Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Organizational, Institutional, and Societal Evolution: Medieval Craft Guilds and the Genesis of Formal Organizations

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Organizational, Institutional, and Societal Evolution: Medieval Craft Guilds and the Genesis of Formal Organizations

Article excerpt

Organizational, Institutional, and Societal Evolution: Medieval Craft Guilds and the Genesis of Formal Organizations

A theoretical frame is developed that links the genesis of formal organizations to societal evolution. This theoretical frame lends itself to an analysis of the peculiarities of the craft guilds and the developments that caused their decline and replacement by formal organizations. Medieval guilds were not yet formal organizations but formed important predecessor institutions in the evolutionary process that led to the emergence of organizations.

INTRODUCTION Introductions to textbooks on organization theory usually inform us that modern societies are "organized societies" (e.g., Scott, 1987) and that their populations consist of "organization persons." However, most of them fail to remind us that formal organizations as corporate actors (Coleman, 1974) are of relatively recent origin, that not too long ago societies had to manage without them. And, because most organization theories are ahistoric, they do not deal with the question of why and how formal organizations emerged. In this article I concentrate on a crucial phase in the emergence of formal organizations: on the medieval guilds in Germany and their replacement by putting-out systems, manufactories, and factories; I argue that the guild was not yet a formal organization but, instead, an important predecessor institution, whereas the institutions that replaced it can be categorized as formal organizations. If we apply Coleman's (1975: 760) definition of formal organizations as corporate actors, the guild clearly does not fall into this category. In Coleman's concept, corporate actors are defined as institutions that receive their resources--ranging from the most tangible, such as monetary wealth, to the most intangible, such as the right to control one's time or speech--ultimately from natural persons, although some resources may come from other corporate actors. Resources can be invested or disinvested at the discretion of the persons or other corporate actors who control them. The guild did not meet these criteria because the medieval craftsman had no discretion over investing resources in the guild or disinvesting them. Those who wanted to work as craftsmen could only do so by investing all their resources, by bringing their personalities in toto into the guild. There was nothing like a private sphere outside the guild--the master's family was a part of the guild. Access to the guild was dependent on hereditary criteria. A voluntary withdrawal was impossible, as membership could only be dissolved by death or ostracism. However, manufactories (Manufakturen, larger craft shops outside the guild in which formal work contracts and division of work were applied), which in some fields replaced the guilds, were already corporate actors, even though they differed in many respects from modern organizations. Putting-out systems, which also represented an important evolutionary step in the direction of formal organizations, were networks of formally independent but economically highly dependent homeworkers and, sometimes, guilds under the control of merchants. Until the fifteenth century, corporate actors were unknown in Middle Europe. The difficulties of giving birth to these abstract institutions (i.e., detached from natural persons) became evident in attempts to furnish churches with certain rights. In the Middle Ages in Germany, landowners commonly built a church on their land for those who belonged to their household. Problems emerged when the priests of those churches began to argue that the landowner no longer held full rights over the land that surrounded the church. But to whom did these rights belong, if not to the landlord? The law provided no answer. Several approaches to solving the problem were undertaken. One was to declare the "four walls of the church" the owner, but this was not very successful. Another was to declare the saint for whom the church was named as the owner. …

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