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Medieval Guilds

Gary Richardson, University of California, Irvine

Guilds existed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Guilds were groups of individuals with common goals. The term guild probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon root geld which meant ‘to pay, contribute.’ The noun form of geld meant an association of persons contributing money for some common purpose. The root also meant ‘to sacrifice, worship.’ The dual definitions probably reflected guilds’ origins as both secular and religious organizations.

The term guild had many synonyms in the Middle Ages. These included association, brotherhood, college, company, confraternity, corporation, craft, fellowship, fraternity, livery, society, and equivalents of these terms in Latin, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Romance languages such as ambach, arte, collegium, corporatio, fraternitas, gilda, innung, corps de métier, societas, and zunft. In the late nineteenth century, as a professional lexicon evolved among historians, the term guild became the universal reference for these groups of merchants, artisans, and other individuals from the ordinary (non-priestly and non-aristocratic) classes of society which were not part of the established religious, military, or governmental hierarchies.

Much of the academic debate about guilds stems from confusion caused by incomplete lexicographical standardization. Scholars study guilds in one time and place and then assume that their findings apply to guilds everywhere and at all times or assert that the organizations that they studied were the one type of true guild, while other organizations deserved neither the distinction nor serious study. To avoid this mistake, this encyclopedia entry begins with the recognition that guilds were groups whose activities, characteristics, and composition varied greatly across centuries, regions, and industries.

Guild Activities and Taxonomy

Guilds filled many niches in medieval economy and society. Typical taxonomies divide urban occupational guilds into two types: merchant and craft.

Merchant guilds were organizations of merchants who were involved in long-distance commerce and local wholesale trade, and may also have been retail sellers of commodities in their home cities and distant venues where they possessed rights to set up shop. The largest and most influential merchant guilds participated in international commerce and politics and established colonies in foreign cities. In many cases, they evolved into or became inextricably intertwined with the governments of their home towns.

Merchant guilds enforced contracts among members and between members and outsiders. Guilds policed members’ behavior because medieval commerce operated according to the community responsibility system. If a merchant from a particular town failed to fulfill his part of a bargain or pay his debts, all members of his guild could be held liable. When they were in a foreign port, their goods could be seized and sold to alleviate the bad debt. They would then return to their hometown, where they would seek compensation from the original defaulter.

Merchant guilds also protected members against predation by rulers. Rulers seeking revenue had an incentive to seize money and merchandise from foreign merchants. Guilds threatened to boycott the realms of rulers who did this, a practice known as withernam in medieval England. Since boycotts impoverished both kingdoms which depended on commerce and governments for whom tariffs were the principal source of revenue, the threat of retaliation deterred medieval potentates from excessive expropriations.

Merchant guilds tended to be wealthier and of higher social status than craft guilds. Merchants’ organizations usually possessed privileged positions in religious and secular ceremonies and inordinately influenced local governments.

Craft guilds were organized along lines of particular trades. Members of these guilds typically owned and operated small businesses or family workshops. Craft guilds operated in many sectors of the economy. Guilds of victuallers bought agricultural commodities, converted them to consumables, and sold finished foodstuffs. Examples included bakers, brewers, and butchers. Guilds of manufacturers made durable goods, and when profitable, exported them from their towns to consumers in distant markets. Examples include makers of textiles, military equipment, and metal ware. Guilds of a third type sold skills and services. Examples include clerks, teamsters, and entertainers.

These occupational organizations engaged in a wide array of economic activities. Some manipulated input and output markets to their own advantage. Others established reputations for quality, fostering the expansion of anonymous exchange and making everyone better off. Because of the underlying economic realities, victualling guilds tended towards the former. Manufacturing guilds tended towards the latter. Guilds of service providers fell somewhere in between. All three types of guilds managed labor markets, lowered wages, and advanced their own interests at their subordinates’ expense. These undertakings had a common theme. Merchant and craft guilds acted to increase and stabilize members’ incomes.

