Saturday, October 28, 2017

What were the Guilds?

The Syndics of the Draper's Guild by Rembrandt
“Bird of the same feather, flock together.”

A common saying but same can be said in the Medieval Age when men of the same crafts come together to form an organization called a guild. A guild was a community of craftsmen (e.g. masons, butchers, tanners, blacksmiths, etc.) from the same field or merchants that provided mutual assistance and protection, governed by laws and a strict hierarchy, and maintained standard quality of goods and services as well as market stability.

History and Structure

The guilds traced its history back in Rome where there existed groups of craftsmen called Collegia. The collegias grew to become an influential institution in the economy that Emperor Diocletian even attempted to make their position hereditary. When Rome fell in the 5th century, the Collegia endured in the eastern half of the Empire – the Byzantine Empire– where they even became the subject of a book on commerce called the Book of the Prefect during the 900’s.

In the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, where lawlessness, feudalism, and lack of central power haunted Europe, the guilds appeared. They flourished in towns and cities, which served as centers of economic activity and therefore a market for different crafts. 2 types of guilds appear – merchant and craft.

The merchant guilds appeared as a means to provide travelling caravans with protection from bandits and robbers. Eventually, the banding of merchants moved further from protection to assistance to members who were in need.

Craft guilds grew following the merchant guilds. Like the merchant guilds, they provided assistance and support to members. For instance, a guild rented or buy a workshop where its members could work or purchase raw materials in bulk for lower cost. Guilds also provided aids to its members in case of death of a relative or injury.

A strict hierarchy and laws and a democratic form of government ruled a guild. 3 tiers formed the hierarchy of a guild – the masters in the top, the journeymen in the middle, and the apprentices in the bottom.

The apprentice served as the entry level in a guild. It provided opportunity to young boys, usually right after 10 years old, from any background, even serfs, to learn a trade and earn a decent living. They lived and worked for free under a master who would share his expertise. The works of an apprentice, however, never saw the market as master deemed their works as inferior. After 5 to 7 years or more depending on the field of training, an apprentice moved up to the level of a journeyman.

A journeyman formed the middle tier of a guild hierarchy. At this point they worked for wages to make a living and their works sold in the market. However, profits from their works went to the masters as means of payment for the training and expenses incurred during their apprenticeship. Journeymen sometimes commanded great influence within the organization. If the conditions of their labor proved to be difficult, they banded together to get better conditions - a form of early collective bargaining. A journeymen continued his training until such time he creates a masterpiece. If the masterpiece passed the judgment of the masters, the masters elevated the journeyman as their peer.

Finally, the masters deemed as the experts in the field and governed the top echelons of the guild. They handled the training of apprentices, managed the guild’s administration, and elected the guild master or the mayor. If the guild was bigger and covered different towns and cities, each sector voted an alderman who with other aldermen voted the guild master.

Laws governed the guild for the welfare of its members, the stability of their market, and the quality of their outputs. There were laws that dictated the holidays, wages, working hours, and prohibition from overtime, which came from belief that any production made during night as inferior. It also managed the stability of the market such as the prices of their goods and services and the projects that they undertake. Most importantly, the laws of the guild aimed in maintaining quality. Each guild set a standard that all their members must abide. Any output lower than the standard, they destroyed. To know which master or journeyman produced what, the guilds promoted the placing of a mark or signature in a work.

Besides quality, the guild laws also maintained the secrecy of their trade secret. Each guild had one and the masters teach this to their apprentice. It may be a technique or a recipe. Trade secrets gave a guild its edge against its competitor. And so, they barred foreigners from joining to prevent their secrets reaching foreign competitors or prohibiting their members from staying for too long or even going abroad.

All laws of the guild were oversaw by inspectors of the guild. Any violation meant a fine. If there were any dispute, members went to the guild courts for arbitration or judgment.

Privileges, Power, and Influence

With great wealth from the goods and services they provided, guilds amassed power and influence usually knights, nobles, and royalty wielded.

