On a visit to the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu in the Polish city of Wrocław I was astonished not by the grimly beautiful Renaissance paintings of Christ, angels and demons but of something far more tangible.
Medieval shop signs and merchant guild coats of arms that illustrated the professions of artisans, traders and merchants of medieval times.
Here are some images I took without the flash on in the Wrocław museum. Apologies if some are a bit out of focus. The meaning behind them all is equally as fascinating as how they all look.
The remarkable artistry of these guild coat of arms shows how proud medieval people were, ploughing their chosen trade and gaining respect and recognition for their talents in the burgeoning medieval cities of (what is now Poland).
The establishment of medieval merchant guilds in Poland was closely connected to the growth of urban centres and based on German law during the 13th and 14th centuries. At the time gminas (Polish territorial districts) governed by their own law and a municipal government.
The local municipal governments (a town council, a tribunal) consisted of the representatives of trade. Some of the richest merchants (wholesalers) were allowed to sit in town councils.
This higher level of merchant power was restricted to a certain class of rich merchant men (excluding women, Jews or foreigners). Retailers and traders also created associations comprising of rich stall-keepers, salt traders, herring traders, iron traders, and so on.
The oldest mention of a guild of merchants in Krakow dates from a 1410 council book. No doubt Council documents were riveting reading then, as they are now…
“It’s all happening on Tuesday, a day after St. Michael’s day, on the third week of the Lent 1410. The senior merchants were chosen by councillors Mikołaj Gemelich sworn, Wenyng Marcin, Joge Schiler sworn, Piotr Kaldherberg sworn, Jerzy Morsztyn sworn Paweł Homan sworn”. Here is the oath taken by the senior merchants: “We swear to God that here we stand to defend and obey the merchant law, to faithfully act and to secure the profits; we swear we shall not be guided by love or bias; we shall not allow any offence and shall not come into any agreement without the council’s knowledge or permission”.
Over time stall-keepers created their own merchant guilds and older established merchants were given some political, social and economical power because of their guild memberships. IN medieval times, journey-men, peasants, Jews, women, children those given work on a casual basis weren’t awarded entry to the guilds, which were by nature – elitist.
Other known medieval guilds in Poland were inn-keepers, fish traders (especially herring traders) and salt traders and those dealing with wool cloth, cooper and lead.
Father of Nicolas Copernicus, Jan was a rich merchant living in Krakow between 1422 – 1447. He was a member of the Krakow Guild of Merchants.
Guilds were formed to secure the interest of the merchants and to also fulfill religious, moral, economical, political and social functions. Although a lot of detail about how they actually threw their weight around is a bit of a mystery.
The thriving culture of trading and artisanal goods continues on today in most cities and towns in Poland, it’s especially visible in Krakow and Wrocław where merchants peddle woodwork, glassware, pottery and lace every day of the week during summer.
Read more about the extensive history of one guild in Krakow on this English page and a history of Jewish merchants in Poland.
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