Low economic, social, and political status, along with familial instability have, at times, all been offered as possible motivations for both the formation of and membership in ancient guilds. Without a family on which to rely, organizations such as guilds supposedly helped to fill an important social and economic gap by providing craftsmen and merchants security through ties of “fictive kinship” and membership in “fictive polities,” although it is important to note that the real thing was valued more by society at large. This sense of social and economic deficiency and instability has been inferred from the guild charters themselves (specifically regulations regarding burial and support for members in need), from epitaphs of members, and from legal and literary texts that mention the assistance these groups offered to the lower orders (homines tenuiores).
However, regulations that outlined provisions for burial and enjoined members to aid colleagues in the face of economic or legal difficulties do not necessarily indicate familial instability, economic weakness, or a member’s inability to protect his own interests. The cost of membership as described in guild charters suggests something other than financial hardship as a motivating factor for joining. In addition, close examination of inscriptions and documentary evidence pertaining to guilds, craftsmen, and merchants has indicated that close connections existed between guilds, their members, and all levels of society. These texts show that guilds and higher class individual craftsmen and merchants could have ties to social and political elites in their communities, serve as members of councils or representative bodies, or enjoy privileges reflecting increased social status or political influence such as designated seating in a theater or stadium. By joining these organizations, such members most likely augmented an already strong position in their communities.
Although not all guild members were created equal, and some were likely better off than others, members in Egypt or elsewhere needed a baseline of wealth in order to sustain even the most basic membership in such groups. While in the perspective of a wealthy Roman like Pliny, everyone likely seemed relatively poor, burial by a guild or in a communal sepulcher may have represented an additional way of asserting one’s status, something that would not have been afforded to even the ordinary member let alone individuals lower on the social pyramid. Taking advantage of burial by a guild as a form of life insurance that allowed members and their families a means of absorbing funeral costs was itself a luxury offered to those who could already shoulder the burdens of guild membership, and not necessarily an opportunity for the destitute to avoid an anonymous burial.
Guild membership as a strategy for confronting the uncertainties of life and business was not necessarily an alternative to relying on bonds of kinship. Joining guilds and developing bonds of trust supplemented and augmented already existing networks. Furthermore, as family members often belonged to the same guilds, a lack of involvement on the part of the family and forced reliance on “fictive kingroups” may be overstated. We have seen that fostering these sorts of bonds certainly was good for business even if it was not a necessity for survival. This might lie behind the clauses in the charters that penalize not attending funerals. These clauses, going beyond protocol for the death of a member, also cover his immediate family (father, mother, wife, child, brother or sister). While money might not have been an issue, or, at least, the only issue, nonattendance at group functions or failure to offer support for a fellow member in need, celebrate a birth, or mourn a death in the family, may have produced other social and economic benefits.
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