quarter, around their guildhall, where they frequently assembled to discuss their common interests, to inquire into the observance of the statutes, or share in the joys of large and fraternal banquets. The type and image of the guild was the Christian family. They selected their own officers, who disposed of masterships, delivered patents, collected fees, visited the workshops, and imposed necessary fines. Those chosen by the guilds had to accept the office or pay a heavy fine. All disputes among the members were settled by the guilds, and not in court. The expenses of the guilds were provided for by entrance fees, regular contributions, and legacies. Each craft was independent and regulated its own affairs. The king's license was not necessary for the foundation of a guild. Indeed, guilds often fought kings and held them responsible for wrongs inflicted on their fellows. The by-laws of all the guilds breathe the spirit of reverence for law and of love of liberty. No ordinance could be made against the common law; the liberties of city and town were to be upheld; rebels against the law were expelled from the guild. Nearly every single guild was incorporated and subject to a uniform principle of government. The charter, with' constitution and by-laws, had to be submitted to city and town authorities for approval.

It was the religion of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Catholic Church, that held the members of these various associations together in the spirit of brotherly love and in the sure hope of an eternal reward. Their essential nature is pointed out by the great Archbishop Hincmar as the obsequium religionis, which means prayer coupled with every exercise of charity. The purpose of divine service and prayer stands out prominently as the chief object of brotherhood. The guilds were under the special protection of popes and bishops, and enjoyed many spiritual privileges which were highly prized in the ages of faith.

The number of guilds was very large. At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were thirty thousand such organizations spread over England, most of them well endowed with lands and houses. There were eighty in the city of Cologne in Germany, seventy at Lubeck, and over a hundred at Hamburg.

"The guild," as Brentano remarks, "stood like a loving mother, providing and assisting, at the side of her sons in every circumstance of life, cared for her children even after death; and the ordinances as to this last act breathe the same spirit of equality among her sons on which all her regulations were founded, and which constituted her strength. In cases of insolvency at death, the friends of poor members were to be equally respected with those of the rich." This reads like a romance in these days of greed and selfishness, but we must remember that religion had so permeated every feature of social and domestic life that all the guilds of craftsmen and merchants appear as so many religious confraternities. One of the first requisites, in fact the essential condition for the formation of a guild, was that they find a priest, "holy and learned," to act as their chaplain, in conducting special services for them and saying Mass for the living and dead members. His salary was determined at the outset and faithfully paid by the members. "In this respect," remarks Brentano, "the craft guilds of all countries were alike; and in reading their statutes one might fancy sometimes that the old craftsmen cared only for the well-being of their souls. All had particular saints for their patrons, after whom the society was frequently called; and, when it was possible, they chose one who had some relation to their trade. They founded Masses, altars and painted windows in cathedrals; and even at the present day their coats of arms and their gifts range proudly by the side of those of kings and barons. We find also innumerable ordinances as to the support of the sick and poor; and to afford a settled asylum for distress, the London guilds early built dwellings near their halls." Such a condition of things ought to meet the unqualified approbation of Carroll D. Wright, who maintains that "an ideal state of society is to be found only when religious elements predominate."4

The Corpus Christi procession gave ample opportunity for the display of liveries, banners, insignia and emblems of the various guilds. It was, however, chiefly a religious act, a solemn and public profession of Catholic faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, as it may still be witnessed every year in Catholic cities, such as Vienna and others of the Old World.

