1.2.6: 1460 - 1585 - Guilds

The formation of independent guilds of printers and booksellers had not occurred anywhere in the period up to 1585. The number of representatives of these trades per town had been insufficient. Instead the practitioners of the book trade usually joined an existing guild, mostly that of the artists. There were, however, exceptions. The important printing town of Deventer did not have an artists' guild in the sixteenth century. In Utrecht the guilds were a major political factor. Every citizen had to be a member of one of the guilds which meant that the guilds often brought together a motley assembly of trades. Printers were, like various kinds of artists, incorporated in the saddlemakers' guild. In 's-Hertogenbosch we find booksellers and printers in the pedlars' guild: the emphasis there seems to have been on their commercial activities. Prenters can be found in the artists' guild of St. Luke in Amsterdam (1579), Gouda (1487 and 1540), The Hague (1569), Haarlem (after 1514), Kampen (bookbinders in 1525, letterpress printers in 1590) and Zwolle (1537). In a town such as Gouda, membership of a guild was a condition for masters to be able to practise their trade while workers who acted independently also had to pay a certain sum to the guild. A similar obligation may have applied in Delft but this is not certain because we only find the names of two booksellers in the accounts of the guild of St. Luke, which are extant from 1537.

Guilds are usually ascribed a regulatory function but in that respect only played a small role in the book trade up to 1585. Admission to the trade was, given the potentially subversive role books could play, a matter of the authorities who issued patents to this purpose from 1546 onwards. Only in Antwerp were printers obliged in 1557 to report to the guild of St. Luke. Nothing is known of such a controlling task of the guilds for the Northern Netherlands. The importance of the guild was also small in the regulation of the economics of the production of books. Since 1512, patents had been issued by the central authorities for the protection of titles. In addition, a system of gentlemen's agreements not to reprint one another's titles existed. Standardisation had, because of the very nature of the product, no meaning in the book trade. The guilds did not allocate themselves any role in the monitoring of quality: there are, at least, no masterpieces known. There are, however, for example in the Gouda regulation of 1540, provisions which describe the working relationships between masters and workers for all members of the guild of St. Luke, including the 'prenters'.

The significance of membership of a guild lay for the printers and booksellers, therefore, predominantly in the social and religious sphere. The brothers of the guild arranged one another's funerals and attended them, they maintained an altar in the parish church where memorial and brotherhood masses were celebrated and, as a group, attended major public ceremonies such as processions and entrances in state. This function of the guild would, apart from the mandatory aspect, have provided sufficient motivation for late-medieval people to pay the entrance and other fees.

author: K. Goudriaan