Non-occupational guilds also operated in medieval towns and cities. These organizations had both secular and religious functions. Historians refer to these organizations as social, religious, or parish guilds as well as fraternities and confraternities. The secular activities of these organizations included providing members with mutual insurance, extending credit to members in times of need, aiding members in courts of law, and helping the children of members afford apprenticeships and dowries.

The principal pious objective was the salvation of the soul and escape from Purgatory. The doctrine of Purgatory was the belief that there lay between Heaven and Hell an intermediate place, by passing though which the souls of the dead might cleanse themselves of guilt attached to the sins committed during their lifetime by submitting to a graduated scale of divine punishment. The suffering through which they were cleansed might be abbreviated by the prayers of the living, and most especially by masses. Praying devoutly, sponsoring masses, and giving alms were three of the most effective methods of redeeming one’s soul. These works of atonement could be performed by the penitent on their own or by someone else on their behalf.

Guilds served as mechanisms for organizing, managing, and financing the collective quest for eternal salvation. Efforts centered on three types of tasks. The first were routine and participatory religious services. Members of guilds gathered at church on Sundays and often also on other days of the week. Members marked ceremonial occasions, such as the day of their patron saint or Good Friday, with prayers, processions, banquets, masses, the singing of psalms, the illumination of holy symbols, and the distribution of alms to the poor. Some guilds kept chaplains on call. Others hired priests when the need arose. These clerics hosted regular religious services, such as vespers each evening or mass on Sunday morning, and prayed for the souls of members living and deceased.

The second category consisted of actions performed on members’ behalf after their deaths and for the benefit of their souls. Postmortem services began with funerals and burials, which guilds arranged for the recently departed. The services were elaborate and extensive. On the day before internment, members gathered around the corpse, lit candles, and sung a placebo and a dirge, which were the vespers and matins from the Office of the Dead. On the day of internment, a procession marched from churchyard to graveyard, buried the body, distributed alms, and attended mass. Additional masses numbering one to forty occurred later that day and sometimes for months thereafter. Postmortem prayers continued even further into the future and in theory into perpetuity. All guilds prayed for the souls of deceased members. These prayers were a prominent part of all guild events. Many guilds also hired priests to pray for the souls of the deceased. A few guilds built chantries where priests said those prayers.

The third category involved indoctrination and monitoring to maintain the piety of members. The Christian catechism of the era contained clear commandments. Rest on the Sabbath and religious holidays. Be truthful. Do not deceive others. Be chaste. Do not commit adultery. Be faithful to your family. Obey authorities. Be modest. Do not covet thy neighbors’ possessions. Do not steal. Do not gamble. Work hard. Support the church. Guild ordinances echoed these exhortations. Members should neither gamble nor lie nor steal nor drink to excess. They should restrain their gluttony, lust, avarice, and corporal impulses. They should pray to the Lord, live like His son, and give alms to the poor.

Righteous living was important because members’ fates were linked together. The more pious one’s brethren, the more helpful their prayers, and the quicker one escaped from purgatory. The worse one’s brethren, the less salutary their supplications and the longer one suffered during the afterlife. So, in hopes of minimizing purgatorial pain and maximizing eternal happiness, guilds beseeched members to restrain physical desires and forgo worldly pleasures.

Guilds also operated in villages and the countryside. Rural guilds performed the same tasks as social and religious guilds in towns and cities. Recent research on medieval England indicates that guilds operated in most, if not all, villages. Villages often possessed multiple guilds. Most rural residents belonged to a guild. Some may have joined more than one organization.

Guilds often spanned multiple dimensions of this taxonomy. Members of craft guilds participated in wholesale commerce. Members of merchant guilds opened retail shops. Social and religious guilds evolved into occupational associations. All merchant and craft guilds possessed religious and fraternal features.

In sum, guild members sought prosperity in this life and providence in the next. Members wanted high and stable incomes, quick passage through Purgatory, and eternity in Heaven. Guilds helped them coordinate their collective efforts to attain these goals.