The patronal feasts of the guilds were days of great rejoicing and display. Gorgeous processions in picturesque and costly robes, with lights and flowers and music, moved in perfect order, gaily, through the streets and delighted the hearts of young and old. All was religious. "Each guild's first steps were bent toward their church, where Solemn High Mass was chanted; thence went all the brotherhood to their hall for the festive dinner. The procession on the occasion and other amusements so dear to Englishmen, when their country was "Merrie England," were meant to be edifying and instructive; and helped religion to make her children both good and happy, through even their recreations. .... Through such means, not only were the working-classes furnished with needful relaxation, but their very merry-making instructed while it diverted them."5

Public dinners, with music and song, at which all the guild-men assisted with wives or sweethearts, would follow the religious ceremonies. After dinner, theatrical representations of a semireligious nature would amuse and instruct young and old. Thus both soul and body were regaled at the patronal feasts. It is true that feasting and drinking sometimes gave occasion to ecclesiastical interference, but a natural readiness to submit to and obey would prevent a universal abuse of the good things.

Nor were educational facilities lacking for the children of the guildmen, and out of the common treasury many colleges and schools were founded and supported. The constitutions and bylaws of the guilds of all countries were fundamentally the same. They were inspired and carried into effect by that Holy Church which all the nations of Europe venerated and loved as their common mother. "If a brother falls into poverty, if he incurs loss by fire or shipwreck, if illness or mutilation renders him unable to work, the brothers contribute to his assistance. If a brother finds another in danger of life on sea or in captivity, he is bound to rescue him, even at the sacrifice of a part of his own goods; for which, however, he receives compensation from the brother assisted, or from the community. English guilds' statutes frequently mention loans to be given to brothers carrying on trade, often with no other condition than the repayment of it when it should be no longer needed. The sick brother found in his guild aid and attendance; the dead was buried; for his soul prayers were offered, and services performed; and not infrequently the guild gave a dowry to his poor orphan daughters. The numerous provisions as to the poor, as to pilgrims, and other helpless people, in the statutes of English guilds, prove that non-members in want found help from them as well."6 The duties of the guild-brothers consisted chiefly in the exercise of the corporal works of mercy. The principles and motives of the association were Christian charity, and not, like the beneficial organizations of our own day, personal gain and profit. It was something higher than material gain and personal advancement that led men into these associations. It was a lively faith and an ardent desire for the practice of Christian virtue, or, as an ancient guild of Exeter in England put it to its members, that they thus collected in assembly "for the love of God, and for our souls' need, both to our health of life here, and to the after days which we desire for ourselves by God's doom."

One of the principal objects of the craft-guilds relating to the temporal welfare of its members, was to render them secure in the independent earning of their living by means of their trade. Freedom of trade was stoutly opposed by legal enactments. All artificers and craftsmen had to choose their trade or craft, and after having chosen it, they could not use another. Legal provision was made to enable every one with a small capital to earn his daily bread in his trade, without fear or danger of being "run out of business" by a wily neighbor. This became a live principle in all the craft guilds of the Middle Ages. We find it put into form and shape in the so-called "Secular Reformation" of Emperor Sigismund, issued in the year 1434. Herein the ancient law is reinforced, prohibiting that one person carry on more trades than belong to him: "Will you hear what is ordained by imperial law? Our forefathers have not been fools. The crafts have been devised for this purpose, that everybody by them should earn his daily bread, and nobody shall interfere with the craft of another. By this the world gets rid of its misery, and everyone may find his livelihood. If there be one who is a wineman, he shall have to do with his wine trade, and shall not practise another thing besides. Is he a baker, the same, etc., no craft excepted. And it is to be prevented on imperial command, and to be fined with forty marks of gold, where it is heard that the imperial towns do not attend to this, that nobody of any trade whatever shall interfere with the craft of another."

The relations between masters and workmen were regulated by law. Incipient disputes and difficulties were settled by the warder of the guild as the deciding authorities. If a master failed to pay his workman the lawful wages, he had to stop working at his trade until he discharged his debt. On the other hand, "if any serving man shall conduct himself in any other manner than properly toward his master, and act rebelliously toward him, no one of the trade shall set him to work until he shall have made amends before the mayor and aldermen, and before them such misprision shall be redeemed."7 The Tailors' Guild of Vienna had this rule, that "no workman shall be allowed to leave his master fourteen days before a festival," generally at a time when there would be the greatest demand for work.

