Debates - Guilds

What role did guilds play in human capital formation?


In medieval and early modern economies, the transfer of skills and technical knowledge took place on the shop floor, either at home or under the roof of another master (see De Munck and Soly, 2007). If the latter, learning was based on an oral or written agreement between a master and (the parents or guardians of) an apprentice. In it, both parties agreed on the term of the contract, the price and payment modalities and additional clauses concerning breach of contract (absconding, sickness, death etc.), boarding and lodging, clothing and laundry, leisure time and discipline et cetera (Kaplan; Reith, 1989; De Munck, 2007b, 41-58). Given the large flexibility and possible informal norms and rules that may have embedded these agreements, this may have been an efficient system. As a result, the question of the added value of guild-rules related to apprenticeship – a fixed term to serve, a standardized master piece and entry fees – has haunted historians.

While apprenticeship as it was installed by the guilds was traditionally seen as a backward system geared towards rent-seeking and the exclusive intentions of established masters, historians have recently argued that it may have enhanced economic efficiency and stimulated economic growth (e.g. Epstein, 1998; Humphries, 2003). Stephan R. Epstein (1998) in particular has argued that the guilds’ apprenticeship system may have stimulated apprentices and masters to invest in training. While apprentices needed adequate training and were liable to be exploited as cheap labour, masters needed to be assured against absconding apprentices in order to recover the cost of training after the initial learning stages. Were master pieces and fixed terms to serve an answer to this? Following Epstein (and Humphries) guilds had contract-enforcing effects for several reasons. Guilds not only installed fixed terms to serve and vested masters with the legal prerogatives of fathers, but they also stimulated apprentices to serve their contract by means of entry fees (which allegedly served as bonds) and end-term rewards (i.e. a privileged entrance to the labour market or to the guild itself).

Questions remain, however. Apart from the lack of empirical evidence and the difficulty of measuring both ‘economic efficiency’ and breach of contract (De Munck and Soly, 2007, 8-10; Wallis, 2008), there is the difficulty of determining the optimal length of the term and the features of the master piece in a context of flexible labour markets, growing specialization and unstable boundaries between general, transferable and specific skills. Whenever a wide range of specializations existed in a given trade and guild-based masters wished to attract (specialized) skills from elsewhere (rather then to produce them themselves), the price of a fixed and mandatory term and a standardized master piece was flexibility and attractiveness (De Munck, 2007b, 114-26). Moreover, guilds may have served exclusive goals after all (Ogilvie 2007; 2008; also De Munck, 2007a; 2010a) albeit that this, in turn, does not necessarily exclude increased economic efficiency – or some economic effects may have been unintended.

The role of the Chinese guilds in human capital formation is not quite comparable to that of the European guilds, at least as far as formalized guild regulations are concerned. When apprenticeship is mentioned, they most often refer to the terms of apprenticeship and forbid the acceptance of more than one apprentice at a time. They did so in order to curb the numbers of trained practicioners in a trade and restrict the access of proprietors to half-skilled, cheap labour. However, this does not mean that know-how was not transferred within the guilds. From twentieth-century interviews with craftspeople, we know that technical knowledge was also transmitted in guilds, but orally and manually rather than in writing.

Masterpieces or other formalized examinations were not demanded by Chinese guilds, but bad craftsmanship could be and was sanctioned. 



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