RETIREMENT Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: socio-religious guilds medieval London Beverley Kingston-upon-Hull Chesterfield Coventry Cambridge King's Lynn fraternities old age pensions charity disabled poverty infirmity
Subject: Charitable provision for the aged
Original source: Public Record Office, Chancery Miscellanea, Gild Certificates
Transcription in: Toulmin Smith, ed. English Gilds Early English Text Society, old series, vol.40 (1870), 5-6, 150, 157, 166, 231, 234, 267.
Original language: Latin (translated by Smith), Middle English, French
Location: London, Beverley, Kingston-upon-Hull, Chesterfield, Coventry, Cambridge
Date: ca. 1388


[1. Gild of (St. James) Garlickhithe, London]

If any of the fraternity is the victim of misfortune, so that he has nothing and, through old age or infirmity, is unable to support himself, if he has been a member of the fraternity for [at least] seven years and fulfilled all his obligations towards the gild, [then] every week thereafter he shall receive 14d. from the communal box, for life (unless he recover from his misfortune).

[2. Gild of St. Katherine, Aldersgate, London]

Also, if any of the fraternity should fall into poverty, or be overcome by old age, so that he cannot support himself – or through any other bad luck, due to fire or water, thieves, illness, or any other occurrence (so long as it is not his own fault, due to his own bad character), then he shall receive 14d. a week.

[3. Gild of St. Mary, Beverley]

The alderman and stewards of the gild shall visit those bretheren and sisteren who are poor, ailing, or weak, and who have not enough of their own to live upon; and they shall give to these as they think right out of the gild stock, as has been agreed; namely, to each one so being poor, ailing, or weak, eightpence, sixpence, or at least fourpence, every week, to help their needs. And if any of those poor bretheren dies, or any other of the gild who is not well off, he shall be buried at the cost of the gild, and have all becoming services.

[4. Gild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kingston-upon-Hull]

If it happen that any of the gild becomes infirm, bowed, blind, dumb, deaf, maimed, or sick, whether with some lasting or only temporary sickness, and whether in old age or in youth, or be so borne down by any other mishap that he has not the means of living then, for kindness' sake, and for the souls' sake of the founders, it is ordained that each shall have, out of the goods of the gild, at the hands of the wardens, sevenpence every week; and every one so being infirm, bowed, blind, dumb, deaf, maimed, or sick, shall have that sevenpence every week as long as he lives.

[5. Gild of the Blessed Mary, Chesterfield]

If any brother, through age, or loss of limb, or leprosy, comes to so great want that he cannot support himself, the bretheren who are able shall, in turn, supply him with needful food, or shall find for him a house of religion where he may stay during life.

[6. Merchant gild, Coventry]

And if any man or woman of the fraternity becomes so enfeebled through illness or old age that he cannot work or engage in commerce, he shall be supported, at the cost of the gild, in a manner fitting to his status.

[7. Holy Trinity gild, Coventry]

If any brother or sister of the gild becomes so feeble, through old age or through any worldly mishap, that he has not, and cannot earn, the means of living, he shall have such help, at the cost of the gild, that he shall not need to beg his bread.

[8. Holy Trinity gild, Cambridge]

If any brother, or brother's wife, comes to want through mishap, without any self-guilt, he shall have, at the cost of the Gild, sevenpence every week of his life while the need lasts, and a gown and hood every year; and he shall be freed from all Gild payments.

[9. Gild of St. Clement, Cambridge (1431)]

Also, it is ordained by agreement of everyone that if any brother or sister of this association, reaching old age or falling into great poverty, lacks the wherewithal to maintain or support himself, he shall receive 4d. weekly from the goods of the gild, as long as those goods are worth 40s. or more. Should it happen that there are more than one such poor men, then it is ordained by agreement of everyone that the 4d. weekly is to be divided among them all.


A large number of the socio-religious gilds made charitable provision for persons – usually members – who became ill or impoverished. Only a small number specifically identify old age as a cause of these misfortunes, but the elderly were one of the groups in society most likely to succumb to illness and/or poverty. Part of the purpose of such gilds was charitable works, and this was the justification for the king granting them licences in mortmain to acquire property. However, their aim of their alms programme was probably also to create a closer bond among the membership, and between members and the gild, by promoting the idea that members could rely on support if they fell upon hard times, as well as to ensure that no member was reduced to the indignities of begging, which would have reflected badly on the gild.

The provision made for supporting elderly members unable to support themselves financially varied according to the means of the gild and, in some cases, according to the social status of the recipient; longstanding members or former gild officers might have been the beneficiaries of the higher amounts. As the extracts showed, aid given might be a case of supplying food, or money, and sometimes clothing, or at the least of helping the unfortunate individual find shelter in a hospital. Pecuniary aid was modest, but then a gild with limited resources might find itself supporting at any given time an unknown number of recipients; estimations of the cost of living suggest that the amounts given would have provided for bare subsistence only, and in some cases less.

The wealthy mercantile gild of Holy Trinity at Lynn has left us a broken series of account rolls between 1373 and 1484 that show its annual payments in alms to impoverished gildsmen, widows, elderly members, and local anchorites or hermits. At its peak of activity in 1442 there were 52 such recipients. Most received the annual equivalent to only a few pennies a week. Among the highest paid were Nicholas Dunton and Robert Narburgh, who would have been around 60 years old when they are first found receiving alms from the gild (1438); why they were given a relatively high amount – about a shilling a week – is unclear, although Dunton had played some role as custodian of one of the town quays and perhaps both men were long-standing employees of the gild. At the same period, a lesser amount was being paid to Alice the widow of Robert Burgeys, a prominent townsman who had in 1424 obtained a discharge from the local office of constable on the grounds of old age; he died a few months later. St. George's gild at Norwich likewise supported multiple alms recipients, mostly men (whereas Holy Trinity gild at Lynn supported as many women as men), at the amount of 8d. a week, raised via obligatory contributions from members of a farthing a week. Recipients included Thomas Digard who had since 1420 played the role of the dragon during the annual gild procession; by 1445 he was unable to support himself and was given financial aid by the gild for the final few years of his life. At the other end of the social scale, judging by its name, was the Poor Men's Gild, which was able to provide only 3d. a week to members in trouble; its very existence suggests that most socio-religious gilds were for the support of the urban middle and upper classes.



"communal box"
I.e. the gild's treasury.

"fire or water"
Referring most probably to the loss of worldly possessions through a house fire, and the loss of mercantile possessions through a ship sinking.

"own fault"
E.g. through gambling, debauchery, litigiousness.

"house of religion"
A common way of referring to a hospital.

"fitting to his status"
Toulmin Smith chose "as befits his need" as the translation of solonc ce que soun estat demaunde, but I believe the "needs" were more social than physical.

"freed from all Gild payments"
A few gilds required recipients to use a portion of their alms to pay the annual gild membership fee.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003