The ordinances of the guilds for the regulation of wages were supported by State law. Winter wages were lower than those paid in summer. A certain rate of wages was fixed in all the departments of industry. Nor was this considered to be an undue interference of the State in the Middle Ages; for the State's first duty consisted in protecting the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich. People believed not only in certain rights and privileges, but also in duties and obligations of individuals toward society. Every attempt to oppress or even to take unseemly advantage of the temporary distress of another was looked upon as usury and severely condemned. The rich who paid higher wages than the statute allowed and thus raised the rate of wages and who thereby prevented poorer men from having laborers, were punished. When in the year 1362, a destructive storm in London caused great havoc to the roofs of houses, a royal order decreed that "materials for roofing, and the wages of tilers, shall not be enhanced by the reason of the damage done by the tempest."

The guild men were taught to look upon work as a sacred trust, a holy function, the complement of prayer, and the foundation of a virtuous life. Before their eyes were the luminous examples of those blessed toilers, the saints of God, whom they represented with the implements of the various trades; thus the Blessed Virgin Mary was represented as busy at the spinning wheel, and her holy spouse, St. Joseph, with hammer and saw. As every member of the guild had to be of legitimate birth and of an unblemished and spotless reputation, so his work was to be solid and faultless as the manifestation of his character. Sham and deceit were universally despised, and legal penalties were inflicted on work of inferior quality. To prevent fraud and deception, all trades were under the close inspection of the guild warders and local authorities. Thus the jewelry business, which presented a special temptation to cheating, was kept under vigilant eyes. To check the deceits which had crept into the jewelry trade, an Act was passed in 1403, providing that, "Whereas many artificers, imagining to deceive the common people, do daily make brooches, rings, beads, candlesticks, hilts, sword-pommels, powder boxes, of copper and lead, like to gold and silver," a penalty is decreed on those who pass for gold and silver what is but copper and lead. A man should see whereof a thing is made "for to eschew deceit." In their anxiety to secure the production of solid articles, silk was allowed to be imported into England only as raw material, because of its being in foreign lands "falsely and deceitfully wrought." Worsted goods were considered false work and false stuff, not being exclusively of real wool; for persons purchased goods "trusting that it shall be within as it showeth without, where of truth it is the contrary."

The same strict supervision was exercised over food and provisions. Butchers and bakers were severely punished if they asked unfair prices or sold bad meat or bread. In some parts of Germany dishonest bakers, when caught, would publicly be placed in a basket attached to a long pole, and dipped in a puddle. The Bakers' Guild of Winchester ordained, that the bread should be white and well baked; each loaf should be of full weight, under penalties according to the lack of weight. Bread could not be fetched from the baker's before noon. Every baker had to put his seal on every loaf, so that he could not disown it if it was not good. Every product from the hand of a member of a guild was to be perfect, "for the honor of God and the welfare of man." To insure the good qualities of their wares, men were not to work at night by candlelight, but only in full day-light. The vacation days of the guild brothers were many, and their hours of work were comparatively short, so as to give them plenty of time to attend to their many religious and domestic duties. Thus the weavers of London were forbidden to work between Christmas and Candlemas Day (from December 25th to February 2d). The cutlers of Hallamshire were not allowed to work from August 8th to September 5th, nor from Christmas to January 23d.

Every trade was divided into three classes: masters, companions (or journeymen), and apprentices. Apprenticeship lasted from two to seven years, and began between the ages of twelve and seventeen. A master was allowed only one apprentice besides his son; an exception was made in favor of butchers and bakers, who were allowed an unlimited number of apprentices. The admission of an apprentice was surrounded with impressive ceremonies; it took place in the town hall, in solemn session of the guild, and in presence of the town authorities. The apprentice was solemnly placed under the master's care, and thereby became a member of his family. The master stood to him in the place of father, and watched over his morals as well as over his work.

