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A guild is an association of craftspeople in a particular trade. The earliest guilds are believed to have been formed in India circa 3800 BC, and though they are not as commonplace as they were a few centuries ago, many guilds continue to flourish around the world today.

Early guilds

In pre-industrial cities, craftsmen tended to form associations based on their trades. Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen. The earliest craftsmen's organizations are purported to have been formed in India during the Veda-period from 2000 - 500 BC.

During the Indian Gupta-period (300 - 600 AD) the craftmen's associations were known as shreni. Greek organizations in Ptolemaic Egypt were called koinon. Starting from their third century B.C.E. origins the Roman collegia spread with the extension of the Empire. The Chinese hanghui probably existed already during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), but certainly they were present in the Sui Dynasty (589 - 618 AD). Roman craftsmen's organizations continued to develop in Italy of the Middle Ages under the name ars. In Germany they are first mentioned in the tenth century. The German name is Zunft (plural Zünfte). Métiers in France and craft gilds in England emerged in the twelfth century. Craft organizations (senf, sinf) stemmed from the tenth century in Iran, and were seen to spread also in Arabia and Turkish regions under the name futuwwah or fütüvvet. 900 of the carvers of Benin are said to have founded their own organization. In the neighbouring tribes of Yoruba and Nupe the organizations were given the names egbe and efakó.

Guilds in the Muslim world

Islamic civilization extended the notion of guilds to the artisan as well — most notably to the warraqeen, or "those who work with paper." Early Muslims were heavily engaged in translating and absorbing all ilm (" knowledge") from all other known civilizations as far east as China. Critically analyzing, accepting, rejecting, improving and codifying knowledge from other cultures became a key activity, and a knowledge industry as presently understood began to evolve. By the beginning of the 9th century, paper had become the standard medium of written communication, and most warraqeen were engaged in paper-making, book-selling, and taking the dictation of authors, to whom they were obliged to pay royalties on works, and who had final discretion on the contents. The standard means of presentation of a new work was its public dictation in a mosque or madrassah in front of many scholars and students, and a high degree of professional respect was required to ensure that other warraqeen did not simply make and sell copies, or that authors did not lose faith in the warraqeen or this system of publication. Thus the organization of the warraqeen was in effect an early guild.

Local guilds also served to safeguard artisans from the appropriation of their skills: The publication industry that spanned the Muslim empire, from the first works under the warraqeen system in 874 and up to the 15th century, produced tens of thousands of books per year. A culture of instructional capital flourished, with groups of respected artisans spreading their work to other artisans elsewhere, who could in turn copy it and perhaps " pass it off" as the original, thereby exploiting the social capital built up at great expense by the originators of techniques. Artisans began to take various measures to protect their proprietary interests, and restrict access to techniques, materials, and markets.

European history

In the Early Middle Ages most of the Roman craft organizations, originally formed as religious confraternities, had disappeared, with the apparent exceptions of stonecutters and perhaps glassmakers. Gregory of Tours tells a miraculous tale of a builder whose art and techniques suddenly left him, but were restored by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a dream. Michel Rouche (1987 pp 431ff) remarks that the story speaks for the importance of practically transmitted journeymanship.

The early egalitarian communities called "guilds" (for the gold deposited in their common funds) were denounced by Catholic clergy for their "conjurations"—the binding oaths sworn among artisans to support one another in adversity and back one another in feuds or in business ventures. The occasion for the drunken banquets at which these oaths were made was December 26, the pagan feast of Jul: Bishop Hincmar, in 858, sought vainly to Christianize them (Rouche 1987 p 432).

By about 1100 European guilds (or gilds) and livery companies began their medieval evolution into an approximate equivalent to modern-day business organizations such as institutes or consortiums. The guilds were termed corps de métiers in France, where the more familiar term corporations did not appear until the Le Chapelier Law of 1791 that abolished them, according to Fernand Braudel The guild system reached a mature state in Germany circa 1300 and held on in the German cities into the nineteenth century. The latest guilds to develop in Western Europe were the gremios of Hispania that signalled the progress of the Reconquista: Barcelona (1301), Valencia (1332) and Toledo (1426). Not all city economies were controlled by guilds; some cities were "free". Where guilds were in control they shaped labour, production and trade; they had strong controls over instructional capital, and the modern concepts of a lifetime progression of apprentice to craftsman, journeyer, and eventually to widely-recognized master and grandmaster began to emerge. As production became more specialized, trade guilds were divided and subdivided, eliciting the squabbles over jurisdiction that produced the paperwork by which economic historians trace their development: there were 101 trades in Paris by 1260 (Braudel), and earlier in the century the metalworking guilds of Nuremberg were already divided among dozens of independent trades, in the boom economy of the thirteenth century. In Ghent as in Florence the woolen textile industry developed as a congeries of specialized guilds. The appearance of the European guilds was tied to the emergent money economy, and to urbanization. Before this time it was not possible to run a money-driven organization, as commodity money was the normal way of doing business.

