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The Naked and the Dead: The Carpenters’ Company and Lay Spirituality in Late Medieval England

  • Mark Addison Amos
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The imagined and enacted cultural identity of the Carpenters’ Company melds rational self-interest and altruism to offer its communal body as a hedge against bodily and ghostly deprivations. This essay maps this middling economic guild’s dynamic, complex, and often self-contradictory negotiations among its social aspirations, collective identity, and artisanal and religious interests as it confects disciplinary parameters of fellowship, sympathy, charity, and cooperation.

Keywords

Historical Account Corporate Body Guild Structure Economic Element Patron Saint 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    The Canterbury Tales, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), I (A) 361–64.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Britton J. Harwood argues that the shared guild of Chaucer’s guildsmen must have been a parish guild in “The ‘Fraternitee’ of Chaucer’s Guildsmen,” Review of English Studies 39 (1988): 413–17. Carl Lindahl finds that the Canterbury pilgrims form a fellowship similar to a late medieval parish guild in Earnest Games: Folkloric Patterns in the Canterbury Tales (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). David Wallace has recently modified this assertion, arguing that the pilgrims represent not only the personnel of such a guild but that, as a collective, they embody the affinities expressed in a parish guild in Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Gervase Rosser, “Going to the Fraternity Feast: Commensality and Social Relations in Late Medieval England,” Journal of British Studies 33 (1994): 431 [430–46]. Rosser bases his calculations on an estimate of 8,000 or 9,000 parishes in England, a figure consonant with that of Peter Heath’s earlier study, The English Parish Clergy on the Eve of the Reformation (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For four among many excellent studies of the political influence of parish guilds, see Miri Rubin, Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 250–59; Gervase Rosser, Medieval Westminster: 1100–1540 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 281–314; and Ben R. McRee, “Religious Guilds and Civic Order: The Case of Norwich in the Late Middle Ages,” Speculum 67 (1992): 69–97. Studies of merchant guilds and their influence frequently locate themselves in relation to E.M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers (London: Methuen & Company, Limited, 1954; reprint, 1967); and Sylvia Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948; reprint, with new introduction, 1962).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The seriousness and vigor with which individual guilds approached and enacted their religious purpose were as varied as the other elements of their identities: historians have alternately argued that these religious interests were merely vestiges of earlier, ‘true’ brotherhoods, that they were overshadowed in the pursuit of economic advantage, or that they served as a cynical symbolic apology for corporate self-interests. Sylvia Thrupp, “The Guilds,” in Cambridge Economic History, vol. 3, Economic Organization and Policies in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), argues that the guilds’ “traditions of corporate charity and piety further attest that they were once genuine communities within the larger community, with a social and religious character transcending mere economic interest and struggle for power” (p. 230 [230–80]). George Unwin, The Guilds and Companies of London, 1908; fourth edition, with new intro. William F. Kahl (Watford: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1963), declares: “The truth is that religious devotion had never supplied the primary motive for the establishment or maintenance of the craft guild. At first it may have the most prominent of the subsidiary motives, but in course of time as the social and charitable activities developed, it lost this relative position” (p. 202).Google Scholar
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    Gervase Rosser finds a strong correlation between crafts and their guilds by the time of the composition of the Canterbury Tales: “by the late fourteenth century there were few organized crafts which lacked a corresponding fraternity”; “Crafts, Guilds and Work in the Medieval Town,” Past and Present 154 (1997): 21 [3–31].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The two most thorough studies of the records of the Carpenters’ Company to date, and the ones I draw upon here, are Edward Basil Jupp’s Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters (London: William Pickering, 1848; second edition and supplement with W. Willmer Pocock [London: Pickering & Chatto, 1887]); and B.W.E. Alford and T.C. Barker’s A History of the Carpenters Company (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968).Google Scholar
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    The Carpenters’ patron saint cannot be definitively determined, but it seems likely that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary, both from their earliest ordinance book’s dedication to her and to her son, from her marriage to a Carpenter (Jupp and Pocock, Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, p. 19), and from the fact that Mary is the patron of almost one-third of all guilds; see Barbara Hanawalt, “Keepers of the Lights: Late Medieval English Parish Guilds,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14 (1984): 26 [21–37].Google Scholar
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    Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Free Press, 1957), defines a ‘traditional’ authoritative structure as one in which “legitimacy is claimed for it and believed in on the basis that the sanctity of the order and the attendant powers of control as they have been handed down from the past ‘have always existed’” (p. 341).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Unwin sees all guilds as privatized, self-defining and regulating institutions founded on religious underpinnings, with loyalties confirmed by oath and centering on the immediate grouping, p. 92. The paradigms undergirding Unwin’s views have been examined by Julia Stapleton in “English Pluralism as Cultural Definition: The Social and Political Thought of George Unwin,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52 (1991): 665–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The Great Chronicle of London, ed. A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley (London: George W. Jones, 1938), p. 348.Google Scholar
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    Antony Black and, more recently, David Wallace treat the unambiguously positive interpretations Gierke and Durkheim offer of the functions of guilds. For Antony Black, see Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), esp. pp. 223–36. For Wallace, see esp. pp. 76–79.Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    For a discussion of the function of books of manners in constructing just such a collective and respected identity, see Mark Addison Amos, “‘For maners make man’: Bourdieu, de Certeau, and the Common Appropriation of Noble Manners in The Book of Courtesy,” in Medieval Conduct, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 23–48.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    Jacques Le Goff discusses such attempts to validate and elevate a ‘theology of labor’, and specifically notes its presence within John of Salisbury’s image of the organic (body) conception of society in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 114–16.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    One of the most influential medieval expressions of this communitarian philosophy, and especially of its figuration as the body of a living creature, is in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, completed in 1159. See Ioannis Saresberiensis Episcopi Carnotensis Policratici, ed. Clemens C.I. Webb, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Minerva, 1965). English-language readers may see a masterful translation in Policraticus, ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  16. 30.
    The relationship between work and the receipt of alms is explored extensively in Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
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    For examples, see H.F. Westlake, The Parish Guilds of Medieval England (London, New York: Macmillan Company, 1919), pp. 34, 160–62.Google Scholar
  18. 44.
    Joelle Rollo-Koster clarifies that the bede roll served as a commemorative for the dead rather than as an administrative list; see “Death and the Fraternity: A Short Study on the Dead in Late Medieval Confraternities,” Confraternitas 9 (1998): 3–12. A useful study focusing on England in particular is Virginia Bainbridge, Guilds in the Medieval Countryside: Social and Religious Changes in Cambridgeshire, 1350–1558 (Woodbrige: Boydell and Brewer, 1996).Google Scholar
  19. 50.
    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pt. 3, ch. 1. Irving Kristol disagrees, arguing that the pursuit of self-interest was always tempered by natural, self-correcting limits; see “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in The Great Ideas Today 1976 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1976), p. 289.Google Scholar
  20. 51.
    Max Weber discusses the impact of the Reformation on issues of work and asceticism in The Protestant Ethic (Allen and Unwin, 1930; rpt. London; New York: Routledge, 2001).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Mark Addison Amos

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