Guild Records: An Underused Record in Family History Research

Guild Image

Quite often, family history researchers stick to the usual record types when researching their family history; birth/baptismal, marriage, and death records. Of course, these are useful sources for genealogical information but there are other records that can fill gaps or simply provide more information. One of these underused records is guild records.

 What is a guild and what might you find when using guild records? 

A guild is an association of professionals with similar economic interests based on a certain craft or trade. It is devoted to the protection of guild member’s rights, training of new members, and furthering their political, economic, and trade interests. A guild is similar to a modern labor union. Some of the common trades that had their own guild included tanner, metalworker, tailor, and shoemaker and others. Guilds were very powerful and often had considerable influence in local government affairs.

Guilds operated on the apprentice, journeyman, and master system. A young man was assigned to work with a master as an apprentice for several years, during which time he learned the basics of the trade. After he attained a certain level of knowledge and skill, he was promoted to journeyman. At this time, he usually traveled about in search of a master in his field. He would work for this master to learn the requisite skills to become a master himself. When he completed his journeyman time with appropriate skill and knowledge, and after he produced a ‘master piece,’ he would be promoted to the status of master. This was an important step for a young man because he could then set up his own shop and work for himself.

Guild records were created by the guilds and reflect what that guild thought was important. They are extremely varied and the researcher should not assume that such records will contain any standard type of information. On the other hand, the opposite is also true—one should not dismiss guild records out of hand, thinking that they do not contain important information. There are many types of guild records, including master, journeyman and apprenticeship letters, lists of guild members, family lists, letters of recommendation, and birth documents. Such records may include names, sometimes birth dates, dates of guild-related events, work history information, and/or names of former bosses. The family lists are of special interest. They were kept to prove that children were offspring of guild members and citizens so that they could receive guild advantages later in life. They can also serve as useful records if the usual vital records are not available.

Guild records belonged to the guilds. Some of these records may still be in the possession of modern day guilds in some sort of guild archive. Others have been collected into regional archives. The Family History Library located in Salt Lake City, Utah has filmed a number of these records. To find guild records, the researcher should type ‘Name of country, name of locality, and occupations’ in the search field. Occupation records should always be searched, to see what information you can find.

Has anyone used guild records in your research?  We would love to have you share your comments about your experience using guild records in your research.

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