The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


guilds or gilds, economic and social associations of persons engaging in the same business or craft, typical of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Membership was by profession or craft, and the primary function was to establish local control over that profession or craft by setting standards of workmanship and price, by protecting the business from competition, and by establishing status in society for members of the guild. In the Western world today the term guild is used for certain associations that have little connection with the medieval institution. Some of the great professional associations (e.g., in medicine and law) fulfill some of the functions of the old guilds but are rarely given that name.

Medieval European Guilds

By the 11th cent. in Europe, associations of merchants had begun to form for the protection of commerce against the feudal governments. Those merchant guilds became extremely powerful as trade in the Mediterranean and across Europe increased. Some of the Italian merchant guilds, such as those in Genoa and Florence, became dominant in local government. In England and in Germany the merchant guilds also exercised enormous power in the growing towns. Commerce was becoming less and less a local affair, and the guilds in some cases developed into intercity leagues for the promotion and protection of trade. The most striking example was the Hanseatic League of N Europe, which established and controlled some of its own trading cities. The merchant guilds had vast influence in the development of commerce during that period.

No less important were the craft guilds, the associations of artisans of a particular industry, e.g., the weavers guild. These grew with great rapidity as towns developed in the 12th cent. and tended to share power with the merchants or even, in some cases, to supplant them in power. Generally the members were divided into masters, apprentices, and journeymen. The masters were the owners of the shops and instructors of the apprentices. The apprentices were bound to the masters; they were accepted for a stipulated sum paid to the masters for training and were given a subsistence wage for a number of years; the amount paid and the length of time varied from one craft to another and one place to another. The apprentices were strictly under the control of the masters, but the conditions of control were set by guild regulation. The journeymen were men who had finished their training as apprentices but could not attain the status of masters, the number of masters being limited.

The guild reflected a predilection for ordering society. Each guild set the terms of its craft: the forms of labor, standard of product, and methods of sale. With the rise of nationalism in the West, those things were increasingly subject to royal and national law. The relationship of the feudal ruler to the guilds was ideally one of cooperation. Actually the wealthy guilds were able to gain some immunity from interference by noble or king either by paying them large sums of money or by intimidating them. Sometimes, as in the weaving towns of Flanders, the guilds led revolts against feudal authority (e.g., in Bruges and Ghent). The tendency in the industrial towns was for the guilds to assume dominance in municipal government, and traces of that control have persisted in the local governments of Western Europe. The guilds of London (see livery companies) had wide social obligations and prominence in the city government.

The strengthening of the power of nations in the 15th and 16th cent. tended to increase royal power, and the king in some instances was able to reduce the guilds to subservience. The improvement of communications, the expansion of trade, with the introduction of foreign-made goods, and finally the appearance of the capitalist and the entrepreneur hastened the end of the guild system. The guilds, with their rigorous controls and emphasis on stability and quality, were not equipped to cope with the expanding production of a more capitalistic age. They tended to guard their monopolies jealously and to oppose change.

As time went on, the guild system became increasingly rigid, and the trend toward hereditary membership grew very marked. Thus the development of new trade and industry fell to the capitalists, who adapted themselves to new demands in an age of exploration and expansion. By the 17th cent. the power of the guilds had withered in England, and their privileges were officially abolished in 1835. In France the guilds were abolished (1791) in the French Revolution. The German and Austrian guilds were abolished in the 19th cent. as were those in the Italian cities. In Eastern Europe guilds grew numerous in the great market cities, and the power of some long persisted, notably in Novgorod and Kraków.

Other Guilds

Guildlike organizations of merchants and artisans have been known at various times in many parts of the world. Greek merchants' associations were of considerable significance in both the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Under the Roman Empire each provincial city had, as did Rome, its various collegia (some of which were clubs as well as economic guilds); Constantinople later had its efficiently organized corpora. Those guilds were continued in the East and in some of the cities of Italy, where they persisted at least until the 10th cent. Their effect on the creation of medieval guilds is debatable. Some scholars have found the origin of guilds in the old tribal or religious guilds of the Germans.

Elsewhere in the world associations of merchants and of artisans developed and followed a pattern similar to that of the medieval European guilds, flourishing as protective devices or as regulatory instruments of the state. The guilds of the Muslim Middle East developed in the 9th cent. and persisted into the 20th cent., although they never attained the political influence equivalent of those of medieval Europe. In India guilds were highly developed before the time of the Maurya empire, and they continued in existence long after British control was established. The history of the Indian guilds was closely tied in with the caste system. The guilds in Japan were opposed and weakened by the stronger medieval rulers, but they were later used as powerful regulatory devices; they were swept away in the Meiji restoration in 1868. Chinese guilds of unknown antiquity persisted as powerful bodies into the 20th cent.


See C. Gross, The Gild Merchant (1890, repr. 1964); L. F. Salzman, English Industries of the Middle Ages (new ed. 1964); H. Sée, Economic and Social Conditions in France during the Eighteenth Century (tr. 1927, repr. 1968); S. Kramer, The English Craft Gilds (1927); H. B. Morse, The Gilds of China (2d ed. 1932, repr. 1967); G. Unwin, Gilds and Companies of London (4th ed. 1963); G. Clune, The Medieval Gild System (1943); R. Mackenney, Tradesmen and Traders: The World of the Guilds in Venice and Europe (1987).

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