How Medieval Guilds have become a Model for a Modern Catholic Education

A small Catholic college has established Medieval Guilds for its students. This is more than recreation, this is a genuine education that transforms the human person so that, in turn, they engage with and help to transform the secular culture.

The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire has established a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds that enable students to gain practical skills and experience from master craftsmen in areas such as woodworking, sacred art, homesteading and music.  The College’s guilds take their spirit from the associations of men and women in the Medieval Age who advanced their trades while responding to the needs of their local communities. While idea of a guild does conjure up a romantic picture of craftsmen living by the work of their hands, this has not been an uncritical look at the past. The emulation of what would nowadays be viewed by some as the restrictive trade practices of these professional associations of the middle ages is not one of their goals.

More than simple recreation For many students, the guilds will be a welcome and relaxing break from their studies.  This is to be expected, participation in them is meant to enjoyable. However, the guilds offer more than simple recreation.  Each offers practical experience of these pursuits integrated with academic study.  Saint Anselm said that if we wish to study theology we cannot rely on intellect alone and that in order to learn true knowledge we must incarnate the Word of God in our daily lives – one learns what virtue is, for example by practicing it as well as studying about it.  The guilds are a forum in which the virtues are taught through experience of practice in the mundane.  Once understood, the lessons provided by the guilds can be applied to any aspect of daily life, even if one does not go on to pursue woodworking, art, music or homesteading as a career.

Establishing tradition Through the experience provided by the guilds, students will also understand what is meant by a living tradition.  A living tradition hands down the accumulating positive experiences of the past to the next generation and is prepared to apply them creatively in new ways in order to reflect and speak to the present, but in such a way that its core principles are not compromised.  In the guilds, the students learn from a master and are in turn in a position to pass on many of those simple lessons immediately, guiding the junior guild members.  Our hope is that this dual process of learning and teaching will not stop once they leave Thomas More College.  For example, each member of the St. Gregory Music Guild will be highly capable of joining or forming a choir, teaching others, even those with no experience, how to chant the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

Serving the common good Through these guild activities, each student will pursue personal development, contribute to the college community, and even to the surrounding community.  Service to the community is as simple as singing to the elderly in nursing homes, taking on projects in one’s parish, and baking bread for the homeless. Through habitual consideration of the end to which activities are directed, the students will understand how work, paid or unpaid, can be directed towards the common good.

St. Joseph Woodworking Guild Master carpenter, Frank Jenkins, explores the properties of the major types of wood used in fine woodworking, the use and care of hand tools, the preparation of rough lumber for finish work, joinery, project conception and design, and finishing.  The guild culminates in the completion of a small project of the student’s choice, such as a wooden bookcase.

St. Luke Sacred Art Guild In their first year of the guild, I teach the students how paint icons in the Western tradition.  Students also learn the principles of harmony and proportion that govern composition in art, the basis of geometric patterned art (found in gothic church floor patterns, for example).  In addition, they have the weekly opportunity to attend the internationally known atelier of Paul Ingbretson, who teaches the rigorous “academic method” of drawing developed by figures of the High Renaissance such as Leonardo.  Upon graduating, students will be equipped with the core principles that enable them to continue their development to the highest level.

St. Francis and Isidore Homesteading Guild This guild is an excellent choice for young people with a passion to embrace the gifts of nature with a spirit of self-sufficiency.  Students will learn mankind’s time-tested techniques for a wide range of priceless life skills: how to bake sour dough bread, keep bees, raise chickens, transform tree sap into maple syrup, make a fire in the woods, track animals, and clean fish and fowl.  The intention is to stimulate wonder at God’s creation and the desire both to preserve it for future generations and to raise it up to something greater through cultivation that is harmony with the natural order.

St. Gregory Music GuildSacred Music Under the guidance of Dr. Tom Larson, students will learn Gregorian chant and polyphony.  Gifted students will have the chance to develop their skills further through classes with the College’s Composer in Residence, Mr. Paul Jernberg.  Mr. Jernberg will offer lectures, specialized singing classes, and advanced classes in principles of composition.  The Thomas More College Choir will showcase and record Mr. Jernberg’s original compositions in sacred music, which are receiving exceptional reviews from proponents of traditional of sacred music (see www.csmus.org). The approach of Dr. Larson and Mr. Jernberg is unique in that it not only teaches students how to sing well, but also equips students with a deep understanding of the fundamental principles of sacred music so that they will be able to establish choirs themselves, as well as leading prayer in the family home.

St Gregory Guild – Folk Music Mark Schwerdt, the Director of Admissions for the College, teaches students the rich history of folk music through the oral tradition.  Each semester, students memorize Irish, Scottish, English and American folk songs.  Students are encouraged to make these familiar songs their own, as they perform them for each other, the College and the surrounding community.  In addition to memorizing a variety of songs, students are offered banjo, mandolin or guitar lessons.

The Thomas More College Guilds contribute to the development of the student, the life of the College and the common good, and instill a spirit of cooperation, prayer and service.  Our intention is that through them, students will do more than establish a Catholic culture that flourishes apart from the wider culture: they will engage with the wider culture and be agents of its transformation.

For more information contact the college through their website, http://www.thomasmorecollege.edu/ ; potential students can speak directly admissions director Mark Schwerdt on (603) 880-8308, or mschwerdt@thomasmorecollege.edu

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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  • dan

    I think this is a great idea. I head up a Catholic business network and could see how the idea of a guild might even work in small groups of business people looking to address issues they have in common. 

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