Skip to main content
Select Source:




Gild studies form one of the more obvious links between history and the social sciences. Originating in nineteenth-century romantic interest in early Germanic institutions and the theme of liberty, they have played into three lines of speculation about the role of voluntary associations in societal development. The first began with controversy over the respective influence of “Germanist” theory based on the right to associate freely and of the Romanist theory that the right to associate is a concession from the prince. [See the biographies ofGierkeandSavignyfor discussion of these theories and the controversy.] This general dialectic is still being reformulated as a fundamental theoretical element in studies of ecclesiastical influence on the philosophy of law and in studies of the development of representative institutions. Research on this last subject is now, under the direction of an international commission, strongly comparative. But it focuses on the wider political communities of medieval and early modern Europe rather than on the smaller associations, which, to social anthro pology, would be of at least equal significance. From the start, however, a second line of thought linked these with the elementary bonds of kinship, seeing them at first as an effort to transcend kin ship loyalties and later as partially reverting to them. Research on this problem has lagged, although there are signs of its revival in France and Italy. A third line of thought, prominent in much of the better social history written in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and now revived by the influence of twentieth-century sociology, is concerned with nonpolitical aspects of the social controls that small associations may have exercised.

The tendency now is to interpret the term “gild” —the variant spelling “guild” is from the seventeenth century—as applying only to occupational associations. This was not the original sense of the word. It was specific only in signifying that members were under the obligation to “geld,” that is, to make payments for purposes agreed upon. Through out the Middle Ages, it was also synonymous with fraternitas—definable as a pseudo-kinship group of a character in principle congenial to Christianity. Since contemporary terminology varied from one period and one area to another, historians writing in English have found it convenient to adopt “gild” as a generic term for all of the smaller associations with a fraternal aspect; French and Italian usage distinguishes the occupational types (corporations, corporazioni) from the purely fraternal (confreries, confraternitate). Within Europe, historians can compare their findings on the basis of a common awareness of the political and social context in which any type of association ran its course. But now that ethnologists and historians of other civilizations are singling out occupational gilds for description and comment, comparative study will call for analyses going beyond the tradition of European political theory.

West European studies can, however, be a source of hypotheses, typologies, and, especially, of developmental models useful in all comparative work. The evidence on which they rest has undergone a great deal of critical examination; in the North it covers a thousand years and in Italy almost two thousand, running back into republican Rome. West European experience was, of course, affected by peculiarities of political and religious organization and by historical contingencies that varied from one country to another. It will be compressed here into a scheme of five phases, in each of which the relationship between small voluntary associations and public authority changed. The functions and the organization of the main types of gild characteristic of each phase will then be discussed, but space will not permit even a catalogue of the accompanying types of local power structures or any discussion of the highly influential examples of differentiated corporate bodies within the church (for which see Histoire de I’église … 1964).

The course of development . The five phases of development may be described briefly as follows:

(1) In the northern “barbarian” kingdoms of the early Middle Ages, associations contributing to order pass unchallenged by weak monarchies.

(2) Monarchy asserts itself as the source of legitimacy of association. The papacy does the same in regard to religious orders but permits free fraternal association among the laity. This phase culminates in chartered concessions to town governments, which become more or less autonomous organs of public authority.

(3) Town governments, after some lag, permit the differentiation of citizen communities into occupational gilds, which serve both public and private ends.

(4) Gilds are enmeshed in a system of state-regulated privilege. Noneconomic associations in Protestant states survive only through sectarian organization.

(5) Either voluntarily or in consequence of revolution, the state abandons the system of special privilege; economic gilds either atrophy or are abolished.

