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Guild, an association of people who have similar interests in a craft, business, or profession; the purpose of the association is mutual aid and protection. The term is particularly applied to two types of such association that flourished in continental Europe and Great Britain during the Middle Ages: the merchant guild or guild merchant, and the craft guild, sometimes known as the trade guild or trade corporation.


These guilds began on the European continent in the 11th century and in Britain after the Norman Conquest. The guild arose as a consequence of the growth in that century both of commerce and of urban communities. Merchants travelled from market to market in foreign countries, and, for the sake of mutual protection, a group of merchants from the same city often banded together in a caravan. The members of a caravan elected a leader and made rules that they were pledged to obey. In addition to prescribing duties for defence against physical attack, the rules obliged the members to stand by each other in legal disputes in which any might engage. The name for such a caravan was Gilde or Hansa in the Germanic countries of Europe; in the countries speaking languages derived from Latin the term was caritas or fraternitas. Frequently the members of a hansa or fraternitas remained in close association after they had made the return journey to their city. Such an association then began to assume rights and privileges in regard to the trade of the municipality or community. These rights might have been conferred by a feudal lord or, in later times and in cities free from feudal control, by the city itself.

In time the merchant guild gained a monopoly over the entire industry and commerce of the city, supervising the various crafts, and selling, at both wholesale and retail, all the goods manufactured in the city. Merchants who were not members of such a guild were also permitted to sell goods, but only at wholesale, and were subject, in business transactions, to many special restrictions from which the members of the guild were free; for example, the non-member was forced to pay special dues to the feudal lord or to the city, but the guild paid the dues annually for all its members, who also enjoyed freedom from other municipal taxes. The merchant guild was usually composed of the richest merchants of the city and acquired considerable political influence, often becoming vested with the power of administration of some of the municipal functions. A merchant guild sometimes admitted to membership merchants of other cities; as a result, merchant guilds occasionally developed that monopolized the commerce of several cities.


The merchant guilds subsequently declined and by the 14th century had almost completely disappeared. The principal cause of their elimination from economic life was the rise of craft guilds, which included in their membership all those engaged in any particular craft, and which monopolized the making and selling of a particular product within the cities in which they were organized. As the various craftsmen of a city organized into craft guilds, the merchant guild of that city was gradually deprived of its power to regulate the commerce of that municipality and in time ceased to function altogether. Where the merchant guilds were strongly entrenched in the municipal governments, they also came into conflict with the strong national governments that were coming into being towards the end of the medieval period and frequently yielded their powers to these governments.


An organization known as a craft guild in Britain and as corporation de métier in France, arte in Italy, and Zünft or Innung in Germany, came into existence about the beginning of the 12th century. In general, the craft guild arose when a group of artisans, imitating the example of the merchants of the city, decided to unite for mutual benefit. In some instances, a group that had organized originally for religious purposes, and that had drawn its membership entirely from the artisans of one craft, began to stress aid for the economic rather than the religious needs of its members, and in time became a full-fledged craft guild. By the middle of the 12th century, craft guilds had been established in all parts of Western Europe. In some cities, the individual worker was permitted the right to join or remain out of the guild in his craft. In others, a guild would purchase from the municipality or the royal government the right to control its branch of industry, and in such instances, everyone who desired to follow his trade in that particular city was compelled to join the guild. The members of a craft guild were divided into three classes: masters, apprentices, and journeymen. The master, who was a small-scale proprietor, owned the raw material and the tools and sold the goods manufactured in his shop for his own profit. The apprentices and journeymen lived in the master’s house. The apprentices, who were beginners in the trade and learned it under the direction of the master, usually received only their board in return for the work they did. After an apprentice had completed his training he became a journeyman and was paid a fixed wage for his labour. In time a journeyman might become a master. Because it was to the advantage of those who were already masters not to increase their own number, the conditions under which a journeyman might become a master were always made difficult. After the 14th century, the requirements became so severe that it was virtually impossible for any journeyman to become a master.

In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries journeymen organized into associations of their own, the object of which was to obtain better wages and working conditions from the masters. In England, such associations were known as journeyman or yeoman guilds, and in France as compagnonnages. They succeeded, sometimes by means of strikes, in somewhat improving working conditions and pay, but on the whole, they did not greatly improve the economic status of their class. Because of their defence of the rights of labour, their strong control over the members, and the benefits provided, the journeyman guilds are considered the forerunners of the modern trade union.


The craft guild was important in the life of the medieval city, closely affecting the economic welfare of both artisans and consumers. It sought to aid artisans in two principal ways: by protecting against the competition of artisans in the same trade in other cities, and by protecting from the possible competition of fellow citizens working in other shops belonging to the same trade. The guild accomplished the first aim by monopolizing its trade in the city, thus permitting no goods from other cities to be imported for sale. It fulfilled the second by establishing uniform hours for all shops making the same goods, and uniform wages for workers in the same industry. To prevent any one master from obtaining an advantage over another, the guild decreed how many people were to be employed in each shop, the number of tools to be used, the hours of labour, and the prices the master could charge for his finished goods. The guild enforced its rules by constant and close supervision of the shops. No master was permitted to advertise his goods, lest he attracts more business than another master. Any improvement in the technique of production, which might enable one shop to produce goods more quickly and cheaply than another, was likewise prohibited. The aim of the craft guild was to create complete equality among the members of each of the three classes into which it was divided. Consumers benefited from the existence of the craft guild chiefly because of the high standards of the guild set up for finished work, although they were deprived of the possibility of lower prices from improved methods of production and from competition in selling.

The craft guilds were an important force in the economic life of Europe from the 12th to the 15th century. In France and Flanders in the 12th and 13th centuries, they frequently threatened to seize control of municipal governments. To weaken the guilds, some municipalities deprived them of many privileges, including the right to regulate industries. In the 14th century, nevertheless, the guilds began to compete with the rich merchants of the cities for the right to govern. In some cities, the guilds actually succeeded in taking over the municipal government completely. In Liège, in 1384, for example, the municipal council was composed entirely of representatives from the 32 craft guilds of that city.


In the 15th century, however, the power of the craft guilds began to decline. They became subject to the internal tensions described above, between masters and journeymen. They were also subjected to much criticism and sometimes to action by public authorities because of the restrictions they placed upon industrial activity and freedom of labour. The chief cause, however, of the decline and eventual disappearance of the craft guilds was the rise in the 16th century of a new system for producing and distributing, capitalism. This new economic system stressed large-scale production of goods, competition for markets between producers, and wide distribution of goods. Inasmuch as the craft guild was inclined against all three principles, capitalists generally established their shops in centres where no craft guilds existed. The latter, unable to produce goods even for their own local markets as quickly or cheaply as did the capitalistic enterprises, were slowly forced out of existence. In 1776 Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, controller general of finance for Louis XVI of France, abolished all but four of the craft guilds in order to permit workers freely to offer their services to employers, and during the French Revolution, all guilds were abolished. Prussia and other German states abolished the German craft guilds at the beginning of the 19th century, and those craft guilds that still remained in Great Britain were abolished by acts of Parliament in 1814 and 1835.

The term guild is still in considerable use today. It is applied to associations of various kinds, for example, associations for charitable work and organizations formed to promote various cultural activities, such as music and the drama; and to certain labour organizations. It is also applied to a type of modern socialism, guild socialism.