A center of urban government: the Guildhall, London (engraving, ca 1805)
A centre of urban government: the Guildhall, London (engraving, ca 1805)

The guild was at the centre of European handicraft organization into the sixteenth century. In France, a resurgence of the guilds in the second half of the seventeenth century is symptomatic of the monarchy's concerns to impose unity, control production and reap the benefits of transparent structure in the shape of more efficient taxation.

The guilds were identified with organizations enjoying certain privileges ( letters patent), usually issued by the king or state and overseen by local town business authorities (some kind of chamber of commerce). These were the predecessors of the modern patent and trademark system. The guilds also maintained funds in order to support infirm or elderly members, as well as widows and orphans of guild members, funeral benefits, and a 'tramping' allowance for those needing to travel to find work. As the guild system of the City of London decayed during the seventeenth century, the Livery Companies devolved into mutual assistance fraternities along such lines.

Like their Muslim predecessors, European guilds imposed long standardized periods of apprenticeship, and made it difficult for those lacking the capital to set up for themselves or without the approval of their peers to gain access to materials or knowledge, or to sell into certain markets, an area that equally dominated the guilds' concerns. These are defining characteristics of mercantilism in economics, which dominated most European thinking about political economy until the rise of classical economics.

The guild system survived the emergence of early capitalists, which began to divide guild members into "haves" and dependent "have-nots". The civil struggles that characterize the fourteenth century towns and cities were struggles in part between the greater guilds and the lesser artisanal guilds, which depended on piecework. "In Florence, they were openly distinguished: the Arti maggiori and the Arti minori—already there was a popolo grasso and a popolo magro" (Braudel p. 316). Fiercer struggles were those between essentially conservative guilds and the merchant class, which increasingly came to control the means of production and the capital that could be ventured in expansive schemes, often under the rules of guilds of their own. German social historians trace the Zunftrevolution, the urban revolution of guildmembers against a controlling urban patriciate, sometimes reading into them, however, perceived foretastes of the class struggles of the nineteenth century.

In the countryside, where guild rules did not operate, there was freedom for the entrepreneur with capital to organize cottage industry, a network of cottagers who spun and wove in their own premises on his account, provided with their raw materials, perhaps even their looms, by the capitalist who reaped the profits. Such a dispersed system could not so easily be controlled where there was a vigorous local market for the raw materials: wool was easily available in sheep-rearing regions, whereas silk was not.


The structures of the craftsmen's associations tended everywhere in similar directions: a governing body, assisting functionaries and the members' assembly. The governing body consisted of the leader and deputies. In Ptolemeic Egypt the presidents were known as presbyter, in Roman Egypt as proestotes, egoymenos or archonelates, in Byzantine Egypt epistates, in the Roman Empire as decurio, in Florence of the Middle Ages as consul, officialis or rector, in France as consul, recteur, baile or surposé, in Germany Zunftmeister or Kerzenmeister, in England alderman, graceman or master, in Iran as rish safid or pishavaran, in India as adhyaksha, mukhya, pamukkha or jettaka, in Tibet as dbu chen mo, in China as hangshou, hangtou or hanglao, in the West African Yoruba region as bale or baba egbe and in the Nupe region as dakodza, muku or ndakó, depending on the type of craft.

The guild was made up by experienced and confirmed experts in their field of handicraft. They were called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he had to go through a schooling period during which he was first called an apprentice. After this period he could rise to the level of journeyman. Apprentices would typically not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild's or company's secrets.

Like journey, the distance that could be travelled in a day, the title 'journeyman' derives from the French words for 'day' (jour and journée) from which came the middle English word journei. Journeymen were generally paid by the day and were thus day laborers. After being employed by a master for several years, and after producing a qualifying piece of work, the apprentice was granted the rank of journeyman and was given documents (letters or certificates from his master and/or the guild itself) which certified him as a journeyman and entitled him to travel to other towns and countries to learn the art from other masters. These journeys could span large parts of Europe and were an unofficial way of communicating new methods and techniques.

After this journey and several years of experience, a journeyman could be received as master craftsman. This would require the approval of all masters of a guild, a donation of money and other goods, and in many practical handicrafts the production of a so-called masterpiece, which would illustrate the abilities of the aspiring master craftsman.

