Debates - Guilds

What was the political position of guilds?


From a political perspective, guilds differed substantially across regions. Especially where they were established early on (i.e., the most urbanized regions) their political functions were quite impressive. In cities and city states of Northern Italy, Germany (along the Rhine) and the Southern Netherlands (especially Flanders and Brabant), they often succeeded in seizing part of local political power. Part of the seats in the local councils was then reserved for the guilds’ representatives, so that guild based masters could elect urban magistrates (directly or indirectly) (Epstein, 1991, 50-101; Farr, 2000, 159-84; Prak, 2006). Obtaining and defending these rights bears witness to a related function of guilds, namely the military one. Up and including at least the fifteenth century, guilds were military organisations that defended their own interests, the interests of the city and perhaps even the interests of central states and princes, depending on the circumstances (e.g. Boone and Prak, 1996). The guilds’ political ambitions were reflected in their discourses (both discursive and visual). Guilds are said to have appropriated and cultivated republican ideas, i.e. ideas on the political participation, autonomy and virtue of burghers as political subjects. (Schilling, 1992; Prak, 1996; 1997) These ideas are in part communitarian and related to the strive for independence of both guilds and cities as communities (or corpora) (see also Blickle, 1991; 2000).

Yet, as Antony Black (1984; 2003) has convincingly argued, the communitarian ‘guild ethos’ was paralleled (as early as the twelfth century) with values reflecting more of a so-called ‘civil society’. While a guild ethos was based upon ideals such as confraternity, friendship and mutual aid, a civil society was associated rather with legal equality, personal freedom and property, and individual independence. This tendency to link medieval and early modern confraternities and guilds to a ‘modern’ civil society is tributary to the renowned sociologist Robert Putnam, who argued in favour of the late medieval urban organisations (in Northern Italy) as the cradle of the modern civil society (and hence, as a precondition for well-functioning liberal democracies). According to Putnam (1992; also: 2000), associations created a framework for the creation of social capital and promoted participation in economic and political activities. Their ability to generate mutual trust enabled individuals to practice democratic social conventions and decision-making processes.

However, civil society is considered a sphere separate from both ‘the narrow confines of household or family’ and ‘formal political life’ (Lynch, 2003) and is thus difficult to square with guilds, which were firmly rooted in the public as well as the private sphere (in contrast to religious confraternities). Guilds after all were not only entangled with local political power, but through the figure of the master – who is said to have acted as a surrogate father to apprentices – they also straddled the public and the private sphere (De Munck, 2010b). Moreover, as does the economic perspective, this political perspective tends to result in a view that is both normative and a-historical (De Munck, 2010d). One of the major challenges for historians is to link current political and economic perspectives to ‘old-fashioned’ debates such as state-formation and secularisation. In the long run, guilds may have transformed from confraternities and brotherhoods (providing mutual aid and collective devotion) in juridical and bureaucratised instruments for economic regulation and social insurance (De Munck 2009; 2010b). To the extent that this implies a shift from informal to formal regulations, the very establishment of guilds may signal a decline in brotherhood, rather than the existence of some sort of social capital. See also: ‘Did guilds trade their sociability for professionalization? What were the consequences?’ .



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