Guilds in Germany

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A guild is an association of professionals with similar economic interests based on a certain craft or trade, devoted to the protection of their rights, training of new members, protection of trade secrets, and furthering of their political, economic, and trade interests. Such trades included, but were not limited to, tannery, metalworking of various sorts, tailoring, and shoemaking. Guilds came into being in Germany in the 12th century and in some cases have lasted to the present, although their power had diminished considerably by the 18th century. The pinnacle of their power was in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Guilds operated on the apprentice, journeyman, and master principle. A young man was assigned to work with a master for several years. During this time, he learned the basics of the trade. After the apprentice attained a certain level of knowledge and skill, he was promoted to journeyman. At this time, he was to travel the land in search of masters in his field for whom he could work and from whom he could learn the requisite skills to become a master himself. When he completed his journeyman time with appropriate skill and knowledge, he would be promoted to master. This was an important step. He could then set up his own shop and work in his field. The guild system insured that learners attained a certain level of competence in their fields, as they had to pass certain levels with an accomplished master.

Guild records were created by the guilds themselves and therefore reflect what that guild deemed important. They are extremely varied and the researcher should not assume that such records will contain any standard type of information. On the other hand, the opposite is also true—one should not dismiss guild records out of hand, thinking that they do not contain important information. Guild records are of many types, including master, journeyman and apprenticeship letters, Kinderbücher, lists of guild members, family lists, letters of recommendation, and birth documents. Such records will include names, sometimes birth dates, dates of guild-related events, work history information, and/or names of former bosses. The Kinderbücher are of special interest. They were kept to prove that children were offspring of guild members and citizens so that they could receive guild advantages later in life. They can also serve as useful records if the usual vital records are not available.

Guild records were produced by the guilds themselves and, therefore, belong to the guilds. Some of these records are still in the possession of the guild, in some sort of archive. Others have been collected into regional archives. The Family History Library has been able to film a number of these records. To find guild records, the researcher should type ‘Germany, name of locality, occupations.’ Occupation records should always be searched, as one never knows what one will find.

Click here for a general article on guilds, or here for another article on occupations.