Debates - Guilds

Why did craftsmen (and -women) start organizing into guilds?


The raison d'être is one of the most interesting questions to explore in any research, be it into guilds or other institutions of collective action, mostly because of the large variety of arguments available for the underlying reasoning as to why people would organize into guilds (Cf. Thrupp, 1971; Epstein, 1991). Organization into guilds had some obvious advantages. In the early middle ages, merchants were the first to discover these advantages and the first to organize into guilds as a means to spread risks evenly, to pool information and capital and for protection from predatory feudal rulers (see: Greif, Milgrom, and Weingast, 1994; Gelderblom and Grafe, 2010). In small markets, guild structure provided an institutionalization of the bargaining process, giving a higher degree of certainty and predictability to outcomes, as well as diminishing the transaction costs in negotiations. Thus the organization and transaction costs of guild membership would be low and the returns would be high (Persson, 1988, 41-54). In large markets, transaction costs for merchants organized in guilds were much higher, but these costs were countered – until a certain point – by the other advantages the guilds offered: protection from the arbitrariness of rulers and a lesser change of deceit by fellow merchants (Gelderblom and Grafe, 2010).

For craftsmen, guilds provided a means to control output quality both ex ante and ex post. On the one hand skill-levels were sanctioned by means of mandatory apprenticeship terms and master pieces; on the other hand the quality of the finished products was tested by having it inspected by the deans or elders – either in the guild hall or via their right to visit the masters’ workshops (Gustafsson, 1991; Epstein, 1998; De Munck, 2007a; 2008). Market transparency was further enhanced by the use of trademarks, which helped selling imperfect substitutes and creating a certain ‘brand loyalty’ (Munro, 1990; 2003; De Munck 2007b, 236-42; Richardson, 2008). Moreover, guilds may have increased the creation of human capital. As they provided a stable framework for the transfer of skills and technical knowledge and as their labour market monopsony enabled masters and apprentices alike to recover the cost of learning, they may have stimulated investment in training. (Prak, 2006, 5-7; Epstein, 1998; Humphries, 2003; De Munck, 2007b, 114-26; Wallis, 2008). Still, guild-based masters and their officials my have been driven by other motives, such as rent-seeking and the exclusion of outsiders. (Ogilvie, 2007; 2008; also: Epstein, 2008; De Munck and Soly, 2007).

Guilds should in any case be addressed from extra-economic perspectives as well. They offered conviviality, a sense of social prestige and mutual aid in times of need, and supplied in a need of association outside kin circles. Katherine A. Lynch (2003) for example interestingly links community building to the so-called ‘nuclear hardship’-thesis of Peter Laslett. She argues that the absence of strong family ties in urban environments created a need for conviviality and mutual aid, which was met through the creation of associations such as confraternities and guilds. Religion was an important factor in this process. While the church contributed through the dogma of free consent to a sense of individual autonomy, religious communities of all sorts (cloisters, beguinages etc.) may have served as examples and forerunners. Richardson and McBride (2006) have in any case asserted that in the fourteenth century, religion in combination with high mortality rates was a strong incentive to organize into guilds. It combined the advantages of occupational organization with those of religious security (a sort of religious insurance). The promotion of purgatory by the church and high mortality rates caused by the plague and other epidemics made guilds bundle together religious and occupational activities (Richardson and McBride, 2006).

In the Chinese case, the rise of huiguan stands in conjunction with self-organization and mobility, and hence, with all the requirements of non-locals in a new environment: shelter, food, entertainment — especially theatrical performances, communication in one’s own dialect (or language), and access to information about commodity and labour markets. As in England, burial played an important role in guild formation, though the reasons were different: since the ideal case was considered being buried in one’s home place, help in funerary affairs stood high on the agenda of the guild houses. Many of them operated cemeteries where the remains of the deceased might be laid to rest temporarily or permanently (Rowe, 1984).

From the point of view of the authorities, native-place associations were an instrument for controlling and monitoring people that were not registered with the local administrations; however, smaller groups often felt that the advantages official recognition brought were not worth the effort it took to obtain the registration (Rowe, 1984, 258). This did not keep them from associating, but it can explain why some of their activities remained informal.



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