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A guild is an association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards of morality or conduct. Historically they were small business associations, since each crafter was a self-employed individual artisan or part of a small craft shop or co-operative. They exist in modern and medieval incarnations, both of which are discussed in this article. One's view of guilds tends to be heavily colored by one's view of political economy, since the whole history of trade, technology, intellectual property, regulated professions, social security, and professional ethics are entwined with the history of the guilds in Europe.


Early history

Regulated professions were a feature of the ancient and classical world. The Code of Hammurabi specified a death penalty for builders , or masons, whose buildings fell on the inhabitants. Hammurabi himself had been a stonemason, so this could be considered an early example of self-regulation. The Hippocratic Oath applies to this day as the basis of the modern physicians' ethical code. All known legal codes include some limits on the practices or powers of jurists, e.g. the Rules of Civil Procedure , or politicians, e.g. the rules of parliamentary debate . It has generally been recognized that those in a position of special knowledge or trust were to be held accountable to the public for their advice and services.

Islamic civilization extended this to a degree to the artisan as well - most notably to the warraqeen , "those who work with paper". Early Muslims were heavily engaged in translating and absorbing all ilm ("knowledge") from all other known civilizations, "as far 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 obligated to pay royalties on works, and who had final discretion on the contents. As the standard means of presentation of a new work was its public dictation in the mosque or madrassah, in front of many scholars and students, 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. This was an early guild.

This publication industry that spanned the Muslim empire from the first works under this system in 874 to the 15th century, gave rise to all concerns a modern intellectual property lawyer would recognize: by means of the tens of thousands of books per year so published, instructional capital from one group of artisans admired for their work could be spread to other artisans elsewhere who could copy it and perhaps "pass it off" as the original, exploiting the social capital built up at great expense by the originators of techniques. Artisans began to take various ways to protect their proprietary interests, restrict access to techniques, materials, and to markets.

European history

In the Early Middle Ages most of the Roman craft organizations, 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 pp431ff) 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 had evolved into an approximate equivalent to modern-day business organisations such as institutes or consortiums. 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. The appearance of the European guilds is believed to be 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.

The guild was at the center of European handicraft organization. The guild system reached a mature state in Germany in the Middle Ages, circa 1300. 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.

Like their Muslim predecessors, European guilds imposed long periods of apprenticeship, and made it difficult or impossible for those lacking the approval of their peers to gain access to materials or knowledge, or sell into certain markets. These are defining characteristics of mercantilism in economics, which dominated most European thinking about political economy until the rise of classical economics. States applied this thinking, for instance, to restrict the flow of gold and silver to military opponents, as gold was useful to buy weapons and hire mercenaries.

The guilds also maintained funds in order to support infirm or elderly members, as well as widows and orphans of guild members.


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.

Some argue that the title journeyman is derived from the itinerant nature of the position. However, it is more likely that the title derives from the French word for 'day' (Jour) 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 attained the rank of journeyman and was given a letter which 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 elected to become a 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 a letters patent (usually from the king) and held an oligopoly 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, fine china 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.

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.

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. Even Karl Marx (not normally in league with Adam Smith) in his Communist Manifesto criticized the guild sytem for its rigid gradation of social rank and the relation of opressor/opressed 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 behavior, 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 countries in Europe guilds have had a revival as local organisations for craftsmen, primarily in traditional skills. They may function as forums for developing competence and are often the local units of a national employers organization. In United States guilds tend to exist in fields where, like the medieval warraqeen, a very strong and rigid system of intellectual property respect exists in one industry: the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America, for instance, are capable of exercising very strong control in Hollywood, and excluding other actors and writers who do not abide by the strict rules for competing within the film and television industry in America.

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.


  • Dolven, Arne S.: Vocational Education in Europe in Dolven, Arne S. and Gunnar Pedersen (eds): Fagopplaeringsboka 2004, Oslo: Kommuneforlaget 2004 (in Norwegian)
  • Eggerer, Elmar W.: Sworn Brethren and Sistren - Britische Gilden und Zünfte von der normannischen Eroberung bis 1603, München 1993 (in German)
  • Söderlund, Ernst: Den svenska arbetarklassens historia - Hantverkarna II frihetstiden och den gustavianska tiden Stockholm 1949 (in Swedish)
  • Rouche, Michel, "Private life conquers state and society," in A History of Private Life vol I, Paul Veyne, editor, Harvard University Press 1987 ISBN 0-674-39974-9

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