Association of craftsmen or merchants formed for mutual aid and for the advancement of their professional interests. Guilds flourished in Europe between the 11th and 16th century and were of two types: merchant guilds, including all the merchants of a particular town or city; and craft guilds, including all the craftsmen in a particular branch of industry (e.g., weavers, painters, goldsmiths). Their functions included establishing trade monopolies, setting standards for quality of goods, maintaining stable prices, and gaining leverage in local governments in order to further the interests of the guild. Craft guilds also established hierarchies of craftsmen based on level of training (e.g., masters, journeymen, and apprentices).
Learn more about guild with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A guild is an association of craftsmen in a particular trade. The earliest guilds were formed as confraternities of workers.
During the Indian Gupta-period (300 - 600 AD) Indian craftmen's associations, which may have had archaic antecedents, were known as shreni. ia and Benin, separate guilds developed for professional dancers, mask carvers, and musicians associated with egungun ancestral masquerade performances often regarded as the predecessor to the traveling Alarinjo theatre. Guild also can be seen in tantra. like: †eambisaya.
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.
Tld 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.
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 10 shillings 1/2 denarius), 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.
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.
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):
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.
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. If anything, guilds were more like cartels than they were like trade unions (Olson 1982). 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 exist in different forms around the world. In many European countries guilds have had a revival as local organizations 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, Writers Guild of America, East and the Writers Guild of America, west are capable of exercising very strong control in Hollywood because a very strong and rigid system of intellectual property rights exists. 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. The Newspaper Guild is a labor union for journalists and other newspaper workers, with over 30,000 members in North 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 behavior 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.
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, geology, 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 1878 the London Livery companies established the City and Guilds of London Institute the forerunner of the engineering school (still called City and Guilds college) at Imperial College London. The aim of the City and Guilds of London Institute was the Advancement of Technical Education. Today City and Guilds is an examining and accreditation body for vocational, managerial and engineering qualifications from entry level craft and trade skills up to post doctoral achievement.
In Australia there exists the Guild of Commercial Filmmakers, a collection of commercial, short film and feature filmmakers.