Guilds from the Ancient to Medieval Worlds

Relief from the Collegium of the Fabri Tignarii showing a work scene in a carpenter’s shop, late first century CE, from the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, Centrale Montemartini, Rome. / Wikimedia Commons

Guilds secured the monopoly and the commerce of the cities, controlling the various activities and selling all kinds of goods.

Already in the Roman era, associations of people practicing the same trade are attested: in the first century, they actively participated in the political life of the city (as shown by the electoral graffiti of Pompeii), but later, they represented a rather effective instrument of local control for the imperial power. These were particularly important in Ostia, the port of Rome.

Such associations were called collegia (in the singular Latin form, collegium). Unlike medieval corporations, they consisted mainly of entrepreneurs and had the main task of defending their interests with the authorities.

Under the emperor Diocletian, hereditary guilds for workers and artisans were created and made mandatory, guaranteeing social stability after the profound transformations brought about by the crisis of the third century. These associations were called collegia opificum.

The term ‘guild’ is of uncertain origin. It probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon gylta, ‘sacrifice’.  ‘Guild’ is one of the many terms used in the Middle Ages to describe associations that represented professional groups. There existed a variety of guilds such as the guilds of craft, arts, trades, and so on.

Guilds can be traced back to Germanic customs prior to the introduction of Christianity. Members with high status within the guilds had some responsibilities such as that of avenging the murder of another member of the guild and persecuting the murderer until they paid a fee. This practice was not present in the Roman collegia and such behaviour was clearly contrary to Christian teachings.

In 779, Charlemagne forbade the ‘diabolical guilds’ of the Saxons. With these words, he was perhaps alluding to some pagan practices, which implied forms of solidarity that manifested itself by mixing their blood and drinking it together. Thanks to Charlemagne’s statement, we know that these associations existed in some regions of Germany in the 8th century for religious and mutual defence purposes. Such associations were introduced to England in the ninth century and had the same purposes. Members met every month at a banquet where issues of common interest were discussed: they were obliged to perform particular services for the wellbeing of the soul of their deceased colleagues and to avenge the offences committed against any other member of the association. The oldest statutes of Anglo-Saxon guilds, dating back to the beginning of the century 11th, confirm that they were a mixture of religion, mutual assistance, and solidarity that fought for the repression of crime and to avenge any offences. The members would meet either annually, every six months, or every four months and during their meetings they would pray and participate in a joint meal. They also assisted each other in case of illness, travel, or fire damage; and they participated in the funeral services of deceased colleagues.

Guilds, i.e. professional and trade associations arose and spread in communal Europe starting from the 11th century with various names: corporations or arts or companies in Italy, guilds in England, the Netherlands and in Germany, confréries in France, and gremios in Spain.

The guilds, initially of a religious nature and of mutual assistance, developed from the 11th century in England, Sweden, the Netherlands and in Germany as merchant associations.

Guilds secured the monopoly and the commerce of the cities, controlling the various activities and selling all kinds of goods both wholesale and retail. Merchants who were not members of the guild could only sell their products in bulk and were subject to special restrictions. For example, they were required to pay special taxes to the feudal lord or the city, whereas the guild paid annually for all its members, who were also exempt from other city taxes. During the 14th century, the guilds lost their economic importance following the decline of the municipalities, and those that survived turned into religious associations again.

The Danish guilds had very similar characteristics to those of the Anglo-Saxon guilds: they were based on solidarity. The sick had to be watched over and accompanied back to their homes; they also had to solve any conflicts between members, and had to help a member who killed a foreigner to escape.

The earliest records of merchant and artisan guilds date back much more recently. The merchant guild is documented for the first time in England in the paper granted to the bourgeois of Burford (1087-1107) and in Flanders; in the charter granted by Count Baldwin and Countess Richilde to the Guild of Valenciennes in 1167; and in another paper of the 12th century approving the statutes of the guild of Saint-Omer.

