Guild boxes

Craft guilds generally had a support fund that provided mutual aid to its members in times of need as well. For most guilds, the box was not completely separate but linked to the guild’s fund. Only later, in the early modern period, did distinct guild boxes — directed at mutual aid — become separate from the guild’s general fund. By means of collective action the members tried to spread their financial risks. Members paid systematic contributions to the fund, which in turn provided support in case of accidents, death, impoverishment, illness, old age and widowhood, based on the money readily available in the box.

Guild boxes in England

In England, the guilds’ mutual aid system was a constant factor in their existence, but much less developed and deep-rooted than in the Republic or the German areas. Because the English guilds rarely saved or invested, formalization of mutual aid did not occur. Mutual aid in this perspective was more like a form of charity; the provided benefits were funded with voluntary collections and inheritances, and supplemented with the proceeds of entrance fees, contributions, fines and revenues from country estates sometimes owned by the guild (which in turn had generally been gifts as well). Boxes only distributed benefits when the state of the box would allow it and a large amount of the aid was provided in kind (Bos, 1998, 299-302). At the end of the eighteenth century, new types of organizations called ‘friendly societies’ assumed the role of providers of mutual aid, as guilds declined in popularity. Friendly societies had the economic function of mutual aid insurance companies, but were at the same time suppliers of leisure activities and sociability (Corderly, 1995, 58; Bos, 1998, 304).

Guild boxes in France

French mutual aid funds within guilds or journeymen’s associations were rare. One reason for this absence was the presence of religious brotherhoods or confréries which provided, among other benefits and services, charity and aid to destitute guild brothers on an informal basis. High taxes and high costs on litigations to defend the guilds´ monopoly were other reasons for the absence of mutual aid funds; guilds could simply not save enough capital to provide for them.

(Bos, 2006, 305-9) 

Guild boxes in Germany

The German guild system and their mutual support were comparable to those of the Northern Netherlands. After the Reformation, many guilds channelled their former ecclesial donations to their mutual aid box for the benefit of the poor and sick members. Unlike in the Low Countries, sickness aid was a (partial) loan that had to be repaid after the recovery of the member. When support was offered to the elderly and widows, this was generally a donation, because repayment was often impossible. At the end of the eighteenth century, separate burial and sickness boxes were established by guild members, to enhance financial support in case of death or illness.

(Bos, 1998, 295-7)