We’re all familiar with trade unions, organisations like SIPTU and ASTI, founded by workers in a particular sector, and designed to protect the rights and welfare of such workers.
They play a vital role in society, and in modern times Popes have consistently made major pronouncements in their favour, most elaborately in Pope St John Paul’s Laborem Exercens. This line of papal teaching was really kicked off, though, by Pope Leo XIII. In an encyclical written in 1891, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo praised the work of these unions in defence of justice, but he also pointed to their long history, tracing their roots back to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages.
The major trades at that time were highly organised. A medieval cobbler who moved to another city, for example, couldn’t simply set up shop. He’d have to become a member of the local guild. Likewise, a young man wanting to become a carpenter had to do so through the guild of carpenters, being recognised first as an apprentice, then as a journeyman, and finally as a master, after having produced his ‘masterpiece’, a particularly challenging piece of carpentry. The guilds defended the rights of individual members, but were also responsible for making sure that they produced work of a sufficiently high standard.
Dublin was no different from other medieval cities in being home to a large number of guilds. Incredibly, there survives a list of members of one guild dating back to the 12th Century! This guild, known as ‘the guild merchant’, eventually split into many different associations. A few centuries later, there were guilds in Dublin for the shoemakers, butchers, goldsmiths, bakers, gardeners, barber-surgeons, glovers, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, cooks, and many more besides.
We’re used to thinking of the world of work as quite distinct from the world of religious practice, but the medieval guilds were deeply religious organisations. Each guild had a chapel, for example. The barber-surgeons had a chapel in St John’s Church (where the Augustinian church is now located, on John’s Lane), the weavers had theirs in the Carmelite church, on Whitefriar Street, and the carpenters’ chapel was in St Thomas’ Abbey church (on what is now Thomas Street).
During the year, the guilds would make sure the chapels were kept in good condition, and would keep candles lighting there throughout the week. Some of them supported a priest too, who would say Mass for members of the guild, living and deceased. On their patronal feast day, all members would be in attendance, wearing their fine uniforms and carrying banners. The chapel would be hung with coloured fabrics, a choir assembled, and the liturgy celebrated with great solemnity and joy.
The guilds weren’t just private clubs, though. They sought to contribute to the good of all the citizens. The main form of outreach was, perhaps surprisingly, theatrical: the guilds funded and participated in the so-called ‘mystery plays’, dramas based on Bible stories, performed on the streets of Dublin on great feasts.
These plays were probably performed on wagons that made their way through the streets, and paused in several places to act out the scene for different crowds of people. As the wagons passed, the crowds would be led through the whole story of salvation, from creation to the last judgment. While the plays were edifying, there was also plenty of room for humour, usually through characters like Mrs Noah, Balaam and his ass, and St Joseph.
A list dating to 1498 tells us what plays were performed on Corpus Christi that year. With a touch of humour, it assigns responsibility for each play to a particularly appropriate guild: the glovers put on the story of Adam and Eve; the mariners and shipwrights joined forces to build Noah’s Ark; the goldsmiths kitted out the Magi; and the guild of fishermen acted out the twelve apostles.
By their creativity and devotion, these craft guilds remind us that there is no real separation between our work and our faith. As Pope St John Paul II taught, the Christian always “unites work with prayer” (Laborem Exercens).