Craft guilds

Dutch: Ambachtsgilde, French: Corporations, German: Zünfte, , Italian: Corporazioni o ArtiCorporazioni d’arte e mestieriCorporazioniArtiFraglie, Chinese: Huiguan or Gongsuo

Craft guilds were permanent, generally local organizations of people in the same profession (craft or trade) or a combination of the same professions, which had as their main — but certainly not exclusive — purpose the defense and maintenance of monopoly rights with regard to fellow citizens and outside competitors. Guilds were always authorized by local authorities, which enabled them to regulate membership, draw up statutes and maintain a professional monopoly. Within a local community, all those practicing the guild’s occupation fell under the guild regulations, which were part of the guild’s monopoly (De Moor, Lucassen, and van Zanden, 2008, 6; De Munck, Lourens, and Lucassen, 2006, 32; 61-4; Lourens and Lucassen, 1997, 9; Liu, 1988, 16-7). Other functions included the maintenance of quality control, the prevention of cheating, the regulation of supply and demand in markets of limited size and the furthering of the economic interests of their members. Social and religious activities often played an important role as well.

Guilds were primarily associations of masters, but sometimes also of journeymen. Becoming member of a guild was typically a matter of completing an apprenticeship term and, subsequently, making a master piece (next to paying entrance fees and treating other members with wine and meals). This has led historians to argue that the transfer of skills and technical knowledge (Epstein, 2008) and/or the care for product quality (Gustafsson, 1987) were crucial preoccupations in the erection and organization of guilds. But apprenticeship was more than just training. It was a wider socialization in a corporative or urban social group, membership in which included the acquisition of skills – next to trustworthiness, a care for the common good etc. (Prak 2006; De Munck 2008). Protecting the economic interests of their members also meant providing for subsistence. Mutual aid insured this, be it on an informal or formal basis (see gildebussen) (Moll-Murata, 2008, 241; Bos, 2006, 180-1; 188; Bos, 1998, 33-5; 295-309).

Though in general guilds have many of the above features in common, these features differed per part of the world, per region, per town and even per occupational sector. Therefore scholars should always take three things into account: the broader context, the fact that craft guilds were established in a wide variety of sectors with specific characteristics, and the fact that many interest groups and actors — from inside and outside the guild system — influenced the workings of these institutions (Lis and Soly, 2006, 5).

More specific information on craft guilds per country can be find via the links underneath.

Craft guilds in the Netherlands / Belgium

Craft guilds in the Low Countries originated mainly from the southern part in the eleventh century and spread in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (De Munck, Lourens, Lucassen, 2006, 34-5). The northern part followed suit in the fourteenth century, but for this region the real foundation peak is to be situated between 1600 and 1650 (Van der Vleuten and Van Zanden, 2010, 4-5). Within the Low Countries, a general picture can be drawn of three different regions with three different patterns of guild organization. Craft guilds in the southern part had significant economic and political power, while at the same time they remained religiously active throughout their existence. Access to the guild was based on religion and gender (women were excluded), and entrance fees were high (Lucassen and Prak, 2006, 227-30). The craft guilds in the west of the Dutch Republic were quite the opposite of their southern counterparts. These guilds had no political power and their religious functions dwindled after the Reformation.

Access to these guilds was easy, relatively inexpensive and religious affiliation was not a barrier (except for Judaism). Even women were sometimes allowed into the guild. Limited data seem to imply that social polarization was of less consequence limited here (Lucassen and Prak, 2006, 227-30). Craft guilds in the east of the Dutch Republic formed a middle ground between these two forms of guild organization. Guilds were indirectly represented within the urban governments. Though access was easier and less expensive than in the southern part of the Low Countries, it was more difficult than in the west. Women were not excluded per definition, but admission was harder for them than in the west and access was based on ‘proper’ religious affiliation (Lucassen and Prak, 2006, 227-30).

In the Low Countries, craft guilds were mainly associations of masters, but exceptions existed: some guilds accepted journeymen, some journeymen’s associations (see journeymen’s guilds and journeymen’s boxes) existed alongside a master guild or were made up entirely of journeymen in sectors which had no masters, as was the case with peat-porters or heavers, for example (Lourens en Lucassen, 1994, 55; also Thijs, 2006, 160-1).

