Health Insurance, Medieval Style

Many people in the US right now are concerned about their health insurance (among other things).  Will it change all over again? Probably–won’t it be fun to find out.  We tend to think of insurance as a recent innovation, a social good offered to citizens for commercial purposes, generally through an employer, and designed to offer peace of mind in the event of a health emergency.  However, this and many other benefits were available to medieval tradesmen and merchants through their local guild.

This tower in the London wall once served as the operating theater for the Company of Barber-surgeons

This tower in the London wall once served as the operating theater for the Company of Barber-surgeons

The guild system managed a wide variety of aspects of business during the middle ages. They developed during the 12th century in Europe, from the tendency of people in a given trade to have similar concerns, and band together to address them.

Depending on the trade served by the guild, they might offer the equivalent of today’s professional societies–the networking, mutual support and lead generation, not to mention the camaraderie of joining together with like minds.  They helped apprentices find masters and journeymen find work, not to mention conferring the honors for those at the top of the profession–maintaining professional standards.  They also offered funeral and survivorship benefits for widows and children, like many trade unions do today. Although I am not sure any union puts up dowries for the daughters of their poorer members.

In addition to services for members, guilds often performed charitable work and public service, like the famous Goldsmiths’ Guild celebration of the 15th century, which included mechanized angels blowing on trumpets to announce the procession.

Health insurance could mean payments to barbers, surgeons or physicians as needed on behalf of the ill or injured guild member, or direct payments to the member during a time when they were unable to work.   The protagonist of my series, Elisha Barber, would have been a member of the Worshipful Company of Barbers, founded in 1308 in London, and his brother, Nathaniel, a member of the Tinsmith’s guild.  Each guild had a charter spelling out the duties and benefits for members, and might specify payments for particular injuries, often relating to the profession at hand.  The dues paid by the members went to support the services they received.

While modern-day people often decry any significant change as a return to the middle ages, in some ways, they really weren’t so bad. . .

The Merchant-Adventurers' Guild Hall, York, England

The Merchant-Adventurers’ Guild Hall, York, England

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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