What The Church Has Done For The Worker. Part 2.

By B.A. Santamaria, B.A., LL.B.
Australian Catholic Truth Society No. 841b (1940).

Part Two.



The Church set up a Carpenter as the Ideal Man. By the Middle Ages, the Church had entirely abolished the Roman institution of slavery. It would only reappear in a later racist form in the 15th century, again to be abolished by the application of Christian and Catholic principles. The well-known Rationalist historian, Lecky, a bitter opponent of the Church, wrote in his “History of European Morals” a passage which was very remarkable coming from the pen of such a writer. Lecky says “Christianity broke down the contempt with which the master had regarded his slaves, and planted among the slaves a principle of moral regeneration which expanded in no other sphere with equal perfection.” And the most significant section: “Its action in procuring the freedom of slaves was unceasing.”

Chapter II.


It is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that the workers were far better off in the Middle Ages than they are to-day. The important point is this — that the Middle Ages is the only time in the history of the world that an economic system has been organised in the spirit of the social principles of the Church. The Church accepts responsibility for the general social and economic ideas which prevailed in the Middle Ages. It accepts responsibility for the doctrines of the Just Price, the Living Wage, Private Property, and its limitations and the condemnation of usury, which were publicly proclaimed by the Church throughout the Middle Ages, and on which the social institutions of that period were founded. If the condition of the worker was then better than it had ever been before, or has ever been since, it was because that was the first and last time that European civilisation has been built on Catholic social teaching.

Writers of the most diverse political and religious opinions have united in paying a tribute to the great labour which was accomplished by the Church for the working class in those ages.

What are the things the worker has wanted in every age? What are the things to which he has a right? Fundamentally it can be said that he wants an income which is sufficient to keep himself and his family at a level of decent Christian comfort. He wants security in employment, so that he is not faced with the gnawing fear that the time may come when his children will not have enough to eat. He wants sufficient property to enable him to preserve his freedom from the ever-encroaching claims of the State.

The claim which any Catholic is entitled to make, after a consideration of all the facts, is that the worker of the Middle Ages had these things, where the modern industrial worker has not, and that, the institution which gave them to him was the Catholic Church.

Just Price and Living Wage.

The most important single weapon which the Catholic Church wielded in its defence of the worker was the doctrine of the Just Price, which was closely associated with the doctrine of the Living Wage. There are very few modern business men who do not conceal a smile when such a vague idea as the Just Price is mentioned. Yet the fact is that the simple mediaeval theologians knew all about the modern business practice of buying cheap and selling dear, while modern business men knew very little of the mediaeval practice. The reason is that the modern practice was justified by Roman Law, which the Church Law came to replace.

The Mediaeval Law.

The law which prevailed in the Middle Ages was entirely different. St. Thomas Aquinas laid down quite definitely that it was not lawful to sell a thing for more than it was worth. The principle to be guarded is that buyer and seller have an equal right the right to receive the exact equivalent in value of what each gives the other. It may be thought that this was a hard and impracticable thing to achieve.

The way in which the people of the Middle Ages reduced this principle to practice is explained by the fifteenth century writer, Langenstein, who lays down the rules which a Government should follow in fixing prices. It should make the price high enough to enable workers, artisans and merchants to maintain themselves suitably, but low enough to enable the poor to procure the necessities of life. When in doubt, the tendency should be to lower rather than to increase prices. Broadly speaking, it was the costs of production that determined the Just Price, and costs of production were whatever was necessary to maintain the different producers in their customary standards of life. The first charge on industry was to be the living wage, and prices were so regulated as to ensure that a living wage could be, and was, paid to the worker.

Wages the First Charge.

Writing concerning the practical applications of these two principles, Professor Cunningham, a noted English economic historian, has this to say: “In the Middle Ages, wages were taken as a first charge; in modern times the reward of the labourer cannot but fluctuate in connection with fluctuations in the utility and market price of things. There must always be a connection between wages and prices, but in the olden times wages were the first charge, and prices on the whole depended on them, while in modern times wages, on the other hand, are directly affected by prices.”

