Imperfect, however, as the union might be, when once it was effected the town passed from a mere collection of brotherhoods into a powerful and organized community, whose character was inevitably determined by the circumstances of its origin. In their beginnings our boroughs seem to have been mainly gatherings of persons engaged in agricultural pursuits; the first Dooms of London provide especially for the recovery of cattle belonging to the citizens. But as the increasing security of the country invited the farmer or the squire to settle apart in his own fields, and the growth of estate and trade told on the towns themselves, the difference between town and country became more sharply defined. London, of course, took the lead in this new developement of civic life. Even in aethelstan's day every London merchant who had made three long voyages on his own account ranked as a thegn. Its 'lithsmen,' or shipmen's-gild, were of sufficient importance under Harthacnut to figure in the election of a king, and its principal street still tells of the rapid growth of trade, in the name of 'Cheap-side,' or the bargaining place. But at the Norman Conquest the commercial tendency had become universal.
The name given to the united brotherhood is in almost every case no longer that of the 'town-gild,' but of the 'merchant-gild.'
This social change in the character of the townsmen produced important results in the character of their municipal institutions. In becoming a merchant-gild the body of citizens who formed the ' town' enlarged their powers of civic legislation by applying them to the control of their internal trade. It became their special business to obtain from the Crown, or from their lords, wider commercial privileges, rights of coinage, grants of fairs, and exemption from tolls; while within the town itself they framed regulations as to the sale and quality of goods, the control of markets, and the recovery of debts. A yet more important result sprang from the increase of population which the growth of wealth and industry brought with it. The mass of the new settlers, composed as they were of escaped serfs, of traders without landed holdings, of families who had lost their original lot in the borough, and generally of the artisans and the poor, had no part in the actual life of the town. The right of trade and of the regulation of trade, in common with all other forms of jurisdiction, lay wholly in the hands of the landed burghers whom we have described.
By a natural process, too, their superiority in wealth produced a fresh division between the' burghers' of the merchant-gild and the unenfranchised mass around them. The same change which severed at Florence the seven Greater Arts, or trades, from the fourteen Lesser Arts, and which raised the three occupations of banking, the manufacture and the dyeing of cloth, to a position of superiority even within the privileged circle of the seven, told, though with less force, on the English boroughs. The burghers of the merchant-gild gradually concentrated themselves on the greater operations of commerce, on trades which required a larger capital, while the meaner employments of general traffic were abandoned to their poorer neighbours. This advance in the division of labour is marked by such severances as we note in the thirteenth century of the cloth merchant from the tailor, or the leather merchant from the butcher. But the result of this severance was all-important in its influence on the constitution of our towns. The members of the trades thus abandoned by the wealthier burghers formed themselves into Craft-gilds, which soon rose into dangerous rivalry with the original Merchant-gild of the town.
A seven years' apprenticeship formed the necessary prelude to full membership of any trade-gild. Their regulations were of the minutest character; the quality and value of work was rigidly prescribed, the hours of toil fixed "from day-break to curfew," and strict provision made against competition in labour. At each meeting of these gilds their members gathered round the Craft-box, which contained the rules of their Society, and stood with bared heads as it was opened. The warden and a quorum of gild-brothers formed a court which enforced the ordinances of the gild, inspected all work done by its members, confiscated unlawful tools or unworthy goods; and disobedience to their orders was punished by fines, or in the last resort by expulsion, which involved the loss of right to trade. A common fund was raised by contributions among the members, which not only provided for the trade objects of the gild, but sufficed to found chantries and masses, and set up painted windows in the church of their patron saint. Even at the present day the arms of the craft-gild may often be seen blazoned in cathedrals side by side with those of prelates and of kings. But it was only by slow degrees that they rose to such a height as this.
The first steps in their existence were the most difficult, for to enable a trade-gild to carry out its objects with any success, it was first necessary that the whole body of craftsmen belonging to the trade should be compelled to belong to it, and secondly, that a legal control over the trade itself should be secured to it. A royal charter was indispensable for these purposes, and over the grant of these charters took place the first struggle with the merchant-gild, which had till then solely exercised jurisdiction over trade within the boroughs. The weavers, who were the first trade-gild to secure royal sanction in the reign of Henry the First, were still engaged in the contest for existence as late as the reign of John, when the citizens of London bought for a time the suppression of their gild. Even under the house of Lancaster, Exeter was engaged in resisting the establishment of a tailors' gild. From the eleventh century, however, the spread of these societies went steadily on, and the control of trade passed from the merchant-gilds to the craft-gilds.