The nomination of a journeyman or companion was the next important event in the guildman's life, and followed the expiration of the term of a satisfactory apprenticeship. He reached the highest point of honor at his installation as a master. The journeyman who desired to become a master had to undergo a most trying ordeal: under the supervision of a competent judge, chosen by the guild, he had to produce his masterpiece, a faultless piece of workmanship.

Of all the guilds, it appears, the Weaver's Guild enjoyed the greatest honor and independence; its members distinguished themselves, especially in Flanders and Brabant, by wealth and self-respect, and stood at the head of all other craftsmen. The other guilds were modelled after theirs.

The continual intercourse between the towns of the several trading countries, maintained chiefly through the so-called Hanse Towns, produced a general similarity in the development of the social order. It is not surprising, therefore, that the same religious fervor and spirit of charity are found in all the guilds of Europe. The same anxious solicitude for the repose of the faithful departed— hence the many Masses and constant almsgiving "for the soul and sake of the dead "—and the same helping endeavor for the widows and orphans characterize the guilds of all nations. Dowries were frequently given by the guilds to poor girls so as to enable them to become nuns or to marry. Thus a guild of London had this provision: "If any good girl of the guild, of marriageable age, cannot have the means found by her father, either to go into a convent or to marry, whichever she wishes to do; friendly and right help shall be given to her, out of our means and our common chest, towards enabling her to do whichever of the two she wishes to do." A similar ordinance is made by the Guild of Berwick-upon-Tweed: "If any brother die, leaving a daughter true and worthy and of good repute, but undowered, the guild shall find her a dower, either on marriage or on going into a religious institution."

Owing to the flourishing condition of the guilds, trade in all its various branches and products reached, particularly in Germany and England, a degree of perfection which it has not attained since the days of the Protestant Reformation. In many monasteries, architects, painters, and brass founders were living and working in large numbers. The religious calm and serenity which reigned in these holy places added to the serenity of existence and lent a cheerful energy and indomitable perseverance to the work of the artisan. The Church employed large numbers of artists and mechanics in the construction of her magnificent churches, schools, and monasteries. The bishops of the Middle Ages were the chief patrons of architects and builders, and the trowel was significantly placed into their coat of arms. The episcopal cities were the most prosperous. Fairs and markets, held around the grand cathedrals in connection with Church festivals (frequently on the anniversary of the dedication of the churches, hence the word Kermess or Kirchweihe), gave a great impetus to trade and manufacture.

Toulmin Smith, after a careful examination of the statutes of English guilds, sums up for us their history, and points out how the ancient principle of association, for several centuries, had been an essential part of the social life of England, and that it had always worked well until they were forcibly meddled with. He believed that if the spirit in which those early fathers met together, prayed together, aided one another, their faith in law-abidingness and liberty, and their charity, could be shown to their brothers and sisters of these later days, it would not only bring closer to the present the hearts and hands of the past with profit to themselves, but that the work would also, by example, give invaluable hints to sincere men and workers now.8


In pre-Reformation times agriculture was held in the highest popular esteem; next to it came handicraft. Commerce came last and lowest in public estimation. Commerce, it was said, could not enrich the nation; for it only transferred goods from one hand to another, and what the merchants gained was at the cost of the people. The celebrated scholar of Rotterdam, Erasmus, did not speak in eulogistic terms of the merchants of hi time: "Merchants are the vilest and most contemptible men they lie, cheat, steal, and impose upon others."

But with the growth of industry commerce began to thrive and at the close of the fifteenth century we notice, with industrial prosperity, everywhere the signs of commercial opulence. The fishing trade and the coal trade developed considerably, and added to the national prosperity of England, while individuals rose from lowest conditions of life to immense wealth. Wool became the chief commodity and principal article of commerce in England. English wool was of the finest quality, and superior to any produced on the Continent. It was frequently exported into Flanders and Spain, to be sent back after it had been manufactured into cloth. The demand for wool exceeded the supply. It was on account of the increasing value of wool that much arable land was converted into pasture; the raising of sheep became more profitable than the cultivation of corn and grain. Still there remained an abundance of cereals, and enough to supply foreign markets.

