Debates - Guilds

Did guilds trade their sociability for professionalization? What were the consequences?


It would seem that a correlation exists between the decline of conviviality within guilds and their popularity, or in any case an increase in the number of foundations. For example mid seventeenth century, the number of foundations of craft guilds in the Northern Low Countries boomed. At the same time, their level of sociability had never been lower. Can a relation be found between these two trends? Can we see the same relation in other countries than the Dutch Republic? There, after the Reformation, joint religious praise and devotional activities fell from grace and its funds were directed towards mutual aid. Without joint religious activities and with the new protestant values of soberheid (austerity), joint meals and other forms of sociability started to attract less people. Apparently, other ways were found for fulfilling social needs of the urban middle class. These changes turned the guild into an economic instrument. Craft guilds organized (formalized) training, regulated the labour market, advocated the economic interests of its occupational group and, on top of that, provided the possibility of mutual aid insurance in times of need. We should investigate whether the increase of the number of foundations of guilds was related to a change from social to economic (and bureaucratic?) functions. Was conviviality now sought outside of guild networks? And did the economic functions attract more people to the guild structure, or was it simply the booming economy that provided for an increase in the foundation of guilds?

Recent research in any case suggests that the Reformation alone cannot explain the shift towards ‘businesslike’ institutional arrangements. In the (catholic) Southern Netherlands as well, participation in collective activities declined. While guild-based master were increasingly absent from collective activities such as masses and processions, the celebration of the patron saint and the burial of a fellow master, collective meals were converted into additional entrance fees. As early as the sixteenth century, there was a trade off between, on the one hand, conviviality and the cultivation of a collective identity, and, on the other, pecuniary mechanisms geared towards mutual aid and insurance. The foundation of so-called poor boxes was for example related to the disappearance of ritualized collective events such as meals and the (yearly) distribution of peas (De Munck 2009, 2010b, 5-9).

This shift may have been connected to a dwindling equality and solidarity within guilds. While subcontracting and concentration trends often increased in phases of economic and demographic expansion, a gap between the ‘top’ and the ‘bottom’ in the trade as an organization tended to materialize (Farr, 2000, 160-4). Not only could directorships be reserved for certain families or for the most powerful masters (in economic or political terms), but masters could also be excluded from certain activities, which were then reserved for the board. In the Southern Netherlands, an increasing social tension between large and small masters was accompanied with a certain ‘fiscalization of solidarity’. While rules related to company size were relaxed (so that concentration trends stopped being hampered), large masters were sometimes required to pay yearly taxes (to the guild or the poor box) relative to their output or the input of labour (De Munck, 2009, 182-6).

Perhaps in the long run, the attitude towards ‘communities’ and ‘corpora’ changed as such. Recent research suggests that guilds stopped being ‘substitute families’ in the early modern period. While apprentices declined from lodging with their master and training tended to become detached from upbringing and socialization, master sons stopped being born into the guild and started to become subject to the same entry requirements as outsiders were. In other words, masters stopped acting as surrogate fathers, and the close link between family and the ‘corps’ disappeared (De Munck, 2010b; see also Griessinger and Reith, 1986; Reith, 2007).



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