Listen to this article
This autumn, university lecturers and teachers in England can celebrate a historic milestone. After a 15-year campaign, the grandees who run the City of London have just agreed to award “livery company status” to the Worshipful Company of Educators.
Essentially, this creates a medieval-style guild for those educators, with their own coat of arms, founding charter, jewels and collection of gong-wearing masters and wardens. And though the educators do not have their own hall, the livery company that represents bakers has stepped into the breach – thus enabling the educators to have somewhere suitably grandiose to meet.
Welcome to one of the most curious features of 21st-century London. To the casual observer, tourist – or would-be wealthy investor from China, or anywhere else – the idea that medieval livery companies are still alive, let alone spreading, might seem bizarre. They date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, when trade associations were formed in the old city to act as self-regulating cartels and protect their members from the predations of monarchs.
By 1515, when the first hierarchical structure for liveries was established, there were 48 such companies in existence, covering crafts such as longbow makers, grocers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, skinners and merchant taylors. By the middle of the 18th century, as the English economy became more complex, their ranks nearly doubled again, to include gold and silver wyre drawers, fan makers, gunmakers, tin plate workers and framework knitters. But after the industrial revolution most of these crafts became redundant, and trade liveries – like longbows – seemed to be heading into the dustbin of history.
Then, in the 1920s, something rather unexpected occurred: some master mariners, or seamen, applied for livery status – and were granted it in 1932. And, since then, against the odds, these medieval guilds have not merely survived but mushroomed. These days, for example, the City of London has liveries for air pilots and air navigators, information technologists and environmental cleaners. More recently, officials have created the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants, with similar entities for international bankers and security professionals. There is even a livery for tax advisers. And these 109 bodies do not simply exist on paper – or in elegant crests – but hold meetings in the gown-bedecked flesh as well.
Last week I gave a toast at a dinner organised by The Worshipful Company of Marketors, a group created two decades ago for people who sell goods or promote brands, where my friend Sally Muggeridge is “master”. (One notable modern twist is that a growing number of the so-called “masters” are actually women.) This featured gowns and swords, along with a solemn speech from a government minister about “professional services” and intellectual property laws. But the most memorable part of the evening was the so-called “loving cup” ceremony, where everybody drank from a large silver flagon, complete with bowing and arm waving. Apparently this ritual, which dates back to Saxon times, before the Norman conquest in 1066, is particularly beloved by the marketers.
What explains all this? It is certainly not business in the narrow sense. These days the guilds do not really promote or protect much trade: the only livery companies with a tangible commercial role are the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers (which gives out taxi licences) and the scriveners and apothecaries groups (which award some qualifications).
Instead, the real point of these events, aficionados say, is to form social ties – and engage in large-scale charity events for schools, hospitals and so on. Where a city such as New York has endless benefits, organised by hedge fund grandees and women with expensive handbags, London has loving cup rituals run by masters.
Therein perhaps lies the real point – or the reason these guilds keep expanding in a counter-intuitive way. For as I sat with the marketers last week, it struck me that liveries are the perfect antidote to a profit-obsessed cyber world. In an era when life is constantly speeding up, becoming more impersonal and impermanent, guilds offer people a chance to root themselves in the sweep of history and experience “business” in a wider sense: to perceive commerce as part of a social network not a management consultant silo.
To put it another way, the more we live in a world driven by tweets, balance sheets and algorithms, the more attractive liveries seem – at least for some. This does not hold true for all professions: economists do not have their own livery nor, for that matter, do journalists (but that may just be a matter of time).
Arts scholars are now campaigning for livery status. So are public relations officials. (No doubt the latter will soon be launching a livery Facebook page and hashtags.) Those 13th-century craftsmen might yet spin in their graves; or, perhaps, celebrate the amazing malleability of cultural symbols and rituals, even as the economy of London changes.
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published