The first mention of guilds is from the Middle Ages, and their presence continued until at least 1800 (until 1914 for China). Italy, England and the Low Countries were the epicentres of the development of guilds, but each had their own trajectory of long-term economic development: Italy peaking during the Renaissance, the Low Countries during the fourteenth (Flanders), sixteenth (Brabant) or seventeenth (the Northern Netherlands) centuries, with England becoming the ‘first industrial nation’. These regional variations already supply the researcher with many important questions and possibilities for comparison (for example: how exactly are economic growth and the development of guilds linked?). By including comparable data from China, where guilds began to develop during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a link can be made with the Great Divergence debate.

In the literature, the term ‘guild’ generally refers to craft guilds or merchant guilds, which are respectively associations of craftsmen and merchants. Scholars should be aware that other types of guilds exist. Sometimes, these associations were closely related or quite similar to guilds, such as religious brotherhoods organized along occupational lines. In fact, guilds with economic (and political) power could also act as a religious brotherhoods, or have a brotherhood attached to them, but would still be considered guilds because their main function was economic. In other cases, the term ‘guild’ was simply used instead of the word ‘association’, adding to the confusion over guild terminology. Militia-guilds and neighbourhood guilds, as well as the use of the word knechtsgilde (journeymen’s association, but in the Northern Netherlands also used for journeymen’s box) are examples of this terminological fuzziness.

All guild types share some similarities. Firstly, they provided for a need of association outside kin circles that was either social, political or economic; or they fulfilled a need in (income) security. Secondly, population growth and urbanization were important factors in the rise and development of these institutions (De Munck, Lourens, and Lucassen 2006; Lis and Soly 2006; Thijs 2006; Lourens and Lucassen 1997). Thirdly, many interest groups and actors, from both inside and outside the guild system, influenced the workings of these associations (Lis and Soly 2006, 5), and therefore they should be viewed within their political, social and economic surroundings.

Subtypes of guilds

Click on the name to find a description of the different subtypes of guilds.


  • De Munck, B., Lourens, P., and Lucassen, J., 2006. The establishment and distribution of craft guilds in the Low Countries, 1000-1800. In: C. Lis, J. Lucassen, M. Prak, and H. Soly (eds), Craft guilds in the early modern Low Countries: work, power and representation (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 32-73.
  • Lis, C. and Soly, H., 2006. Craft Guilds in Comparative Perspective: The Northern and Southern Netherlands. A Survey. In: C. Lis, J. Lucassen, M. Prak, and H. Soly (eds), Craft guilds in the early modern Low Countries: work, power and representation(Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 1-31.
  • Lourens, P. and Lucassen. J., 1997. De oprichting en ontwikkeling van ambachtsgilden in Nederland (13e-19e eeuw). In: C. Lis and H. Soly (eds), Werelden van verschil. Ambachtsgilden in de Lage Landen (Brussels: VUB-Press), pp. 43-77.
  • Thijs, A.K.L., 2006. Religion and social structure: religious rituals in pre-industrial trade associations in the Low Countries. In: M. Prak, C. Lis, J. Lucassen,and H. Soly (eds), Craft guilds in the early modern Low Countries: work, power and representation(Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 157-73.