In previous posts we have looked at how Business Regulation worked 4,000 years ago and how the first English Companies were governed nigh on 500 years ago. This week we land in the middle with a look at how business regulation worked a thousand years ago. Mind you even recent copies of the core text will cost you £198 right now. So maybe a peep will be good enough?

Note the simplicity and clarity of both regulation and punishment – something that we have totally lost in the 21stC – as a consequence of which much human activity that could be busy on business is actually spent filling in forms and following rules to the detriment of the economy as a whole.

[Excerpt from Realpolitik – Appendix B]


How were Guilds overseen? As Guilds lasted for over a thousand years and covered much of Europe there is no single answer. However we do have a fantastic datapoint. Let’s leap forwards 3,000 years from Old Assyria to an extraordinary document from the Byzantine Empire. In 1891 “To Eparchikon Biblion” – literally “The Book of the Eparch [Prefect]” but perhaps more helpfully “The City Governor’s Manual” – was “discovered” in a library in Geneva. That must have been one sleepy library as the book itself was a 14thC copy of an original written in the 10thC. Its purpose was to help the local Governor manage trade via collegia – organised groups of merchants. This is the same regulatory structure as in Old Assyria – overseen delegated governance – with clear rules and responsibilities delegated down to collegia, Guilds, which oversaw/regulated traders operating on their own accounts.

The Book of the Eparch is a compilation of regulations covering some twenty-odd trades. The goals of the Governor and his regulations/rules were raising taxation, reducing black market activities and maintaining a constant flow of goods through the Guilds. In other words we can see this as being about microeconomic management – the Eparch’s job was to ensure that his city had supplies of necessary goods (something which these days is left to “the market”) and that people weren’t ripped off.

Economic regulation was still a thing 3,000 years after the first surviving evidence of its Mesopotamian usage. This approach still exists today especially for formerly state-owned utilities. Let’s look at one example of an economic regulation from the Book of the Eparch. Note how rule and punishment are contained in two sentences – effective regulation was, and is, concise:

“Grocers §5. Grocers shall sell their wares and make a profit of two miliaresia per nomisma. If their measures show that they have exacted a greater profit they shall be flogged, shaved and cease to trade as grocers.”

Sticking with grocers we have the same regulation of standards that we saw in Old Assyria:

“§2. Any grocer who has weights or measures which do not bear the seal of the eparch or who files the coinage (i.e. sweats), or refuses to take a tetarteron, bearing for authenticity the effigy of the sovereign, shall be flogged, shaved and exiled.”

Structural regulation, which we might compare to creating watertight compartments in a ship such that the holing of one does not sink the whole vessel, has always been super-important:

“1. Grocers may keep their shops throughout the city as well in the squares as in the streets, so that the necessaries of life may be easily procurable. They shall sell: meat, salt fish, meal, cheese, honey, olive oil, vegetables of all kinds, butter, dry and liquid resin, cedar oil, camphor, linseed oil, gypsum, bowls, vessels, etc. nails, bottles in fact every article which can be sold by steelyards and not by scales. They are forbidden to sell any article which comes within the trades of perfumers, soap-chandlers, linen-drapers, taverners or butchers. Any contravention is punished by flogging, shaving, and exile.”