Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/The Guild System of the Eighteenth Century

The Guild System of the Eighteenth Century

In another respect economic changes in Denmark were brought under happier circumstances than in England. Danish history shows no parallel to the English industrial revolution marking the transition from hand labour to machine labour. Traditions dating from the time of the guilds still persisted in the eighteenth century. Small artisans continued to ply their trades in the region of their homes, and their position, social and economic, did not greatly differ from that of the journeymen. The latter usually lived in their masters' homes, until in due time they married and established homes of their own. A census taken in Copenhagen, after the great fire which devastated the city in 1728, shows that only in the carpenter's and mason's trades did a majority of the journeymen live outside their masters' homes. From a later date there is testimony that carpenter journeymen were very independent in their relations with their masters. In the other trades 85 per cent, of the workmen lived with their masters. When his journeymen or his apprentices lived with him, the master artisan generally had three workmen in his house; but a great many artisans had no assistants at all. Apart from the carpenters and masons, who on the whole did a considerable amount of work considering the circumstances of the time, it may be said that there was an almost equal number of masters and journeymen, so that most of the journeymen could look forward to becoming masters themselves. Proof of this is furnished by the census of 1787. In that year the population of the entire kingdom of Denmark was about 840,000, of whom approximately one-fifth lived in the towns. The artisan class comprised about 22,000 of the male inhabitants of the towns, and the number of masters and of journeymen was about equal. Between the ages of twenty and thirty, 17 per cent, of this group were masters; between thirty and forty, 55 per cent.; between forty and fifty, 74 per cent.; and above fifty, 81 per cent. These figures were slightly lower for the industrial world. Only about 6,000 of the male inhabitants of the towns belonged to the industry, and 46 per cent, of them were either employers or sons of employers. But here too, the chances of becoming independent rapidly increased with age. The average size of industrial establishments must have been very small as compared with those of the present day.

Where a young apprentice might expect soon to become a master there was little reason for class distinctions, though, of course, there was the ever-present difference of outlook on life in the new generation and the old. But in the German guild customs, with their clubs, journeymen's houses, &c., there were latent germs of discontent which might rapidly develop if circumstances permitted. Indeed, all the methods now known to strikers were already in use. It was comparatively easy to prevent masters from getting workmen, and even whole towns were sometimes 'boycotted' (geschimpft), because they had in some way incurred the disfavour of the journeymen.

But many excellent customs originated by the guilds of the Middle Ages still existed. The problem of the labour market, which in our day presents so many difficulties, was then easily and naturally solved by the journeymen themselves. If no work could be provided for the journeyman in a new town to which he went, he was given food and shelter and money enough to live on until he reached the next town. This was a kind of primitive unemployment insurance. Of the guild as such, it may be said that it upheld the modern principle of the right to work. Every master had his own little group of customers and was thus protected against too sharp competition on the part of his guild fellows.