“Here in the City of London there are so many richly endowed livery halls to remind us of the long and illustrious histories of so many London guilds that we can be forgiven for forgetting, or perhaps even being unaware, of the vast network of guilds that once existed throughout the country.

I have chosen the title “The Rise and Decline of Guilds in Great Britain and Ireland” because those guilds still in existence are mere shadows of their former selves. More significantly, the vast majority of guilds, thousands of them, have disappeared altogether, with little now known about them other than the odd footnote in some academic papers published by county historical or archaeological societies.” [Hoffman 2006]

The Guild was the key development of the structure of “doing business together” across Europe from the 11th to the 16th centuries. It has obvious roots in the karum of Old Assyria and the collegia of the Roman Empire. The Oxford Dictionary defines a guild as:

“A medieval association of craftsmen or merchants, often having considerable power.” [Hoffman 2006]

In England Guilds date from around the turn of the first millennium:

“..during the reign of King Canute [1016-1065] there were Frith Gilds or peace guilds established to maintain peace among individuals, and Monks Gilds, and there were social-religious fraternities … there were also Cnihts or Cnighten Gilds in some towns sometime after the 9th century to which the senior burgesses [freemen] belonged. .. Then we find Domesday Book referring to two guilds in Canterbury: one for the burgesses and one for the clergy; and by the Middle Ages, we find that merchant and craft guilds as well as religious and social guilds had been established in cities, towns and villages throughout the country.” [Britannica]

For our purposes the most important types of Guild are Merchant Guilds and Craft guilds, of which the first references date back to the 1100s:

Merchant guilds were associations of all or most of the merchants in a particular town or city; these men might be local or long-distance traders, wholesale or retail sellers, and might deal in various categories of goods. Craft guilds, on the other hand, were occupational associations that usually comprised all the artisans and craftsmen in a particular branch of industry or commerce. There were, for instance, guilds of weavers, dyers, and fullers in the wool trade and of masons and architects in the building trade; and there were guilds of painters, metalsmiths, blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, leatherworkers, soapmakers, and so on.” [Britannica]

Their roles were multifarious and very similar to the collegia of the Roman Empire and organisation of trades that we saw in the Byzantine Empire:

“They established a monopoly of trade in their locality or within a particular branch of industry or commerce; they set and maintained standards for the quality of goods and the integrity of trading practices in that industry; they worked to maintain stable prices for their goods and commodities; and they sought to control town or city governments in order to further the interests of the guild members and achieve their economic objectives.” [Britannica]

Guilds were definitely a hugely important leap forwards of “together” and were Quite The Thing for centuries (in contrast our current “Company Law Company” is only a little over a century old):

“By the 13th century almost every town had a merchant gild, and by the 14th century virtually all the crafts had their own guilds, to which all the craftsmen of the town belonged; indeed in the provinces as well as in London properly organized guilds were established long before their ordinances were registered with the civic authorities. The members of each craft guild lived in the same quarter of the town, dined together on feast days, marched together in the town’s pageant, acted together in the Corpus Christi plays, cared for the welfare of one another, and attended the funerals of their deceased brethren. This aspect of the guild was known as the fraternity; the occupational aspect was known as the mystery.

By the middle of the 14th century the customs established by the guilds of the City of London had influenced the guilds in many provincial towns. By the end of the 14th century a number of the most prominent guilds in London and in the provinces, such as the Drapers, the Fishmongers, the Goldsmiths, and the Vintners of London, and the Weavers of Lincoln and Barbers of Shrewsbury had received royal charters by which the King granted them special powers. It has been suggested that these guilds obtained royal charters from Edward III under a smoke screen that they were providing relief for the poor, when in fact they were protecting their control over their respective trades. Already in 1423 there were 111 trade and craft guilds in London. Yet, by 1531, little more than one hundred years later, there were only 60 of these left, of which less than half were incorporated.” [Hoffman 2006]

It is important not to overly view Guilds through the lens of business however – as above even the “business” ones had a strong social and welfare side (the latter has been totally lost in the modern “hire and fire” culture). As we shall see with the earliest English companies – Chartered Companies – they were structures which could be put to many uses:

“Social guilds existed to build bridges, as at Stamford; to repair walls and bridges, as at Worcester; to found schools, as at Basingstoke; or to help those who had encountered great misfortune, as at Ludlow. The Guild of Garlekhith, founded in 1375 … was one of more than 60 religious guilds established within the City of London before the end of the 14th century, and this particular guild afforded weekly help to all members of seven years’ standing, in old age and in sickness. Some guilds, which originally had only religious objectives, eventually became the ruling body of the town, as was the case in Litchfield, Norwich, Stratford-on-Avon and Wisbech.” [Hoffman 2006]

The governance is highly noteworthy for our tale in particular the slow formalisation of the “ruling council” at the top of the Guild, a process which has continued evolving over the centuries of the Company:

“Assemblies of the guild’s members enjoyed some legislative powers, but the control of guild policy lay in the hands of a few officials and a council of advisers or assistants.“ [Britannica]

Progress up a guild was a strictly enforced scheme of at first apprenticeship (five to nine years), thence journeymen (who could work for any master and were paid wages) and, once the journeyman had show evidence of his competence (his “masterpiece”) he joined the select group of masters. Entry to a guild was strictly controlled and getting your son in could cost a substantial amount or not even be possible if the guild only admitted relatives of masters. The guild regulated its members and imposed fines on members who violated the guilds rules and regulations.

Over time Guilds came to dominate town councils as in the 12th and 13th centuries many towns became self-governing. As such they were well placed to influence the economic activity, and control thereof of those towns.

This is a good early example of the process of “political capture” which we see to this day, most notably with the influence of Wall Street on the US government. For example in the last twenty odd years three US Treasury Secretaries – Rubin, Paulson and Mnuchin – all hailed from one Wall Street firm (Goldman Sachs). Furthermore Rubin presided over the ending of Glass-Steagel (a policy desired by the Investment banks) and Paulson over the great financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent policy.

One is once again reminded of Old Assyria where the merchants were kept at arms length from the rulers lest they overly influence them. Interestingly this still obtains – in the UK the City is in one place and Westminster and in the US FS is in New York and the “politicians” in Washington. Maybe arms have got longer as these days “arms length” doesn’t seem to cut it any more to prevent certain groups of merchants hijacking the State Governance process for their benefit – money and power always being close bedfellows in human societies.


Hoffman 2006 “The Rise And Decline Of Guilds With Particular Reference To The Guilds Of Tylers And Bricklayers In Great Britain And Ireland”

Britannica: Guild