The same thing is said by Lipson, another non-Catholic historian, in his “Economic History of England”: “Mediaeval authorities endeavoured to fix prices according to the cost of production. Starting from the conviction that the labourer was worthy of his hire, their principle was to reward him with a recompense suitable to his station. They did not hold what we may call the theory of minimum subsistence — the iron law of wages — where wages were forced down to the lowest level at which the workman can subsist. Instead, they seem to have recognised that wages should be made to conform to fit a proper standard of life.”

Abundant testimony on the same lines could be furnished. “I have stated more than once,” writes the famous Professor Rogers, “that the fifteenth century and the first quarter of the sixteenth were the golden age of the English labourer, if we are to interpret the wages he earned by the cost of the necessaries of life. At no time were wages, relatively speaking, so high, and at no time was food so cheap. Attempts were constantly made to reduce these wages by Act of Parliament, the Legislature frequently insisting that the Statute of Labourers should be kept. But these efforts were futile; the rate keeps steadily high, and finally becomes customary and is recognized by Parliament.

Although the social principles which motivated the institutions of that period, the actual provisions as to wages and working conditions, and the testimony of historians are important, it is essential to appreciate the real conditions which prevailed among mediaeval workers by comparing their conditions with our own.

The Serf.

There was no class among the Roman slaves which was the victim of worse treatment than the slaves who worked on farms. By the tenth century slavery had been abolished and three-quarters of the population of Europe were what is known as serfs.

The main restriction on the serf was that he was “bound to the soil.” He could not, without the consent of the lord of the manor, leave the land he was supposed to cultivate. If he wished to marry a wife from outside the manor, he had to obtain the lord’s consent. If he had no direct heirs to whom his property would go at his death, he could not dispose of it, but it reverted to his lord. He had to pay certain fixed rents, not in money, but in kind, and by way of personal service to the lord. A number of other restrictions which emphasised the serf’s subordination to the lord were also imposed upon him.

The modern worker has not the obligations of the serf. It is equally important, however, to note that he has not the rights the serf enjoyed. All the serf’s essential family rights were secure. Once his due services were fulfilled, he was, in fact, the complete owner of his farm and of whatever other property he might acquire. The rents due to the lord could not be increased with the increased value of the holding, even though the increased value was in no way due to the serf’s labour. The serf could not be evicted from his home. This is more than could be said for the supposedly “free” workers of Australia, as many have found to their cost. The serf’s land, or working capital, could not be sold up for debt. Modern conditions have “progressed” by making it possible for the worse kind of money-lenders to grind debt-ridden workers into the gutter. In addition to his land, the serf had defined claims on the communal lands of the manor, such as free grazing rights, forest rights, fishing rights, the use of waterways and water power. “All these rights and the amount of each serf’s and each lord’s participation in them were regulated minutely by custom and could not be altered by the lord.”

From all these things emerges the fact that in the matter of security and in the provision of his essential needs, the serf was far better off than the modern unprotected agricultural or industrial worker. He had definite, enforceable claims on the protection of the lord, which the modern worker has not. He had his permanent house and farm, which the modern worker has not. “The serfs,” says Ashley, “were indeed tied to the soil, but the soil was also tied to them. No very great increase in wealth was possible to them; but, on the other hand, they always had land on which they could live and live, except in very occasional seasons, in rude plenty.”

History of Serfdom.

Even more important than the existence of these rights was the fact that under the influence of the Church the serf was gradually, but certainly, evolving into a free peasant with land of his own, which he held absolutely. It is a notable fact that in Catholic countries serfdom disappeared early, while in those countries affected by the Protestant revolt it died very hard. Serfdom had practically been replaced by a society of free peasants by the sixteenth century in catholic England. Except for certain feudal rents, it had disappeared from France by the fourteenth century. In Italy and that portion of the Spanish Peninsula which had been reconquered from the Moors, serfdom was abolished by the beginning of the fifteenth century. In Protestant Baden, serfdom remained until 1783, in Denmark until 1804, in Prussia until 1809, in Saxony and other Protestant parts of Germany until 1832.