Guild Structure and Organization

To attain their collective goals, guild members had to cooperate. If some members slacked off, all would suffer. Guilds that wished to lower the costs of labor had to get all masters to reduce wages. Guilds that wished to raise the prices of products had to get all members to restrict output. Guilds that wished to develop respected reputations had to get all members to sell superior merchandise. Guild members contributed money – to pay priests and purchase pious paraphernalia – and contributed time, emotion, and personal energy, as well. Members participated in frequent religious services, attended funerals, and prayed for the souls of the brethren. Members had to live piously, abstaining both from the pleasures of the flesh and the material temptations of secular life. Members also had to administer their associations. The need for coordination was a common denominator.

To convince members to cooperate and advance their common interests, guilds formed stable, self-enforcing associations that possessed structures for making and implementing collective decisions.

A guild’s members met at least once a year (and in most cases more often) to elect officers, audit accounts, induct new members, debate policies, and amend ordinances. Officers such as aldermen, stewards, deans, and clerks managed the guild’s day to day affairs. Aldermen directed guild activities and supervised lower-ranking officers. Stewards kept guild funds, and their accounts were periodically audited. Deans summoned members to meetings, feasts, and funerals, and in many cases, policed members’ behavior. Clerks kept records. Decisions were usually made by majority vote among the master craftsmen.

These officers administered a nexus of agreements among a guild’s members. Details of these agreements varied greatly from guild to guild, but the issues addressed were similar in all cases. Members agreed to contribute certain resources and/or take certain actions that furthered the guild’s occupational and spiritual endeavors. Officers of the guild monitored members’ contributions. Manufacturing guilds, for example, employed officers known as searchers who scrutinized members’ merchandise to make sure it met guild standards and inspected members’ shops and homes seeking evidence of attempts to circumvent the rules. Members who failed to fulfill their obligations faced punishments of various sorts.

Punishments varied across transgressions, guilds, time, and space, but a pattern existed. First time offenders were punished lightly, perhaps suffering public scolding and paying small monetary fines, and repeat offenders punished harshly. The ultimate threat was expulsion. Guilds could do nothing harsher because laws protected persons and property from arbitrary expropriations and physical abuse. The legal system set the rights of individuals above the interests of organizations. Guilds were voluntary associations. Members facing harsh punishments could quit the guild and walk away. The most the guild could extract was the value of membership. Abundant evidence indicates that guilds enforced agreements in this manner.

Other game-theoretic options existed, of course. Guilds could have punished uncooperative members by taking actions with wider consequences. Members of a manufacturing guild who caught one of their own passing off shoddy merchandise under the guilds’ good name could have punished the offender by collectively lowering the quality of their products for a prolonged period. That would lower the offender’s income, albeit at the cost of lowering the income of all other members as well. Similarly, members of a guild that caught one of their brethren shirking on prayers and sinning incessantly could have punished the offender by collectively forsaking the Lord and descending into debauchery. Then, no one would or could pray for the soul of the offender, and his period in Purgatory would be extended significantly. In broader terms, cheaters could have been punished by any action that reduced the average incomes of all guild members or increased the pain that all members expected to endure in Purgatory. In theory, such threats could have convinced even the most recalcitrant members to contribute to the common good.