Phase 1. In the societies to which phase 1 is applicable, customary law prevailed, and feud rather than royal authority was the chief sanction in the enforcement of law against crimes of violence. In other words, kinship was the traditional source of power in local communities. It is uncertain at what point gilds arose to offer supplementary protection (which was available also from lordship). The earliest known example is from the rules of the gild of thanes at Cambridge, written at some time in the late Anglo-Saxon period. This gild combined five functions: protection of members’ property, discouragement of violence, mutual aid in sickness, common worship, and responsibility for decent burial. An oath bound members, and banquets brought them together. They were men of upper middle rank. Their protective plan, if one of them were robbed, was to track down the thief and compel him to raise the large sum of 8 pounds as compensation. Their way of discouraging violence was simply to add to the normal pecuniary penalties: the rules allow for the possibility of the murder of one “brother” by another and demand only that the murderer pay 8 pounds to the gild in addition to the wergild due to the kindred of his victim. A group strong enough to intimidate thieves and to fine its own members heavily was obviously a formidable power in any local community. Even fraternities professing no purpose but group worship, conviviality, and the support of a loan and burial fund could mobilize power to maintain order.

Phase 2. The second phase was inaugurated in Frankish territory by Charlemagne’s fear that sworn gilds might disrupt the feeble unity of his realm. Gild power, he realized, depended on the oath; the words “to live or die together” could be added to it secretly to create a group as solidary as a kindred, but also expansible and potentially defiant of all law but its own. Charlemagne banned sworn gilds but was unable to suppress them. His edicts, however, bestowed a kind of legitimacy on unsworn gilds for mutual aid. There were probably already merchant gilds among them; they grew as trade grew and by the eleventh century had a more elaborate organization than the earlier protective gilds. The cloth merchants of Valenciennes, for example, had a salaried secretary elected for life, a treasurer, an almoner, a dean, their own priests, an elected judicial board of 12, and, as chief officer, a mayor.

The specific legitimation of gilds by charter came about slowly as part of that piecemeal granting of judicial or fiscal privileges to successive groups of town residents which preceded the full development of town governments. In early twelfth-century London, two artisan gilds received charters authorizing them to hold private courts, and other unchartered gilds of unspecified nature were made to pay for the privilege of existing. The older freedom of association survived only under the shelter of the church, in the form of parish gilds supporting the cult of chosen saints.

Phase 3. The differentiation of the citizen body into occupational gilds, which characterized the third phase, was a political process. It helped to redefine the line, which rapid immigration had tended to blur, between citizens and noncitizens resident in a town. It domesticated the primitive gild oath, making it a sanction of civic obedience. It turned gild officers into quasi-public officials and used gilds in the assignment of military and night-policing duties. Finally, it fostered political consciousness. Artisan gilds gave the towns whatever drive toward “democratic” reform they had; the new mercantile gilds mobilized resistance to this drive.

In the matter of social controls over economic conduct, the role of the gilds was mainly to introduce collective decisions about how to meet new and difficult situations. The move toward formal organization among artisans did not spread until the late thirteenth century, when, after two centuries of expanding trade, the towns were beginning to face more competitive conditions. The basic values of an ambitious but hard-pressed working population had long been rooted in the master artisan families. The need for hard work, frugality, and calculation had been beaten into many generations of sons and apprentices. Market officials had set checks on dishonesty in selling, and in the export industries merchants and their agents had done the same for manufacturing practices. Neigh borhood opinion condemned open quarreling. Above all, Christian doctrine had set a moral and religious value on work and approved of honest gain. In their character as fraternities, both occupational and parish gilds had sharpened sanctions by grudging any grant from their loan or relief funds to members who failed in business through laziness, intemperance, or “folly.” The last notion covered bad judgment in not following the regular mercantile practice of dividing capital among separate ventures to reduce risk. Enterprising artisans had undertaken local trade in the materials of their craft as an avenue of upward mobility; in twelfth-century Genoa they had even made small investments in the port’s booming overseas trade. The Genoese of that age had already adopted Ben Franklin’s maxim that “Time is money,” their trade and loan contracts being dated by the hour of the day.

The new formal organizations tried to keep up the reputation of their members’ wares for high quality, to lower costs by reducing wages, and to cover up disputes over technical innovations that would lower costs. In all such matters both mercan tile and artisan gilds acted to some extent as secret societies. Although gilds had to submit a code of rules to the city authorities in order to be recognized as legitimate, there was no regular check on the interpretation of the rules or their amendment. Disagreement over competitive practices was some times so bitter as to lead to the realignment of dissident groups into new gilds.

As is well known, the fund-raising power of the gilds was drawn on to support not only the cult of patron saints but also the major festivals through which the spiritual values of the entire community were reaffirmed. The persistence with which gilds cultivated pleasant manners within their own circles is less well appreciated; at a gild meeting, all overt aggression, whether by word or deed, was relentlessly penalized. This is worth remark in an age when, despite centuries of Christian teaching, overt aggression was still common among the aristocracy, the peasantry, and the floating lower level of the urban population. The gilds may further be credited with inventing the bourgeois pattern of periodic, respectable festivity among married couples.

The Italian gild movement of this period was the first to draw the secular professions into its pattern of organization, and in Tuscany lay “Round Table” clubs imitated the gild practice of employing notaries to draft their “statutes.” Neither universities nor military organizations can be dealt with here, but it should be noted that the fraternity form was permitted to alien groups of artisans and that in the Low Countries it was used, at the instigation of lords, to keep archers in training. In illicit, sworn forms it persisted among Frisian pirates, in French resistance to English occupation, and among unfree peasants raising funds to sue for or buy freedom. Heretic groups, on the other hand, preferred hierarchic forms of organization under charismatic leadership.

Phase 4. The fourth phase, especially in provincial towns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, saw the social and economic activity of industrial gilds at its height, but political and economic circumstances were changing. State power standing above town administrations was readier than ever to grant enlarged powers to harass local competitors, gild offices fell more than ever into the hands of mercantile entrepreneurs, and subordinate fraternities of wage workers were suppressed.

Phase 5. The fifth phase, during which gild organization of trade and industry died out, dragged on from the seventeenth into the nineteenth century, according as new industrial development and reaction against the old system of privilege were precocious or late. There had always been skepticism as to whether gilds stood, as they claimed, for the public interest. North of the Alps the spectacle of rural industry, based either on handicrafts or on new mechanization, progressing without benefit of gilds, fanned this skepticism long before it found theoretical exposition in new economic thought and propaganda. Then, too, as “fraternity” flamed up as a national, and international, slogan, the old local fraternal forms of association became obsolete. True, the question of continuity between the old forms and the new craft unions, burial clubs, etc., intrigues historians, but the story remains incomplete.

Comparisons with developmental models that might be constructed for other civilizations, including the rapidly moving kaleidoscope of present-day Africa, would rest, in the first instance, on the place of universalist principles in the legitimation of association. In all their phases European gilds were in part particularistic in spirit, but it was their contributions to order and religion that, from the first, were the basis of their legitimation. In Europe it was through the medieval gilds that universalist principles of policy protecting the consumer against fraud and dangers to health (e.g., from soiled sec ond-hand mattress stuffing, diseased meat, and impure drugs) were first explicitly formulated. After the demise of the gilds, such functions had ultimately to be taken over by the state, and they have been the essential justification for the revival of professional and trade associations. [SeeLicensing, occupational.] In Islam, artisan gilds, whose appearance must now be dated no earlier than the thirteenth century (Goitein 1964), were the bearers of a universalist fraternal philosophy. Particularist aspects of Western gilds have been exaggerated by an uncritical acceptance of the notion that a son necessarily followed his father’s trade. Comparative study on this point has to be quantitative and has to take account of general demographic trends and the channeling of migration to towns. Far from being a worked-out field, the study of voluntary associations can still illuminate many aspects of society. [SeeVoluntary associations.]

Sylvia L. Thrupp


Arnakis, George G. 1953 Futuwwa Traditions in the Ottoman Empire: Akhis, Bektashi Dervishes, and Craftsmen. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12:232–247.

Bazant, Jan 1964 Evolution of the Textile Industry of Puebla: 1544–1845. Comparative Studies in Society and History 7:56–69.

Davis, Natalie Z. 1965 Strikes and Salvation at Lyons. Archiv fiir Reformationsgeschichte 56:48–64.

De Roover, Raymond 1962 La doctrine scolastique en matière de monopole et son application à la politique économlque des communes italiennes. Pages 149-179 in Studi in onore di Amintore Fanfani. Volume 1: Antichità e alto medievo. Milan (Italy): Giuffrè.

Espinas, Georges 1943 Le droit d’association dans les villes de l’Artois et de la Flandre francaise depuis les origines jusqu’au début du XVIe siècle. Volume 3, pages 179-230 in L’organisation corporative du moyen aêge à la fin de l’ancien régime. Louvain, Université Catholique, Recueil de travaux d’histoire et de philologie, 3d Series, fasc. 18. Louvain (Belgium): Bibliothèque de l’Université, Bureau du Recueil.

Goitein, S. D. 1964 Artisans en Méditerranée orientale au haut moyen âge. Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 19:847–868.

Histoire de I’église depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours. Volume 12, Part 1, Books ii-vi: Institutions ecclésiastiques de la Chrétienté médiévale, by Gabriel Le Bras. 1964 Paris: Bloud & Gay. → Contains a bibliography on Christian fraternities in the footnotes on pages 414–417.

Kahl, William F. 1962 A Checklist of Books, Pamphlets, and Broadsides on the London Livery Companies. Guildhall Miscellany 2:99–126.

Kellenbenz, Hermann 1963 Les industries rurales en Occident de la fin du moyen a̠ge au XVIIIe siècle. Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 18:833–882.

Kellett, J. R. 1958 The Breakdown of Gild and Corporation Control Over the Handicraft and Retail Trade in London. Economic History Review 2d Series 10: 381–394.

Ledoux, R. 1912 La suppression du régime corporatif dans les Pays-Bas autrichiens en 1784. Un projet d’édit. Académie Royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales …, Mémoires, Collection in-8°, 2d Series, Vol. 10, fasc. 1. Brussels: Hayez.

Le Tourneau, Roger 1957 Les villes musulmanes de VAfrique du Nord. Algiers: La Maison des Livres.

Lewis, Bernard 1937 The Islamic Guilds. Economic History Review 8:20–37.

Little, Kenneth 1957 The Role of Voluntary Associations in West African Urbanization. American An thropologist New Series 59:579–596.

Morse, Hosea B. (1909) 1932 The Gilds of China, With an Account of the Gild Merchant or Co-hong of Canton. 2d ed. London: Longmans.

SociÉtÉ; Jean Bodin pourl’Histoire Comparative des Institutions 1954-1955 La ville. 2 parts. Recueils, Vols. 6–7. Brussels: Librairie Encyclopédique.→ Part 1: Institutions administrates et judiciaires. Part 2: Institutions économiques et sociales.

Thrupp, Sylvia L. 1963 The Gilds. Pages 230-280 in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe From the Decline of the Roman Empire. Volume 3: Economic Organization and Policies in the Middle Ages. Cambridge Univ. Press. -→ A bibliography appears on pages 624–634.

Wagner, Donald O. 1937 The Common Law and Free Enterprise: An Early Case of Monopoly. Economic History Review 7:217–220.

Waltzing, Jean Pierre 1895-1900 Étude historique sur les corporations professionelles chez les Romains depuis les origines jusqu’à la chute de Vempire d’occident. 4 vol. Louvain (Belgium): Peeters.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gilds." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Gilds." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 17, 2017).

"Gilds." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from


gilds: see guilds.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gilds." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Aug. 2017 <>.

"gilds." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (August 17, 2017).

"gilds." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from