Germany, so rich in mines, was the Mexico and Peru of Europe. Some of the German cities carried on a European commerce. Nuremberg, a beehive of industry, sent abroad everywhere its almost priceless works in gold, silver, copper, bronze, stone, and wood. In 1458 AEneas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Pius II, wrote: "We proclaim it aloud, Germany has never been richer or more prosperous than to-day. The German nation takes the lead of all others in wealth and power. The houses of the burghers of Vienna are roomy and richly decorated, built of freestone, with high, stately facades, painted within and without; they look like palaces of princes."

Christianity, as represented by the Catholic Church, always demands justice in commerce; it ever condemns usury, as diametrically opposed to justice. An universal delicacy in dealing justly with one's neighbor was manifest in pre-Reformation times, sometimes to such extent as to look unfavorably, and even condemningly, on the lending of money on interest. Under Henry VII, an act of parliament was passed "against usury," which then meant and was explained against all lending of money on interest. Janssen explains in his History of the German People how this fine sense of justice became prevalent in those ages :The ecclesiastical law9 insisted that no interest should ever be exacted from those in need, to whom money was lent as a help in immediate want; such exaction was considered disgraceful trading on the necessity of a fellow creature, and covetous appropriation of what belonged to another. This moral and religious code obtained judicial sanction from the State in the Middle Ages as being the embodiment of the Christian order of society; the ecclesiastical law against interest was treated as secular law, and ruled in the civil as well as in the Church courts of justice.

In the fifteeenth century, impoverished Italians fell into the hands of Jews and unscrupulous Christians who lent money at an exorbitant interest. Poor Franciscan Friars then collected a large sum of alms, opened a bank, and rescued the people from the fangs of usurers by lending out money on very little or no interest. This is the origin of the famous Monts-de-Piete. Disappointed Jews tried to crush this charitable undertaking, but the Church threw her protecting mantle over it and caused it to prosper.

To buy up commodities with a view of selling them again at a higher price, was considered the worst form of usury. "Whosoever buys up corn, meat, and wine," Trithemius says, "in order to drive up the price and to amass money at the cost of others, is, according to the laws of the Church, no better than a common criminal." Canon law forbade the arbitrary raising of the price of food and other commodities, and required the fixing of the right prices and the just wages for labor. Janssen justly concludes: "It was the casting aside of those principles that caused the ruin of the working classes and the rise of the proletariate of later times."

No wonder that non-Catholic writers have found themselves compelled to extol this phase of the social order in the Middle Ages. They marvel at the almost universal content of the working people and at the harmony and peaceful interchange of the different classes of society, and when reflecting on the chaotic condition that followed the outburst of the sixteenth century and the social unrest and dissatisfaction of modern times, they then in mournful remembrance bestow unstinted praise on the days of guild-life. "How beneficial," the Protestant Novalis says, "how well adapted to the exigencies of human nature, were these religious institutions, is proved by the vigorous expansion of all human energies; by the harmonious development of all moral and intellectual faculties which they promoted; by the prodigious height which individuals attained to in every department of art and science, and by the universally prosperous condition of trade, whether in intellectual or material merchandise, throughout the whole extent of Europe, and even to the remotest India. A vital Christianity was the old Catholic faith. Its all-presence in life, its profound humanity, the indissolubility of its marriages, its adaptation to human wants, its joy in voluntary poverty, obedience and fidelity—as these are the primary traits of its institutions, so they undeniably stamp it as a genuine religion.10

After the Protestant Reformation

The great Spanish philosopher Balmes describes the condition of Europe before the religious revolt as most prosperous: "Europe everywhere displayed extreme activity; a spirit of enterprise was developed in all hearts; the hour had come when the nations of Europe were about to see open before them a new horizon of power and grandeur, the limits whereof were invisible to the eye."11

But dark clouds were steadily gathering, and soon covered that "new horizon" with a pall of nameless distress. The hour had come when "the wild boar" entered the blossoming vineyard of Christian civilization and caused indescribable havoc in God's plantation. A priest lifted his hand against the Church that had educated him, and raised him to the sacerdotal dignity, after he had vowed obedience to her. The blow he dealt did not bring about the death of the Church, for she is immortal; but it fell upon the nations of Europe, and opened an ugly gash from which their life-blood has been ebbing away ever since, and which will not close until their return to the unity of faith.

It is only of late years that the history of the Protestant Reformation is generally being studied from original sources, and that the so-called Reformers, divested of their fictitious greatness and fabulous heroism, are permitted to appear in their own apparel and speak in their own language. Martin Luther is no longer, in the eyes of scholars and solid historians, the "sublime hero" and "saintly reformer;" his name will no longer be handed down to generations, except as a name of infamy and dishonor. Luther was not a reformer, but a wanton rebel, and the father of a fatal revolution. In the place of the spiritual hierarchy instituted by Christ, he put intellectual anarchy. Under the pretence of seeking freedom, men were induced to renounce allegiance to a divinely constituted authority, and to accept the opinions of the Reformers. Reason had as little to do with the Reformation as liberty. Wherefore Laurent remarks: " Protestantism ends with the denial not only of liberty, but also of reason."

Luther's teaching had a calamitous effect even upon the material condition of the German people, inasmuch as it rudely overturned the established social order. It consummated the degradation of the free peasant to the condition of the serf; it destroyed, or reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves, the innumerable guilds, by removing the old Church influence which gave them life and stability, and prevented their becoming selfish trade monopolies; it broke up the entire German society by weakening the religious belief, and brought about the almost indescribable immorality and dissoluteness of the people in the middle and second half of the sixteenth century, which only found a parallel in the nigh complete disappearance of all true intellectual and artistic activity.12

Luther was anything but a liberator of the poor from the tyranny of the mighty. He was ever on the side of power and wealth. In 1898, Professor Harnack said at the Evangelical Social Congress in Berlin, that the founder of Protestantism had neither eye nor heart for the social improvement of his time. Indeed, Luther taught the most slavish doctrine of submission to the powerful, even "against knowledge and reason." He maintained that the abolition of slavery would be against the Gospel. He caused the riotous and bloody revolt of the country people in 1525, known as the Peasants' War, He openly incited the peasants into rebellion, but when he saw the enormity of the crimes committed under the sanction of his "new Gospel," he became the apostle of despotism, and preached the slaughter of the poor deluded peasants: " Prick! Strike! Strangle, whosoever is able to! Well for thee if thou shouldst die doing so; for a happier death thou couldst not obtain."13

After the Peasants' War, Germany presented a most dismal appearance. Over one thousand convents and castles lay in ashes; hundreds of hamlets had been burned to the ground; the fields were uncultivated, the ploughing utensils stolen, the cattle killed or carried away. The widows and orphans of more than one hundred and fifty thousand slain peasants were living in deepest misery. These were some of the fruits of Luther's preaching of which he seemed to boast: "I, Martin Luther, have slain all the peasants in the insurrection because I commanded them to be killed; their blood is upon my head. But I put it upon the Lord God, by whose command I spoke."14

Without a true conception of Luther's character and work, no one can form a correct estimate of the virulent nature and tragic importance of the so-called Reformation. The same is to be said of his fellow reformers: they were mischievous enemies of the people and the fiery propagators of despotism and absolutism. That lofty spirit of Christian democracy and popular liberties which flourished in the Middle Ages perished with them. "We have to keep the people in poverty, so that they may remain in subjection and obedience," Calvin says; and they are hard words in the mouth of one who claimed to bring liberty and prosperity to millions. In Geneva, he organized a reign of terror, and wherever his doctrine was accepted, people fell into a state of barbarism. During the two centuries in which Scotland bore the yoke of Calvinism, it was the poorest and most uncivilized country of Europe.

