Holy Guilds: Anglo-Saxon Religious Guilds, Ancient and Renewed

canterbury tale feast (2)
THE CANTERBURY TALES, 1483. The Pilgrims at Table. Engraving from William Caxton’s second edition of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ 1483.

The word guild invokes in the mind of the modern reader the image of a society dedicated to a particular craft. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages there were various craft and trade guilds. Masons, horsemen, millers and any number of other crafts were governed by guilds. Such guilds held what might now be called “trade secrets.” To enter such a craft-guild was to become an apprentice to a master guildsman. Once one had learned the master’s craft, the apprentice was welcomed into the guild as a brother and, in time, would even take on apprentices of their own.

But one may be surprise to learn that the very first Anglo-Saxon guilds were not craft or trade guilds. Rather, the earliest guilds were religious fellowships. The Old English gyld, from whence our Modern English “guild” springs, originally meant “a yield, an offering.” In fact, Heathen worship is referred to in various Old English texts as hæðengyld, “the offering or guild of the heathens.”

Though the earliest charters that have survived were dedicated to saints, Anglo-Saxon clergy saw them as incompatible with Christianity and preached against them. In the 790’s, Alcuin of York railed against the guilds, describing them thus: “those gatherings in which the people are deceived, leaving the church and seeking hilly places where they worship, not with prayers but with drinking bouts.” Alcuin would later write that “the curious assemblies which they are accustomed to have called sworn brotherhoods are most certainly displeasing to God and inconsistent with Christian teaching.”

If Alcuin’s description of guild activity sounded more Heathen in nature than Christian, there is probably good reason. It has commonly been held that the early Anglo-Saxon religious guilds were originally Heathen in nature, having been appropriated, somewhat imperfectly, for Christian use following official conversion. In fact, guilds are mentioned twice, in terms of their legal standing, in one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon law codes, the laws of King Ine of Wessex in 694 CE.

It should be noted that, by the time Ine’s laws were written, the formal conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was just barely complete. The conversion of Essex was not finalized until after the death of the Heathen king, Sigeberht I in 653 CE. The kingdom of Mercia remained Heathen until the death of King Penda in 655 CE. And the last Heathen King, Arwald of Isle of Wight, was not killed until 686 CE when Christians massacred the entire population of that island. Thus, within living memory of Ine’s laws, many Anglo-Saxons had worshiped the gods. And, if Church penitentials and latter prohibitive laws are any indication, the common folk may have continued to do so for some time still.

That Ine recognized the existence of guilds without comment indicates that they were well established by his time. Over the years, various scholars have attributed the origin of the guilds, both English and Scandinavian to “heathen sacrificial banquets.” In truth, one Old English word for “religious offering” is húsel, a word which also means “a feast.” Thus it is with some confidence that we contemporary Anglo-Saxon Heathens can look to the guilds of old to find a historically authentic model for our own fellowships.

So what were the Anglo-Saxon religious guilds like? From what may be gleaned from surviving charters, they were primarily religious in nature, localized, and open to both men and women. Membership in a guild required paying dues, the word gyld means “offering” after all. Guilds were lead by ealdormen, “elder men”. Officials were elected and guild decisions were voted upon and ratified by the membership.  Lastly, guilds existed primarily for the following reasons:

I. To keep the holy-tides with religious feasting and celebration
II. To make offerings for/to deceased members
III. To resolve disputes between members
IV. To provide legal protection for members at Moot (the law assembly)
V. To serve as a social safety net if a member fell upon dire times.

Truly, what better model reflects the nature and needs of contemporary Heathen fellowships? With few exceptions, Heathen fellowships consist of unrelated, yet local individuals who have come together for spiritual purposes. They are not true kin-groups or households, though they may very well experience a feeling of closeness that is comparable. Furthermore, though they seek to understand the tribal and folk-nature of the old religion, they are not themselves truly tribal nations. Rather, they are what our ancestors would have called gyld, fellowships, dedicated to worship and the celebration of ancient and holy festivals.

Attenborough, F. L.. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1922. P 40, 42 (Laws 16 and 21 respectively)
Bede – McClure, Judith, and Roger Collins. The Ecclesiastical History of the English people. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Bugge, Alexander. The Earliest Guilds of Northmen in England, Norway and Denmark. California: Kristiania, 1900.

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