But, no evidence exists that craft guilds ever operated in such a manner. None of the hundreds of surviving guild ordinances contains threats of such a kind. No surviving guild documents describe punishing the innocent along with the guilty. Guilds appear to have eschewed indiscriminant retaliation for several salient reasons. First, monitoring members’ behavior was costly and imperfect. Time and risk preferences varied across individuals. Uncertainty of many kinds influenced craftsmen’s decisions. Some members would have attempted to cheat regardless of the threatened punishment. Punishments, in other words, would have occurred in equilibrium. The cost of carrying out an equilibrium-sustaining threat of expulsion would have been lower than the cost of carrying out an equilibrium-sustaining threat that reduced average income. Thus, expelling members caught violating the rules was an efficient method of enforcing the rules. Second, punishing free riders by indiscriminately harming all guild members may not have been a convincing threat. Individuals may not have believed that threats of mutual assured destruction would be carried out. The incentive to renegotiate was strong. Third, skepticism probably existed about threats to do onto others as they had done onto you. That concept contradicted a fundamental teaching of the church, to do onto others as you would have them do onto you. It also contradicted Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek. Thus, indiscriminant retaliation based upon hair-trigger strategies was not an organizing principle likely to be adopted by guilds whose members hoped to speed passage through Purgatory.

A hierarchy existed in large guilds. Masters were full members who usually owned their own workshops, retail outlets, or trading vessels. Masters employed journeymen, who were laborers who worked for wages on short term contracts or a daily basis (hence the term journeyman, from the French word for day). Journeymen hoped to one day advance to the level of master. To do this, journeymen usually had to save enough money to open a workshop and pay for admittance, or if they were lucky, receive a workshop through marriage or inheritance.

Masters also supervised apprentices, who were usually boys in their teens who worked for room, board, and perhaps a small stipend in exchange for a vocational education. Both guilds and government regulated apprenticeships, usually to ensure that masters fulfilled their part of the apprenticeship agreement. Terms of apprenticeships varied, usually lasting from five to nine years.

The internal structure of guilds varied widely across Europe. Little is known for certain about the structure of smaller guilds, since they left few written documents. Most of the evidence comes from large, successful associations whose internal records survive to the present day. The description above is based on such documents. It seems likely that smaller organizations fulfilled many of the same functions, but their structure was probably less formal and more horizontal.

Relationships between guilds and governments also varied across Europe. Most guilds aspired to attain recognition as a self-governing association with the right to possess property and other legal privileges. Guilds often purchased these rights from municipal and national authorities. In England, for example, a guild which wished to possess property had to purchase from the royal government a writ allowing it to do so. But, most guilds operated without formal sanction from the government. Guilds were spontaneous, voluntary, and self-enforcing associations.

Guild Chronology and Impact

Reconstructing the history of guilds poses several problems. Few written records survive from the twelfth century and earlier. Surviving documents consist principally of the records of rulers – kings, princes, churches – that taxed, chartered, and granted privileges to organizations. Some evidence also exists in the records of notaries and courts, which recorded and enforced contracts between guild masters and outsiders, such as the parents of apprentices. From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, records survive in larger numbers. Surviving records include statute books and other documents describing the internal organization and operation of guilds. The evidence at hand links the rise and decline of guilds to several important events in the history of Western Europe.

In the late Roman Empire, organizations resembling guilds existed in most towns and cities. These voluntary associations of artisans, known as collegia, were occasionally regulated by the state but largely left alone. They were organized along trade lines and possessed a strong social base, since their members shared religious observances and fraternal dinners. Most of these organizations disappeared during the Dark Ages, when the Western Roman Empire disintegrated and urban life collapsed. In the Eastern Empire, some collegia appear to have survived from antiquity into the Middle Ages, particularly in Constantinople, where Leo the Wise codified laws concerning commerce and crafts at the beginning of the tenth century and sources reveal an unbroken tradition of state management of guilds from ancient times. Some scholars suspect that in the West, a few of the most resilient collegia in the surviving urban areas may have evolved in an unbroken descent into medieval guilds, but the absence of documentary evidence makes it appear unlikely and unprovable.

In the centuries following the Germanic invasions, evidence indicates that numerous guild-like associations existed in towns and rural areas. These organizations functioned as modern burial and benefit societies, whose objectives included prayers for the souls of deceased members, payments of weregilds in cases of justifiable homicide, and supporting members involved in legal disputes. These rural guilds were descendents of Germanic social organizations known as gilda which the Roman historian Tacitus referred to as convivium.

