The Guilds of Medieval Europe
The Middle Ages (500 – 1500 A.D.) saw the growth of highly specialized trades, many of which persisted into the modern era (blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, etc). Skilled craftsmen became a distinct economic class in Europe during the Middle Ages, as towns and cities emerged as population centers. The business district of a medieval town was typically divided by craft: a single street might be occupied by fishmongers, fullers, or haberdashers.
Craftsmen in medieval Europe were largely self-employed. They did business from small workshops and storefronts, often hiring a handful of apprentices and assistants. They were not, however, completely independent economic entities. Skilled crafts in the Middle Ages were dominated by organizations known as guilds.
The medieval guild had more in common with modern labor union than with a modern corporation. A guild was a professional association that maintained formal guidelines for each craft. The guild set and enforced price levels, established rules of employment and apprenticeship, and mandated the tools and processes that would be used by practitioners of the particular craft.
The guild also provided a rudimentary social support system. If a guild member met an untimely death, his fellow members would look after his surviving wife and children. Guild members celebrated their wedding feasts in the guild’s hall; and the vast majority of a guild member’s friends would have consisted of his professional associates.
Over the years, the guilds became highly politicized organizations. Many guild leaders attained wealth by exploiting their positions. The guilds’ rigid hierarchies and price controls drew criticism from various sectors of society. Although a wide range of technological breakthroughs occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the guilds often prohibited their members from adopting them. The guilds’ first priorities were promoting stability and maintaining existing pricing structures. They frequently process innovations out of the workshops in order to preserve the status quo.