Medieval Writing
Seals of Guilds
Late medieval guilds served a range of functions both secular and religious. Guilds of merchants or craftsmen in the towns served in the regulation of commerce and trade, but also carried out religious functions, such as the presentation of the Mystery Plays in the towns. Town corporations which progressively took over aspects of local government usually had some kind of historical origin in the local merchants' guilds, but also in religious guilds. These last were sometimes organised at a parish level, but also sometimes appeared to act as a sort of medieval Rotary Club, where men of good character assembled under the banner of some saint or other to ensure the welfare of their members. The seals of guilds may therefore contain a combination of religious imagery and that derived from the guild's secular function, often with heraldic flourishes.
seal of fullers of Warwick Seal of the fullers of Warwick.
This example, from a craft guild involved in woollen cloth finishing, employs purely religious imagery in the form a depiction of the adoration of the Magi. There is a heraldic device at the bottom of the seal.
Seal of the Vintner's Company of London, of 1437.
seal of vintners of London
This example of a merchant guild seal shows the popular religious image of St Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar. The background is filled with grapvines and fruit while a wine barrel lies at his horse's feet. Perhaps the vintners thought that charity should involve the sharing of wine as well as clothing.
staple seals
14th century staple seals of London, Southampton and Boston. Yes, this is a rather scungy picture, sorry.
The wool staples regulated the export and quality control of this most significant product of late medieval England. These staple seals show an assortment of imagery. That of Lincoln represents the Virgin and Child standing on a woolsack. That of Southampton supposedly shows a leopard's face in a rosette with roses and fleurs de lis. We may have to take that on faith. That of Boston shows its patron saint, St Botolph, standing behind a woolpack. The juxtapostion seems a little strange, but probably no more peculiar than having St Isidore of Seville as patron saint of the internet.
The seal of the water merchants of Partis.
The merchants who plied the water in Paris depicted the major tool of their trade, a boat. And yes, it is intriguing how often boat imagery finds its way on to seals. I guess even a very simplified image of a boat is instantly recognisable.
The depiction of craftsmen or their tools of trade in a religious context mirrors that found in the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, where the guilds that subsidised each window are depicted as part of the imagery. It simply emphasises that religious life was a major part of public or corporate life in the middle ages.
bakers bankers
wine merchants
Bakers, bankers, drapers and winesellers are just some of the many craft groups that had themselves immortalised in the magnificent 13th century stained glass windows of Chartres.
In the later middle ages, trade guilds were granted coats of arms, and so they joined the aristocracy, religious institutions and other corporate entities in using these on their seals.

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 20/7/2011.