The Guilds of Medieval
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
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.
(1723-1790), author of the Wealth of Nations is remembered as the
father of capitalism. Karl Marx was of course the author of the
Communist Manifesto--the work that inspired the Communist movements of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
opposing views on economics, Adam Smith and Karl Marx were united in their
disapproval of the guild system. Smith denounced the guilds as barriers to
free competition. Marx disliked the guilds because they chained workers to
an authoritarian system that mimicked feudal hierarchies.