During the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, considerable economic development occurred. The sources of development were increases in the productivity of medieval agriculture, the abatement of external raiding by Scandinavian and Muslim brigands, and population increases. The revival of long-distance trade coincided with the expansion of urban areas. Merchant guilds formed an institutional foundation for this commercial revolution. Merchant guilds flourished in towns throughout Europe, and in many places, rose to prominence in urban political structures. In many towns in England, for example, the merchant guild became synonymous with the body of burgesses and evolved into the municipal government. In Genoa and Venice, the merchant aristocracy controlled the city government, which promoted their interests so well as to preclude the need for a formal guild.

Merchant guilds’ principal accomplishment was establishing the institutional foundations for long-distance commerce. Italian sources provide the best picture of guilds’ rise to prominence as an economic and social institution. Merchant guilds appear in many Italian cities in the twelfth century. Craft guilds became ubiquitous during the succeeding century.

In northern Europe, merchant guilds rose to prominence a few generations later. In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, local merchant guilds in trading cities such as Lubeck and Bremen formed alliances with merchants throughout the Baltic region. The alliance system grew into the Hanseatic League which dominated trade around the Baltic and North Seas and in Northern Germany.

Social and religious guilds existed at this time, but few records survive. Small numbers of craft guilds developed, principally in prosperous industries such as cloth manufacturing, but records are also rare, and numbers appear to have been small.

As economic expansion continued in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the influence of the Catholic Church grew, and the doctrine of Purgatory developed. The doctrine inspired the creation of countless religious guilds, since the doctrine provided members with strong incentives to want to belong to a group whose prayers would help one enter heaven and it provided guilds with mechanisms to induce members to exert effort on behalf of the organization. Many of these religious associations evolved into occupational guilds. Most of the Livery Companies of London, for example, began as intercessory societies around this time.

The number of guilds continued to grow after the Black Death. There are several potential explanations. The decline in population raised per-capita incomes, which encouraged the expansion of consumption and commerce, which in turn necessitated the formation of institutions to satisfy this demand. Repeated epidemics decreased family sizes, particularly in cities, where the typical adult had on average perhaps 1.5 surviving children, few surviving siblings, and only a small extended family, if any. Guilds replaced extended families in a form of fictive kinship. The decline in family size and impoverishment of the church also forced individuals to rely on their guild more in times of trouble, since they no longer could rely on relatives and priests to sustain them through periods of crisis. All of these changes bound individuals more closely to guilds, discouraged free riding, and encouraged the expansion of collective institutions.

For nearly two centuries after the Black Death, guilds dominated life in medieval towns. Any town resident of consequence belonged to a guild. Most urban residents thought guild membership to be indispensable. Guilds dominated manufacturing, marketing, and commerce. Guilds dominated local politics and influenced national and international affairs. Guilds were the center of social and spiritual life.

The heyday of guilds lasted into the sixteenth century. The Reformation weakened guilds in most newly Protestant nations. In England, for example, the royal government suppressed thousands of guilds in the 1530s and 1540s. The king and his ministers dispatched auditors to every guild in the realm. The auditors seized spiritual paraphernalia and funds retained for religious purposes, disbanded guilds which existed for purely pious purposes, and forced craft and merchant guilds to pay large sums for the right to remain in operation. Those guilds that did still lost the ability to provide members with spiritual services.

In Protestant nations after the Reformation, the influence of guilds waned. Many turned to governments for assistance. They requested monopolies on manufacturing and commerce and asked courts to force members to live up to their obligations. Guilds lingered where governments provided such assistance. Guilds faded where governments did not. By the seventeenth century, the power of guilds had withered in England. Guilds retained strength in nations which remained Catholic. France abolished its guilds during the French Revolution in 1791, and Napoleon’s armies disbanded guilds in most of the continental nations which they occupied during the next two decades.


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Citation: Richardson, Gary. “Medieval Guilds”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL