Guilds (gremios), self-governing organizations that established and enforced rules for the production and sale of specialized goods. Members were artisans such as shoemakers, silversmiths, carpenters, and harness makers. Guilds flourished chiefly in the colonial era.
At the time of European exploration and conquest of the New World, the artisan trades of Spain and Portugal were organized in guilds, which dealt with economic life, and Cofradías (lay brotherhoods), which supervised religious activities and social welfare for members. In the New World, migrant European craftsmen organized guilds initially to improve their social status and limit competition from indigenous producers. During the period 1545–1560, guilds were first established in the major cities of the viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru. Before the end of the century, guilds were sanctioned in secondary cities such as Guatemala City, Potosí, Guadalajara, and Puebla. Eventually, rudimentary craft organizations, if not recognized guilds, were formed in most Spanish colonial cities.
The self-interested initiatives of guild founders were supported by city governments, which sought to protect consumers from exorbitant prices and goods of shoddy quality. Municipal governments delegated a broad range of regulatory powers to guild authorities. Each guild maintained an effective monopoly of its market. It also determined membership and training criteria, the products that could be produced, prices, wages, and working conditions. From early times, religious, racial, and ethnic characteristics were used to limit access to guild membership.
Guilds were organized hierarchically in three ranks: masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Only masters could own shops and sell directly to the public. Masters also controlled all guild offices and the examination system that permitted younger craftsmen to achieve higher rank. In effect, these powers allowed masters to limit competition and favor the advancement of their own children and kinsmen.
Once guilds were in place, elected officers set prices and maintained quality control through inspections. They could assess fines, seize goods, and even close shops. Guild officers also served as judges and mediators when disputes arose among guild members or between guild members and customers.
There were fewer guilds organized in Brazilian cities. Those that were created lacked both the social status and independent economic power of the guilds in the Spanish colonies. In Brazil, the rapid development of slavery and the integration of large numbers of slaves in artisan trades proved to be a major obstacle to the delegation of self-governing powers.
Essential elements of the European craft tradition were common even where guilds were not formally organized. Nearly everywhere, apprenticeship was regulated by contract. Parents, guardians, or the state placed young boys with master artisans for set periods. Contracts stipulated living conditions in the master's house and the skills that would be taught, and explicitly sanctioned the master's authority to discipline his apprentice. Recognized masters were also granted the right to supervise the promotion of journeymen to the rank of master. Most commonly an aspiring journeyman was required to demonstrate theoretical and practical knowledge and then produce a master work selected at random from a book of designs sanctioned by a European guild.
Colonial guilds were weaker than those in Iberia because they reflected colonial social relations that were forged by the Conquest and the Atlantic slave trade. Although European artisans often recruited and trained apprentices among Amerindian, African, and mixed-race populations, efforts to exclude nonwhites from the rank of master or from guild offices led to racial divisions that undermined solidarity. Colonial authorities and powerful commercial interests also worked to limit the ability of artisans to restrict imports or eliminate competing production by indigenous groups.
By the eighteenth century, guilds were increasingly viewed as corrupt obstacles to economic progress. In Europe and Latin America, reformers associated with the ideas of economic liberalism sought to reform drastically or eliminate guilds. With the achievement of independence, the economic powers of guilds were nearly universally eliminated. Nevertheless, in many artisan trades a training regime based on apprenticeship was retained well into the modern period.
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Lyman L. Johnson