Wednesday, 16 March 2016

CRAFT GUILDS AND JOURNEYMEN ASSOCIATIONS: Early Roots of Fraternal Orders prior to the 1700's

By Louie Blake S. Sarmiento
Master of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Juris Doctor - III

The origin of fraternity, as a principle, is as old as humankind. Humans always have that natural desire to associate with each other for a common purpose – either for social, philosophical, political, religious, charitable, mutual-benefit, or business purposes. Fraternities or so-called brotherhoods existed since the early civilizations - first among sworn kinsmen, Roman collegias, Orders of Knighthood, craft guilds, box clubs and fraternal lodges. Although ordinary men did not yet have a recognized “right to association” when absolute monarchy ruled the world, fraternity as an idea existed in so-called ‘secret societies’ or ‘secret brotherhoods’- where the working class, middle-class and even some aristocrats fraternized with each other and practiced early democracy. Early English fraternal orders or friendly societies, such as Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Free Gardeners, appear to have evolved or inherited ideas from these early forms of fraternities.

Craft Guilds
A medieval Master Baker and his Apprentice

Trade guilds, also called as craft guilds, are an association of artisans or merchants who oversee the practice of their trade in a particular town. These guilds were sworn brotherhoods that had binding oaths to support one another in times of adversity and back one another in trade ventures alongside with their philosophical and ceremonial role. Meetings involved proper decorum and wearing of regalia such as chains of office, special robes and so on. They have elaborate initiation ceremonies in which apprentices who join go through a step-by-step “initiatory rites” intended to teach them the mysteries and secrets of the trade, moral principles, and to ascend them into hierarchy within the association – from apprentice, fellow craft and Master of the craft.

Traditionally, these guilds provided material and financial aid to their members in times of sickness, economic distress or in finding employment when out of work. When a member could not obtain work in his town, he can travel to the next town and ask assistance from fellow members. Noting that there were no telephones at that time and mode of communication was still very slow, the brotherhoods used secret handgrips, symbols and passwords as proof of membership so that a member could avail food or financial assistance from the same Guild located in the next town.
The roots of the Order of Free Gardeners
can be traced back in 1345 (14th Century).

Like  most English fraternal orders, they also

use a collar and an apron as regalia.

There are still lodges of Free Gardeners

although not as widespread.

Contrary to popular misconception, numerous historians and scholars today agree that it was not only the Free Masons who protected their trade secrets from others. During the middle ages, other craftsmen too formed their own trade fraternities commonly known as "craft guilds" and “journeymen associations”. In fact, records in England show that there were hundreds of trade-based fraternities in London prior to the 17th Century. Here are some few examples:
  • Fraternity of Butchers: owned a meeting Hall as early as 975 and has charters dating 1605 and 1637.
  • Fraternity of Cooks: first cook’s shop was described in 1170. Thereafter till 1438, there are reference to the “Masters of the mysteries” of Cooks, Pastelers and Piebakers. "Mysteries" suggest that they also have mystical initiation rites.
  • Fraternity of Fishmongers: possesses twenty-two surviving charters, the first one granted around 1272.
  • Fraternity of Gardeners: a record dating 1345 showed that they petitioned the Lord Mayor to sell produce in front of the church of St. Austin. They have charters dated 1605 and 1659 and few other surviving documents in Scotland too.
  • Fraternity of Armorers and Brasiers: principal charters dating 1453, 1559, 1685 and 1708.
  • Fraternity of Barbers: Earliest charter granted in 1462.
  • Fraternity of Carpenters: charters dating 1477, 1558, 1560, 1607, and 1868.
  • Fraternity of Brouderers: has reference dating back from 1418.
  • Fraternity of Blacksmiths: charters dated 1571, 1604 and 1639.
  • Fraternity of Apothecaries: received first charter in 1617.
  • Fraternity of Masons: formed around 1472 to control and regulate stone trade. Received company charters in 1677, 1688, and 1702 and still exist today as an operative society. The company's book of accounts mentioned a lodge of "Acception" of Free Masons in 1620 and 1621. This is the earliest reference to the Masons accepting people not practicing their trade or craft.
Other trade fraternities also admitted noblemen and people who did not practice their trade. The Fraternity of Weavers, for example, originally consisted of members of the trade when they were founded in 1155 but admitted sons of members and noblemen. The guild of Merchant Taylors, on the other hand, admitted King Edward III as a member after they had lent him money to pay his wars. It was advantageous for guilds to admit noblemen because they would increase the social prestige of their society.

Journeymen Associations

An ancient journeyman or fellow walks on foot from
one town to another to search for employment in
his trade.
As early as the 1600's, fellows from various crafts and guilds also formed their own fraternities called "compagnonnages" or "journeymen associations" to defend their collective interests against the monopoly of the guild "Masters" and to provide food, lodging, and guidance for one another when they travel in search for work. As compared with the guilds, these associations usually consisted of "fellows and some apprentices" representing numerous crafts or trades -  "odd" mixture of trades. They also have an elaborate initiation rite in which a young journeyman who joins the association will go through a system of degrees intended to test courage and loyalty and to ascend into hierarchy within the association. It is from these associations that the roots of Odd Fellowship can be traced. Many of the early practices of the Order of Odd Fellows bear a much closer resemblance with these journeymen associations than with the craft guilds.

When King Henry VIII broke-off from the Roman Catholic Church, he confiscated the properties of the guilds because he believed they supported the Pope because of their link with the church. And during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Statute of Apprentices was passed which took the responsibility for apprenticeship away from the guilds. The nature and scope of work was also changing, thus, the role of the guilds eventually went into decline. This removed an important form of social and financial support among ordinary workers.

Some of these guilds and trade societies survived while some had to adapt to changing times and evolved into fraternal lodges or clubs with a combination of social, moral and charitable or mutual-benefit functions. By the 1700's, there seems to be a number of such groups in  England. Some lodges of the  Masons, for example, evolved to become the Free and Accepted Masons. Several lodges under the Guild of Gardeners eventually evolved to become the Order of Free Gardeners. Soon, other fraternal lodges and clubs with a guild-like name such as the United Order of Cabinet Makers and the Order of Odd Fellows, also came into the picture. In the book, Discovering London's Guilds and Liveries, historian John Kennedy Melling mentioned the 'Odd Fellows as an interesting deviation from the London guild model'. The author is inclined to believe that the early Odd Fellows evolved from the journeymen associations composed of fellows from different trades.
Numerous Odd Fellows' tokens dating back 1795 survives today. Above shows on obverse the head of King George III’s entwined with a head of an ass or donkey. In reverse shows a common man being harassed by an aristocrat and the text “British Liberty Displayed”. This suggests radical protest by the Odd Fellows against government regulations aimed at suppressing fraternal orders, friendly societies and trade unions during the late 18th Century which was indeed a violation of people’s right to association if based on laws of today.

The year 1700's in England was actually full of Lodge-based activities and social clubs until a series of political shocks panicked the English government. The French Revolution was greeted with great approval by many Englishmen of radical thinking that many joined the London Corresponding Society and so-called "Jacobin clubs" to promote revolution against the English monarchy. As a response, the English government passed several laws that made many fraternal orders, friendly societies, trade unions and social clubs illegal such as the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 and Unlawful Societies Act of 1799. The Freemasons were lucky because they were exempted from this ban through lobbying with royal dukes and aristocrats who were members. All other fraternal orders, friendly societies, social clubs and trade unions had to intentionally destroy many of their early records to avoid identification and arrest. This is one of the reasons very few of the early records of other fraternal orders survived today.

With technological advances, information and historical artifacts about the early history of fraternal orders had become more accessible. This means that fraternal history, as claimed and written in the past, may need to be re-written in the present century. Three English fraternal orders with historical links from craft guilds and journeymen associations are good topics for further research study:
1. Freemasons
2. Odd Fellows
3. Freegardeners


  1. Melling, J.K. (2003). Discovering London's Guilds and Liveries. UK: Shire Publications.
  2. Smith, T. (1870). English Gilds. London: Early English Text Society
  3. Dennis, V. (2005). Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies: Their badges and Regalia. UK: Shire Book publications
  4. Ridley,J. (2011). The Freemasons. New York: Arcade Publishing


The book, "Odd Fellows - Rediscovering 200 Years of History, Traditions and Community Service", is available on different amazon marketplaces:

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