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Leo’s Guilds a Far Cry from Today’s Unions

by Anthony Esolen

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  • Description:
    The eleventh in a series on Catholic Social Teaching by Anthony Esolen in which he discusses the difference between the guilds in the Middle Ages and the unions of today.
  • Larger Work:
    Crisis Magazine Online
  • Publisher & Date:
    Sophia Institute, February 22, 2013

We have seen that Pope Leo XIII defends the right of a workingman to receive wages sufficient to support his family, in a becoming manner, if he but practices the virtues of diligence and frugality in an ordinary way. We have also seen that the Pope defends the right of laborers to form free associations to secure just wages and humane working conditions. In particular, the guilds are close to Leo’s heart, sodalities that provided both for the material and the spiritual welfare of their members and their families. We have seen him insist that the family is anterior to the State, and possesses authority, rights, and duties to which the State must defer. As to the individual, he possesses a right to ownership which the State cannot abrogate by excessive taxation, but he does not have the moral right to do with his wealth what he pleases, since God has granted him that wealth that he may put it to use to benefit those less fortunate than he. Above all, Pope Leo reminds us that without the virtue of religion, the State becomes little more than a compact of selfishness and sensuality, not worthy of human allegiance. As to poverty and rapacity, “religion alone,” says the Pope, “can avail to destroy the evil at its root,” so that “all men should rest persuaded that the main thing needful is to return to real Christianity, apart from which all the plans and devices of the wisest will prove of little avail.”

Now it’s time to put these principles together.

Let us turn at last to the guilds. These were associations of craftsmen in the Middle Ages, centered in towns. They trained boys in manual labor that required much skill: there were guilds for shoemakers, carpenters, weavers, blacksmiths, silversmiths, milliners, masons, glazers, and so forth. The university, in fact, began as a student and faculty union, a guild for scholars. The guilds did what Leo advises Catholic unions to do, “to arrange for a continuous supply of work at all times and seasons, as well as to create a fund out of which the members may be effectually helped in their needs, not only in cases of accident but also in sickness, old age, and distress.” In other words, they were insurance organizations in several senses. They insured instruction for the young. They insured employment for the men, with a steady income. They insured their members against trouble, and provided for widows and orphans.

They also insured food for the journey. “What advantage can it be to a workingman,” asks Leo, “to obtain by means of a society all that he requires, and to endanger his soul for lack of spiritual food?” The old guilds, then, celebrated their patronal feasts, and took part in the local religious holidays; the new Catholic sodalities of Leo’s time practiced communal prayer and reception of the sacraments. “Religious instruction,” says Leo, should enjoy the foremost place in the life of these associations: “Let the workingman be urged and led to the worship of God, to the earnest practice of religion, and, among other things, to the keeping holy of Sundays and holydays.”

How far is such a guild from the National Education Association, or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees? As far as the heavens are above the earth, or the mountains above the sea.

“But are guilds practical?” asks the skeptic, forgetting the lessons of Jesus, who reminds us that if we seek heaven and God’s righteousness first, we need not worry about what we will eat or drink or wear, because we will be given earth into the bargain. Let me assert what is not practical. It’s not practical to discourage the formation of families by spending $45,000 a year per broken or never-quite-built household, with the result that millions of children grow up without a father in the home. It’s not practical to burn $10,000 a year per child in schools whose students live in moral chaos, schools where youths are taught neither good books nor the fine arts nor any remunerable trade.

All human relations bring morality into play. All rights come bound with duties. It isn’t that the duties counterbalance the rights, but that truly human exchanges are gifts of the self, and a gift calls for a gift in exchange, if but the gift of a grateful heart. Let us stipulate that the employer should give the workman a living wage. Why? The wise father in How Green Was My Valley gives the fundamental reason: “Because they are men, as we are.” But this implies that the workingman will do for the employer something worth the living wage. This is where guilds come in. I must not expect somebody to give my son a living wage to cut crescent moons in the doors of outhouses. My son must be trained to provide for his employer benefits or products that call for that living wage. Who will train him? That’s the responsibility of the men in the Catholic societies.

Note here that employer, employee, guildsman, and apprentice are all called upon to act in their truly human interest, and not merely for immediate monetary gain. The wealthy man has a right to his property, but a responsibility to see that his property provides for others; this responsibility he may best fulfill not by bowing to a confiscatory State, but by employing other people. The employee has a right to a living wage, and a responsibility to earn it by doing good work, work of intrinsic value. The guildsman and his fellows act, justly, to dampen the fluctuations in available work, and to ensure standards of excellence, but they must also labor to train the young in their trades, even if that means adding to the number of tradesmen nearby. The apprentice, too young yet to have a family, will accept lower pay now in exchange for instruction, and will obey his teachers, while demanding his human right to be taught well. Michelangelo himself was the product of such a system.

Here someone objects, “But the market must determine who enters what line of work, and what the remuneration will be.” Yes, but the market is not some Being set above us. It is an abstraction to denote the generality of human decisions. We are not discussing what to do, given a market and its symbiotic State that encourage waste, stupidity, and vice. We don’t want that market and that State. We want a different culture altogether—or I should say, we want a culture, as opposed to mass education, mass politics, and mass entertainment. And this is something that the National Education Association and its like are impotent to bring about.

Take a look at the devastated city of Detroit, where neighborhoods are being plowed under and returned to grassland. Are there no workmen to repair the rotting houses? Nobody to drain the swampy alleys? No plumbers to lay new pipes? No masons to shore up the walls?

Well, no, there aren’t—but where have they gone? Look at the works of extraordinary beauty that tradesmen used to create, like New York’s Grand Central Station, or the national buildings on Independence Mall. Why are our public buildings now so drab and cheap?

The thing is, there is not some independent quantity of work “out there,” floating freely. We can change what we want; and sometimes work breeds more work, as when people turn to a work of beauty and say, “We would like that in our town too.”

We see, then, that for Pope Leo all these moral principles belong together. We can’t talk about a living wage without talking about laboring families, nor about laboring families without talking about fathers, nor about fathers without talking about youths, nor about youths or anybody else without talking about instruction, both for earthly and for spiritual gain. What do we in America now do? We have unions that are entirely worldly and that do virtually no training of youth, a welfare system that punishes the unwed mother when she marries, a tax system that confiscates property so as to foster dependency among the poor and the growth of the state, an educational system that views children as wards of the state and parents as guardians under state sufferance, a judicial system morbidly suspicious of religion, the only thing that ever gives substance to a culture or a society in the first place, and the worst kind of poverty of all, spiritual destitution, afflicting rich and poor alike, so that the poor are often no closer to God than the rich are, being merely less successful in their selfishness. And we think we are too wise to listen to an old man in Rome.

Pope Leo’s Ideal Was Not State Control - Part 12


Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.

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