The disciples of the "Reformers" did not seek the good of the Church, but Church goods; they hungered and thirsted not after justice and purity, but after silver and gold. The petty rulers saw in the Reformation only an opportunity of increasing their own lands and revenues by seizing those of the Church. Zeal for religion was a plausible excuse for spoliation. "There is something unspeakably revolting to the human mind in the combination of petty dominion and boundless tyranny; but never did it assume a more odious form than when religion became the sport of such men's caprices. The people had so little to do with the movement that they may be said not to have comprehended its purport."15

Protestantism is, in its very essence, revolutionary: it is a protest of individual reason against divine authority as represented by the Church of Christ. It is the religion of individualism and as such prepares the way for socialism and anarchism. Rodbertus, one of the greatest national economists of Germany, confesses this truth when he writes: "Not individualism, but socialism closes the series of emancipations which began with the Reformation. Socialism gives individualism its final sanction." The Reformation was in fact a sinister emancipation: it unloosened the beast in man; it appealed to all that is low and degrading in human nature; it renounced obedience to God, and put man in His place. All modern uprisings against lawful authority; all rebellion of the public mind against the Divinity and the Church of the Incarnate Word are traceable to the Protestant Reformation as the prolific mother of spiritual and social anarchy.

A great English historian and philosopher corroborates these statements. Buckle, in the first volume of his History of Civilization, remarks: "The Reformation being an uprising of the human mind, was essentially a rebellious movement, and thus increasing the insubordination of men, sowed in the sixteenth century, the seeds of those great political revolutions which, in the seventeenth century, are noticeable in nearly every part of Europe. Whatever the prejudices of some may suggest, it will be admitted by all unbiased judges, that the Protestant Reformation was neither more nor less than an open rebellion. . . . That same right of private judgment, which the early reformers had loudly proclaimed, was now pushed to an extent fatal to those who opposed it." This it was which, carried into politics, overturned the government, and carried into religion, upset the Church. Professor Laurent, of Ghent, who has never been accused of any love for the Catholic Church, says :

"The Reformation is a revolution, and every revolution brings misfortunes and ruins without number. The Reformation, more than any other revolution, was accompanied by blood and devastation; in France, the civil war and the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew; in England, the scaffold permanently erected by the conqueror against the conquered; in Germany the Thirty Years' War that put back civilization for a century; everywhere disunion and hatred, dividing Christians among themselves up to the present day."16

What Erasmus said of the effect of the "Reformed Religion" on literature, "Ubi regnat Lutheranismus, ibi litterarum est interitus," is equally true of the social condition.

Janssen gives a sad and ugly picture of the decadence of social and moral life in Germany from 1520 to 1570. He has proved beyond doubt, by an accumulation of historical facts, that the Reformation was principally a social and economic revolution, the rising of the rich against the poor, the violent seizure of the funds left by the generosity of centuries for the benefit of the needy, and the instruction of the ignorant, the suppression of hospitals, asylums and schools created by a lively faith.

For England, William Cobbett, in his History of the Protestant Reformation, proves that the Reformation was "a devastation of England, which was at the time when this event took place, the happiest country, perhaps, that the world had ever seen;" he shows how the Reformation "marched on plundering, devastating, and inflicting torments on the people, and shedding their innocent blood;" and he presents to "all sensible and just Englishmen" a list of abbeys, priories, nunneries, hospitals and other religious foundations confiscated by the Reformers, who brought to England the misery of pauperism "in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity enjoyed so abundantly and for so many ages "by Catholic England; and he maintains that "the Reformation is the cause of misery, mendicity, nakedness, famine and the endless list of woes which we see and which stun our ears. England celebrated, when it was Catholic, as the land of hospitality, generosity, comfort, opulence and serenity, has become, under the Protestant yoke, the theatre of cold egotism, of the labor of the beasts of burden, of extreme misery and rapacity."