The medieval guild was offered letters patent (usually from the king) and held a monopoly on its trade in the town in which it operated: handicraft workers were forbidden by law to run any business if they were not members of a guild, and only masters were allowed to be members of a guild. Before these privileges were legislated, these groups of handicraft workers were simply called 'handicraft associations'.

The town authorities were represented in the guild meetings and thus had a means of controlling the handicraft activities. This was important since towns very often depended on a good reputation for export of a narrow range of products, on which not only the guild's, but the town's, reputation depended. Controls on the association of physical locations to well-known exported products, e.g. wine from the Champagne and Bordeaux regions of France, tin-glazed earthenwares from certain cities in Holland, lace from Chantilly, etc., helped to establish a town's place in global commerce — this led to modern trademarks.

In many German towns, the more powerful guilds attempted to influence or even control town authorities. In the 14th century, this led to numerous bloody uprisings, during which the guilds dissolved town councils and detained patricians in an attempt to increase their influence.

The example of Chester

In Chester England the earl had given a charter to the guild merchants at the end of the 12th century assuring them of the exclusive rights for retail sales within the city (excepting fairs and some markets where 'foreigners' could pay for the privilege of selling).

Guildsmen had to be freemen of the city. They had to take an oath to serve the city and the king. There were four ways to become a freeman: by apprenticeship of five or seven years, by being born as the son of a freeman (in 1453 dues were remitted to a token 10s1/2d), by purchasing membership (in 1453 this was 26s8d), or by becoming an honorary freeman as a gift of the assembly.

As well as running local government, by electing the 78 common councillors, the guilds took responsibility for the welfare of their members and their families. They put on the Chester Mystery Plays and the Chester Midsummer Watch Parade. Guildsmen had to attend meetings, often in local inns or in the towers on the city walls. No person of any 'arte, mystery syence, occupacion, or crafte' could 'intermeddle' or practice another trade. In the 15th century the Innkeepers threatened to brew their own beer and the Brewers took them to court and won.

Charters of incorporation were given to each guild, the earliest to the Bakers in 1462. Of the original 25, 19 companies were recorded in 1475. In 1533 another company formed. This was the Merchant Venturers who were the only traders allowed to merchandise in foreign ports and, at first, they were not able to do any manual trade or retail in the city.

In 1694 rules were regularly being broken and it was ordered that 'No man shall have any commerce, Trade or Dealing with any man that shall sett up Stale (stall) or Hake in the street of ye said Citie neither at the ffaire or market but to dispose of his goods at his shoppe or house he keeps all the yeare'. But this was the beginning of the end for the guild's monopoly of city trade.

Fall of the guilds

Despite its advantages for agricultural and artisan producers, the guild became a target of much criticism towards the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. They were believed to oppose free trade and hinder technological innovation, technology transfer and business development. According to several accounts of this time, guilds became increasingly involved in simple territorial struggles against each other and against free practitioners of their arts, but the neutrality of these claims is doubted. It may be propaganda.

An example of the last of the British Guilds meeting rooms c1820
An example of the last of the British Guilds meeting rooms c1820

Two of the most outspoken critics of the guild system were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, and all over Europe a tendency to oppose government control over trades in favour of laissez-faire free market systems was growing rapidly and making its way into the political and legal system. Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto also criticized the guild system for its rigid gradation of social rank and the relation of oppressor/oppressed entailed by this system. From this time comes the low regard in which some people hold the guilds to this day. For example, Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter X, paragraph 72):

It is to prevent this reduction of price, and consequently of wages and profit, by restraining that free competition which would most certainly occasion it, that all corporations, and the greater part of corporation laws, have been established. (...) and when any particular class of artificers or traders thought proper to act as a corporation without a charter, such adulterine guilds, as they were called, were not always disfranchised upon that account, but obliged to fine annually to the king for permission to exercise their usurped privileges.

In part due to their own inability to control unruly corporate behaviour, the tide turned against the guilds.

Because of industrialization and modernization of the trade and industry, and the rise of powerful nation-states that could directly issue patent and copyright protections — often revealing the trade secrets — the guilds' power faded. After the French Revolution they fell in most European nations through the 1800s, as the guild system was disbanded and replaced by free trade laws. By that time, many former handicraft workers had been forced to seek employment in the emerging manufacturing industries, using not closely-guarded techniques but standardized methods controlled by corporations.

This was not uniformly viewed as a public good: Karl Marx criticized the alienation of the worker from the products of work that this created, and the exploitation possible since materials and hours of work were closely controlled by the owners of the new, large scale means of production.

Influence of guilds

Guilds are sometimes said to be the precursors of modern trade unions, and also, paradoxically, of some aspects of the modern corporation. Guilds, however, were groups of self-employed skilled craftsmen with ownership and control over the materials and tools they needed to produce their goods. Guilds were, in other words, small business associations and thus had very little in common with trade unions. However, the journeymen organizations, which were at the time illegal, may have been influential.

The exclusive privilege of a guild to produce certain goods or provide certain services was similar in spirit and character with the original patent systems that surfaced in England in 1624. These systems played a role in ending the guilds' dominance, as trade secret methods were superseded by modern firms directly revealing their techniques, and counting on the state to enforce their legal monopoly.

Some guild traditions still remain in a few handicrafts, in Europe especially among shoemakers and barbers. Some of the ritual traditions of the guilds were conserved in order organizations such as the Freemasons. These are, however, not very important economically except as reminders of the responsibilities of some trades toward the public.

Modern antitrust law could be said to be derived in some ways from the original statutes by which the guilds were abolished in Europe.

Modern guilds

Modern guilds exist in different forms around the world. In many European countries guilds have had a revival as local organisations for craftsmen, primarily in traditional skills. They may function as fora for developing competence and are often the local units of a national employers organization.

In the United States guilds exist in several fields. The Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America are capable of exercising very strong control in Hollywood because a very strong and rigid system of intellectual property respect exists (as with some medieval trades). These guilds exclude other actors and writers who do not abide by the strict rules for competing within the film and television industry in America.

Quilting guilds are also very common and are found in almost all areas of the United States.

Real estate brokerage is an excellent example of a modern American guild. Telltale signs of guild behaviour are on display in real estate brokerage: standard pricing (6% of the home price), strong affiliation among all practitioners, self-regulation (see National Association of Realtors), strong cultural identity (see Realtor), little price variation with quality differences, and traditional methods in use by all practitioners. In September 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors challenging NAR practices that, DOJ asserts, prevent competition from practitioners who use different methods. The DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission in 2005 advocated against state laws, supported by NAR, that disadvantage new kinds of brokers. For a description of the DOJ action, see . U.S. v. National Assoc. of Realtors, U.S. District Court Norther District Illinois, Eastern Division, September 7, 2005, Civil Action No. 05C-5140.

The practice of law in the United States is also an example of modern guilds at work. Every state maintains its own Bar Association, supervised by that state's highest court. The court decides the criteria for being admitted to, and remaining a member of, the legal profession. In most states, every attorney must be a member of that state's Bar in order to practice law. State laws forbid any person from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and practicing attorneys are subject to rules of professional conduct that are enforced by the state's high court.

Other associations which can be classified as guilds, though it isn't evident in their names, include the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.

Scholars from the history of ideas have noticed that consultants play a part similar to that of the journeymen of the guild systems: they often travel a lot, work at many different companies and spread new practices and knowledge between companies and corporations.

Many professional organizations similarly resemble the guild structure. Professions such as architecture, engineering, and land surveying require varying lengths of apprenticeships before one can be granted a 'professional' certification. These certifications hold great legal weight and are required in most states as a prerequisite to doing business there.

Thomas Malone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology champions a modern variant of the guild structure for modern "e-lancers", professionals who do mostly telework for multiple employers. Insurance including any professional liability, intellectual capital protections, an ethical code perhaps enforced by peer pressure and software, and other benefits of a strong association of producers of knowledge, benefit from economies of scale, and may prevent cut-throat competition that leads to inferior services undercutting prices. And, as with historical guilds, resist foreign competition.

The free software community has from time to time explored a guild-like structure to unite against competition from Microsoft, e.g. Advogato assigns journeyer and master ranks to those committing to work only or mostly on free software. Debian also publishes a list of what constitutes free software.

In the City of London, the ancient guilds survive as Livery Companies, most of which play a ceremonial role. Guilds also survive in the UK in Preston, Lancashire as the Preston Guild Merchant where among other celebrations descendants of Burgesses are still admitted into membership.

In Australia there exists the Guild of Commercial Filmmakers, a collection of commercial, short film and feature filmmakers.

In online computer games players form groups called Player guilds who perform some of the functions of ancient guilds. They organize group activities, regulate member behaviour, exclude non-conforming individuals, and react as a group when member safety or some aspect of guild life is threatened. In games where fictional "building" is possible they may cooperate on projects in their online world. The practice was taken from the Guilds in the quasi-medieval settings of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The first computer implementation was in the ground-breaking MUD Avalon. The first graphical online RPG to provide guilds was Neverwinter Nights, which ran from 1991 to 1997 on AOL.

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