The Visé guilds

statue arquebusierIn a preliminary chapter, Jean-Louis Kupper, a professor of the history of the Middle Ages at the University of Liège, reminds us opportunely of what a guild is. The context of their being set up was that of the Middle Ages, in other words an era when insecurity prevailed. 'Effectively, it was the insidious presence of danger, the permanent threat of attack, the daily feeling of anxiety, the oppressive feeling of isolation and, consequently, the need for assistance and protection, which combined to give birth to all kinds of groupings, associations and fraternities.' If the first known mention of the word 'guild' dates from 779, it was above all from the 11th century onwards that saw the appearance of guilds whose principal characteristic was merchants organising their own defence. At the beginning, moreover, these guilds, notably those of Liège, Dinant, Namur or Huy, journeyed with the merchants (their members were often merchants themselves) in order to protect their convoys. The pacification of the territories and the fortification of the towns would render these journeys unnecessary but the guilds were not to disappear as they were appointed to the defence of the towns which supported and maintained them.

The members of these 'military corporations' were recruited from amongst the inhabitants of the cities. Sworn in members, they assured the protection of the town, its privileges and its bourgeois. When the situation demanded it the guilds provided an armed contingent to the overlord the city was under the control of, in this case the Liège Prince-Bishop. In exchange for these services the guilds received guarantees, their munitions and certain tax and official duty exemption privileges. Their weapons? Crossbows at first, even if they were prohibited by the Church, and later arquebuses from the end of the 15th century.

Blues and reds

GildesIt is a document signed by Prince-Bishop Thibaut de Bar in 1310 which for the first time attests to the presence of a company of crossbowmen in the good city of Visé, situated on the Meuse halfway between Liège and Maastricht. During this period Visé was in effect beginning to acquire a certain commercial renown (a market was in particular held there) which obliged it to defend itself against the pillages of bands of marauders. The rival company, the Arquebusiers, came into being in 1579…even if the Crossbowmen had for a long time also been using arquebuses, which were more effective weapons. The creation of this second guild thus seems to respond to political or personal rivalries. That is perhaps the reason why Prince-Bishop Ernest de Bavière abolished the Crossbowmen in 1604, a dissolution which hardly lasted a long time as the oldest guild was re-established in 1611 with its full rights. Visé would from this point on live with two rival guilds for centuries. Up until 1910, in fact, when a split, which was also political, took place within the Arquebusiers, who divided into two groups: the Old Arquebusiers and the Frankish Arquebusiers, the latter accusing the former of being too close to the clergy and the church. The book (1) naturally dwells at length on the history of the three guilds, called the Blues for the first, the Reds for the second and just simply The Franks for the final one. But the most interesting feature for the outside observer is without doubt the chapter devoted to the role of the guilds from the moment onwards when they no longer had missions to carry out, as it is doubtless that which enables an understanding of the extraordinary longevity and vivacity of these movements, exceptional in the folklore of our regions.

The proper use of guilds today

Because if, for a long time now, the guilds have no longer carried out any missions concerning defence or the maintenance of order, what purpose did they serve and continue to serve? Pierre Verjans, a political scientist and lecturer in the ULg's Faculty of Law and Political Sciences, responds to this question by dissecting the relationships between the guilds and the political and social life of the Visé citizens. For Pierre Verjans, from the end of the Ancien Régime, when the guilds became unnecessary as a military or police organisation, 'forming two groups on a political space facilitates life and allows the community to be read.' Even if this readability escapes the outside observer, so great is the mimetism between the guilds: 'what divides (and organises) the people of Visé id not open to differentiation to outsiders.' All the more so as the split between the guilds does not follow a traditionally political division, being a lot more subtle since, analyses Pierre Verjans, 'whilst political affiliations seem to be divided independently of guild affiliation, affiliations to the guilds are on the other hand politically marked.' Throughout his analysis Pierre Verjans swings between two hypotheses which would explain the durability of the Visé guilds. Either this collective myth  serves to hide social tensions or the guilds reflect the municipal-liberal continuity against the clerical continuity. Nor does one hypotheses moreover abolish the other and doubtless they followed on from one another: in the 19th century, the Catholic-liberal split framed political life, whilst in the 20th century it was the socio-economic split which predominates. And he concludes: 'in a small town where conflicts are tamped down, are diluted, are not easily spoken out loud, or appear to be rude, a symbolic local confrontation allows one to compete to make a more beautiful procession, a larger monument in the town, a demonstration of one's capacity for representation which gives meaning at the same time to what it is better to hide, as we cannot (or do not want to) change social hierarchies, and which provides meaning because it can recall the genesis of the construction of the community, the wringing of rights from the Prince-Bishop or support for the latter in moments of reforms or when the community is off colour..'

(1)Visé, Terre de gildes, co-ordinated by Daniel Conraads, Editions du Perron, 2010.

Gildes paint