One of the best writers on the economic history of England, Thorold Rogers, who has never been suspected of any admiration for the Catholic Church, says in his History of Agriculture: "Since the Reformation a conspiracy, concocted by law and carried out by parties interested in its success, was entered into to cheat the Englishman of his wages, to deprive him of the means of providing for old age . . . and to degrade him into irreparable poverty." He points to the guilds of the Middle Ages which obviated pauperism: "They assisted in steadying the price of labor, and formed a permanent centre for those associations which filled the function that in more recent times trade unions have striven to satisfy." "The shameless confiscation of the entire property of the Craft Guilds is one of the worst kinds of wanton plunder in European history, perpetrated under Henry VIII and Edward VI to fill the royal purse, brought untold misery to the masses of the working people."

"Merrie England" died with the departure of the olden religion; the working people, once so proud and noble, entered into a dreary servitude. One instance from London to show how desolate and hard became the lot of apprentices who enjoyed such paternal care and protection in the Catholic guilds. When Cromwell had abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide and other festivals commonly called holidays, "as tending towards superstition," and had introduced the strict puritanical observation of Sunday, the apprentices, who by this "were not only deprived of the benefit of visiting their friends and kindred," but of the necessary recreation, petitioned Parliament in 1646 for the appointment by law of one day in every month for these purposes; and Parliament thereupon set apart for them the second Tuesday in every month.

No sooner was the beneficent influence of the Church withdrawn from the craftsmen by the disestablishment of the guilds than they sank into disorder and weakness. Their isolated way of working left them to the hardness of grasping men.

"But," as Brentano remarks, "when the zeal against everything connected with Catholicity, influenced by the Reformation, had cooled down a little, the old associates felt painfully the want of their former convivial gatherings. Guilds were therefore reestablished for social purposes, and from this probably originated our clubs and casinos of to-day. Of the essential nature of the old guilds there is, however, no other trace to be found in these modern representatives."

Are our modern trades unions the lawful successors of the old guilds? They may be their dwarfed, legitimate heirs; but they are only lopsided representatives of the Catholic guilds. Trade unionism is essentially different from the ancient guild system. The master craftsman of the guild owned all: tools, raw material, workshop and product. The modern workman owns nothing of the machinery, raw material, or finished product: the former master has become a machine tender.

Shall the past come back? Will the guilds be revived? Pope Leo XIII pleaded for their return, but under a modified form: "Such associations should be adapted to the requirements of the age in which we live—an age of greater instruction, of different customs, and of more numerous requirements in daily life." The guilds as they existed in the Middle Ages cannot be called back. Conditions under which a simplicity of industry could be carried on have entirely changed. Above all, the soul, the life of the ancient guild, has left the body of our working-classes: the one common faith in and an unquestioned obedience to Holy Mother Church are missing. We must look elsewhere for social reform in modern times.


1 Westminster Review, January, 1884.

2 Stolberg, Geschichte, vol. xv,

3 Cf. History of the German People, vol. i.

4 Some Ethical Phases of the Labor Question.

5 The Church of Our Father, by Canon Rock, vol. ii, p. 418.

6 On the History and Development of Guilds, p. 39.

7 Riley's Memorials.

8 English Guilds, from Original MSS., London, 1870.

9 Usura est, ubi amplius requiritur, quod datur. Corp. Iuris Can., C. 19 X de usura, 519.

10 Cf. Dublin Review, vol. iii.

11 Protestantism Compared with Catholicity.

12 Cf. Westminster Review, January, 1884.

13 Sam'ntliche Werke. Vol. 24.

14 L. c., vol. 59. 15 The Edinburgh Review, October, 1880.

15 F. Laurent, Etudes dans l'histoire de l'Humanite, vol. viii.

© American Ecclesiastical Review April 1903

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