Guilds commanded great influence over cities and towns, but they managed to expand that influence by communicating with other guilds. Small guilds from different cities sometimes banded together to create a larger guild. Thus, this larger guild wielded more influence and bore more impact in the economic life of a kingdom.
Bath Guildhall, 1864
They also became monopolies dominating the trade they specialized. They prohibit non-guild members from engaging in the trade. Guild members performed their trade after they received a license from the guild which served as their group membership certificate as well as authorization to perform the task.

Their economic stranglehold later gave them political powers. Some guild assemblies later elevated themselves to the position of city council. While other larger guilds received royal approval to become self-governing entities, a sort of a state without a country. They ruled themselves with great autonomy and their rules sanctioned as lawful by kings.

Wielding great political and economic influence, guilds flaunted it in every way they can. Great guilds created their own coat of arms that usually only the higher echelons of medieval society possessed. They also their own patron saint. They build great guild houses that housed a hall for their council sessions and banquets for the members, where they hired musicians to perform. They commissioned artworks and performers to delight members and visitors of the guild houses. They issued uniforms called livery to their members that they wore during meetings, adding pomp in the guild’s activities.

Besides the promotion of their wealth and affluence, guilds also did charity works. They financed the establishment of schools and hospitals. They sponsored religious festivities. They gave back to the community.

Criticism and Fall of the Guilds

Guilds dominated the economic life of the Medieval Age. It provided safety to merchants and craftsmen as well as standard quality products and services, but it faced criticisms with its practice of exclusivity and lack of innovation. Eventually, the rise of modern economy led to guilds becoming obsolete.

For centuries, guild continued to be part of the social fabric of European society. During the renaissance it became the stepping stone for many artist like Leonardo Da Vinci under the guild master Verrocchio. In the 17th century, guilds became so vital in the economy that the French finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, relied on them in enforcing his new standards for different industry, especially in textile.
The Haarlem Painter's Guild by Jan de Bray
But the guilds also earned criticism from being repressive as well as backward. In the spirit of creating an equal level playing field for its members, they banned the use of new technologies unless all members could use and afford it. They limited the number of members they accepted to control the price of their trade by controlling the supply. This with their monopoly, it restricted men from entering a trade freely. Soon enough, the guild itself became a hereditary clique. Masters made their sons and relatives enter as apprentices and climb up as masters. Nepotism grew and the guilds equaled to an economic aristocracy. Karl Marx even pointed in the Communist Manifesto that the relation between a master and a journeyman paralleled that of an oppressor and oppressed.

Eventually the rise of modern economy led to the decline and fall of the guilds. Stock companies overtook the guilds in wealth and influence. The ideas of capitalism along with free trade and laissez faire attacked the principle of regulation and monopoly of guilds. Alas, the Revolution in 1791 led to the series of abolition of guilds. France abolished guilds in 1791. Spain followed 50 years later and then Austria and Germany in 1860 and Italy in 1864.

Summing Up

Guilds were vital part of the medieval world. They started by protecting merchants from bandits and provided support to many craftsman. They developed into an institution with leadership, officials, and ranks that commanded wealth, power, and influence in politics, society, and economy. Their wealth shown by the privileges they received, the charities they did, and the works and buildings they commissioned. They became an avenue of opportunity for many coming from non-noble birth. Like the Medieval Communes, they showed self-government work. They grew from a support group for craftsmen to influential town councils and even partners for economic progress. 

But they were also not exempted from criticisms. In the name of equality, they stifled economic progress and competition. They monopolized trade and services leaving other non-members searching for means of leaving. Eventually, the rise of Capitalism and free market competition led to the demise of the guilds. Nonetheless, the sense of strength they showed through their unity and the support and protection they provided to their members transcend guilds and remained to be objectives of trade organizations and cooperatives of today.



Lawler, Jennifer.Encyclopedia of Women in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, 2008.

Johnston, Ruth. All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011.


"Guilds." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early World. Accessed on October 28, 2017. URL: 

The Editors of Britannica Encyclopedia. "guild." Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Accessed on October 28, 2017. URL:

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