The first guilds of craftsmen or guilds of trade appeared in England, between 1100 and 1133, under the reign of Henry I (weavers of Oxford, Huntington, London; fullers of Winchester). In northern Germany, the first guilds of trade met about the same time (weavers of Mainz, 1099; fishermen of Worms, at the end of the 11th century).

Throughout the 12th century, very little information has been preserved related to the mercantile and artisan guilds. Once again, these guilds not only helped its sick members, but it also assisted them on every occasion, it honoured the memory of deceased confreres, it took charge of raising their children and sometimes even gave them a dowry. In some institutions, members even achieved a pension (this was available in some Italian corporations, for example, in Venice) and was possible for the oldest members unable to work. Likewise, the religious guilds intended to ensure harmony and solidarity among its members: those who attempted to harm the reputation or interests of a confrere were fined.

In the 13th century, the economic function of the guilds fully developed and it became clear that its main purpose was that of regulating labour and professional relationships, avoiding the damage of competition among members of the same guild, and protecting them against competition with foreigners. As a matter of fact, it aimed to suppress competition entirely through the creation of a monopoly.

In Italy, guilds were born in the early 12th century and spread especially in the municipalities of central and northern Italy, particularly in Florence.

These guilds, which in Italian were referred to as ‘corporations’ (corporazioni), were divided into ‘major arts’ (which included merchants, bankers, judges and notaries, doctors) and ‘minor arts’ (artisans and merchants). Such guilds profoundly influenced the economic and political organisation of the cities and the professions.

Generally, the members of an art were divided into three classes: masters, apprentices, labourers, who performed the simplest tasks and did not require a particular skill. The master owned the raw materials and tools and sold the goods produced in his own workshop. The apprentices and the boys lived in the master’s house. In general, apprentices received no compensation other than maintenance.

Dyers, who were initially not recognised within any guild, attempted an uprising in Florence (Tumulto dei Ciompi, 1378), which led to the formation of the art of the Ciompi. However, the fall of Michele di Lando, who had guided them, coincided with a new defeat of these categories of workers. At the end of the century, only the major arts who had a say in the economic and political world were recognised. Such guilds comprised the mercantile and banking families.

Corporations promoted the interests of its members above all in two ways: protecting them from the competition of other cities and from that of the professionals of the same city not belonging to the corporation. The corporation controlled compliance with its statutes with careful and continuous supervision of the shops. Corporations were an important force in European political life from the 12th to the 14th century.

In France and Flanders, in the 12th and 13th centuries, corporations were often on the verge of taking over the reins of city government. However, in the 14th century, corporations began to compete with the aristocratic or mercantile elites of the cities for power and, in some cities, gradually managed to obtain the municipal government.

In the 15th century, the power of corporations began to decline. The main cause of the decline and subsequent disappearance of the guilds was the birth, in the 16th century, of a new and more dynamic mode of production and distribution: the capitalist one. The figure of the merchant entrepreneur was born: he was able to buy the raw material, have it processed by employees and to market it directly.

Capitalism favoured the production of large-scale goods, competition between producers on various markets and a wide distribution of goods. Since the corporations were opposed to these three principles, the capitalists generally established their activities in centres where these did not exist. Unable to produce goods as quickly and economically as capitalist enterprises, even for their own local markets, corporations experienced a slow decline.


  • Grafe, Regina; Gelderblom, Oscar (Spring 2010). “The Rise and Fall of the Merchant Guilds: Re-thinking the Comparative Study of Commercial Institutions in Premodern Europe”. Journal of Interdisciplinary History40 (4): 477–511.
  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh (May 2004). “Guilds, efficiency, and social capital: evidence from German proto-industry”. Economic History Review57 (2): 286–333.
  • Weyrauch, Thomas (1999). Craftsmen and their Associations in Asia, Africa and Europe. VVB Laufersweiler.

Originally published by School History, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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