In the development of a community of free peasant farmers, which was to become characteristic of Catholic Europe, too much praise cannot be given to the work of the monastic Orders. Through the monasteries there began in Europe the tradition of scientific farming, which they alone taught. Around the monasteries gathered the communities of free cultivators, living a life of security, independence and rude comfort; a life of toil, but a life without nerve-racking rush; a life punctuated and made beautiful by the numerous Church festivals, observed far more punctiliously by freedom from labour than are our modern public holidays.

Chapter III.


The Guild System.

The guild system is, no doubt, the best-known feature of mediaeval society. The origin of the guild system was the merchant guild, of which all the merchants of the town were members. This organisation not only directed the municipal government of the town, but regulated the trading practices of the members.

The main interest centres, however, not in the merchant guilds, but in the craft guilds, which developed later, for it is in the craft guilds that the industrial workers, as men understand that term today, were truly represented. As population grew, and there came to be a greater variety of crafts and trades, the tendency was for men of each craft, like weavers, bakers, goldsmiths, brewers, armourers, and so on, to form a separate guild and claim the right to govern their own trade, instead of leaving all control in the hands of the general merchant guild, which had now become a sort of town council.

Every trade had its own guild. If the system existed today, it would apply roughly in this way. If you are a carpenter, you would be a member of an organisation which included all the carpenters in the town, an organisation which controlled the activities of all the carpenters and in the government of which all the carpenters had a voice.

If you intended to qualify as a carpenter, you would first become an apprentice, in which position you would remain generally for about seven years. The relationship between yourself and the man to whom you were apprenticed would not be that of employer and employee. It would be that of father and son. The master would be bound to give you a thorough training, and if he was at all deficient in this respect, the guild would see to it that he was kept up to his work. On your side, you would owe respect and obedience to the master. You lived in his house, you ate at his table, you were virtually a member of his family. It was not uncommon for apprentices to transform this into a real relationship by marrying the master’s daughter, a frequent theme of the romantic writers of the time.

Admitted to the Guild.

At the end of seven years, when you had received a thorough training, you would be admitted to the guild. Now, in case it had been impossible for you to become apprenticed and go through this sort of training, the majority of guilds accepted workmen as members — even if they had never been apprenticed — provided they could produce satisfactory evidence that they were competent tradesmen.

After you had completed your apprenticeship, you would probably work for wages for about three years as a journeyman. You were not tied down to any one master. You would probably travel from town to town to acquire experience. Although you would not be eligible for official positions in the guild, you would have a voice in its administration, and a vote in the election of the governing council.

Finally you became a master. You did not need a great amount of capital at that time. If you did need any, you would find the guild ready to advance money to its own members on easy terms. There were certain other qualifications you had to fulfil before you became a master. You had to be a practising Catholic. You had to present satisfactory testimonials from the masters under whom you had served previously. You had to pass a professional test, which usually took the form of presenting an example of your own handiwork which was called a “masterpiece.”

That is a rough summary of the life of hundreds of thousands of European workers in the Middle Ages. That progress from apprentice, to journeyman, to master was the normal course of events for the young worker in all countries where the influence of Catholicism was dominant in social life. The guild of which they were members not only had complete control and administration of the craft which it represented; it gave to all members a thorough industrial training, not only protecting the consumer against poor workmanship, but fitting the worker completely for his trade.

Each guild quite literally controlled the trade it represented. The guild made regulations which had to be obeyed by all people working in the trade. “Guild regulations,” writes Cahill in his “Framework of a Christian State,” “were aimed at preventing the undue absorption of the trade by any individual; of checking profiteering, trusts or monopolies, and all commercial practices which savoured of excessive selfishness … . No one was allowed to take part in any work that did not belong to his own craft. Separate unions of masters and journeymen were forbidden. To such an extent did the altruistic spirit prevail in some places — as, for instance, at Florence — when a member was considered unduly wealthy he was bound to give his surplus wealth to the guild.”

Workers Govern Themselves.

It was the guild which fixed the prices of goods produced in the trade, and the level of wages to be paid to the workers. That was a most important provision. Wages and prices were not left to chance, or to cut-throat competition; neither was the State called in. An independent, self-governing body on which the workers had full representation decided both. The guild was self-governing. The men who worked in the trade, who produced the goods, had sufficient pride and confidence in their own ability to govern their trade equitably.

The first principle animating all fixation of prices was the Just Price — a price which would secure a proper return for the manufacturer, a proper wage for the worker, and protection for the consumer. Thus, every worker was enabled to earn a fair living, for the first charge on the industry was always the worker’s wages. There was no struggle between masters and workers. “A conflict of interests was unknown,” writes Professor Seligman. “The journeyman always looked forward to the period when he should be admitted to the freedom of the trade. This was, as a rule, not difficult for the expert workman to attain. No insuperable obstacle was thrown in his path … . It was a period of supremacy of labour over capital, and the master worked beside the artisan.”

Sins of Injustice.

Behind the self-government of the guilds, behind their fixation of prices and wages, was the all-pervading authority of the Church. Evasion of the prices fixed by the guild on the part of profiteers, evasion of wage standards by sweaters, were punished by the laws of the guild. But, more than that, they were condemned by the Church as immoral, as sins which had to be confessed and atoned. In those days the words of the Apostle were ever-present in the actions of men — that to deprive the worker of his just wage is a sin which cries to heaven for vengeance.

Guild-Planned Economy.

It was the guild, and not the State, which planned the economy of the trade it represented. The workers at their guild meeting not only decided on prices and wages in their industry; they planned the amount of goods to be produced, in order to avoid over-production. The guild often acted as a buying and selling co-operative.

The guildsmen themselves fixed the hours to be worked in the trade. Different hours were worked in summer and winter, and there is not one single instance in all the records of the guilds of a journeyman complaining of the hours he worked. This is especially notable, since the records show that the guildsmen were never backward in voicing their complaints. In a case in which he appeared before the French courts, the Socialist, Paul Lafrague, declared: “I say, and I maintain, that under the old regime the labourer was in a better position than today. The Church each year assured him of fifty-two Sundays and thirty extra holidays.”



Among the catch-cries and slogans of a materialist age is: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Just in what way religion drugs men has never been rationally explained. It did not need explanation to people who believed Christianity was dead. Marx and Lenin, who gave the slogan currency, themselves knew nothing at first hand of genuine Christianity. Their only contacts had been with an enfeebled Protestantism and a petrified Orthodoxy. They knew nothing of the Catholic Church, her doctrines, her achievements, her past.

Just how deeply religious nations like the Irish, the Poles and the Spaniards proved so warlike, so bitterly resentful of tyranny, so determined on individual and national liberty was not explained. But in defiance of history, the cry was broadcast until many Catholics even came to believe it “the Church has done nothing for the workers.” We have now begun to see just how false such an accusation is.

For 2000 years the Church preached that in the great essential the slave was as good as his master, the tenant as his landlord, the soldier as his general. In nonessentials - brains, beauty, brawn - there were differences. But the soul of a garage attendant is as valuable as that of Henry Ford; that of a bank messenger boy as valuable as that of Montagu Norman. The Church gave every man and woman something to live for. She said — for the first time in civilised history — that hard, manual work was a jolly good thing. Cicero had spoken contemptuously of a man as of the lowest type — “he was a butcher.” Pagan literature deliberately refused to concern itself with the poor. The Church set up a Carpenter as the Ideal Man.