At the time of their abolition in 1795 (the Southern Netherlands) and 1798 (the Northern Netherlands), craft guilds were still important players within the political economy of the Low Countries, although they had become discredited over the course of the eighteenth century. The issue was perhaps more pressing in the Southern Netherlands, where guilds were more powerful both economically and politically (and French influence was perhaps more important). On the one hand, their political privileges grew outmoded. While guilds who had lost all economic relevance continued to be represented in local political councils (Van Honacker, 1994, 185-186), a discourse developed in which ‘privileges’ were contrasted with the ‘natural order’ and natural rights. (Heirwegh, 1981; also: Kaplan, 1986; 2001) From an economic perspective, guilds continued to justify their privileges with the superior quality of their products, while consumer preferences shifted towards cheaper and fashion-sensitive products, so that guilds became increasingly relevant stopped being necessary for customers, retailers and wholesalers alike (De Munck, 2008). On top of that, guilds in the Southern Netherlands had massive debts, which in turn caused higher entrance fees and, hence, contributed to the perception of guilds as closed and exclusivist bulwarks (De Munck, 2007b, 97-113).

Craft guilds in Greece (Ottoman / Venetian rule)

Guilds (roufetia, isnafia) in the Ottoman colonies were reorganized during the sixteenth century, stabilized in the seventeenth century, and matured in the eighteenth century, while they gradually declined during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Efthimiou  2003, 326). According to some scholars, guilds were multiplied to such extent during the seventeenth century that it is justified to say that the whole population in Ottoman Empire was organized in an elaborated guild system (Baer 1979, 578). The main objectives of the guilds in Ottoman Empire, as well as elsewhere, were to control the producers and the production process, in order to achieve products’ stable price and quality, to avoid speculation and competition, to cover the needs of the local, mainly, market, and to assure the ethics of the community’s members (Efthimiou 2003, 325). 

From a more top-down point of view, in Ottoman Empire guilds and especially craft and merchant guilds were used:

  1. as means of administrative connection between the government and the urban population;
  2. as means of control on the quality of the products;
  3. as providers of necessary services and labor to the government;
  4. as providers of goods to the authorities and distribution of raw materials to the craftsmen;
  5. as bodies of arbitration in cases of disagreements between members in order  to forestall the interventions of the authorities;
  6. as bodies of charity for both members and non-members via a welfare fund.

Furthermore the pricing was done by the authorities and the guilds were to a large extent dependent on the government (Baer 1979,  580-8).

In relative contrast, the economic and fiscal functions of the guilds and especially of the craft and merchant guilds in the Greek territory under the Ottoman rule are emphasized by other scholars (Asdrachas 1983). The significant role of the guilds in the preservation of the economic equilibrium is expressed through various restrictive functions of the guilds, which aimed:

  1. to control the vertical mobility within each craft;
  2. to control the number and the identity (religious, ethnic) of the people who could practice a profession (Baer 1979, 599);
  3. to determine the cost of production in each phase of processing a manufactured product;
  4. to control the supply sources of raw materials;
  5. to determine, in cooperation with the representatives of the state and communal authorities, the maximum prices in local markets;
  6. to preserve the traditional methods in the production of goods (Asdrachas 1983, 98).

On the other hand, the guilds (scuolae, confraternitae, arti) in Venetian colonies were an amalgam of Byzantine and Western European characteristics. They emerged in the first Venetian period (starting from 1211) and were fully developed by the early decades of the seventeenth century. They were formed in parallel with the establishment of the Stato da Mar and the demographic increase of the cities (Panopoulou 2010, 155). In Crete they remained active until the island’s occupation by the Ottomans (in the middle of seventeenth century), while on the islands of Ionio they continued their action until 1797, when the Ionio islands became French colonies.

In contrast with their fellow institutions in the Ottoman Empire, guilds in territories under the Venetian rule are not considered as regulators of the economic life at that time (Panopoulou 2001, 444). Their main objective was to smoothen evolution of each profession and they were rather top-down institutions, controlled by the Venetian and local authorities. However, in some cases guilds had a representative role on city level, such as via the Consiglio del popolo that was established in Cyprus in the sixteenth century and included all the members of the guilds (Panopoulou 2001, 443).

In general, the common characteristics of the guilds in Venetian colonies and those in Ottoman colonies are their administrational organization and social role rather than their economic functions (Panopoulou 2001, 445).

The dissolution of the majority of the guilds in the Greek territory, both under the Ottoman and Venetian rule, took place mostly during the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The causes of the guilds’ termination are not only internal but also external.  First of all, in contrast with the economic development of the most important Greek regions under the Ottoman Empire – such as Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Thessalia – during the eighteenth century (Papageorgiou 1988, 32), the nineteenth century is characterized by weak markets and low revenues for the guilds.

According to some scholars, the poor economic status of the members and the decline of the guild structures were caused both by the constant fiscal drain and most importantly by the high competition derived from the European industries (Papageorgiou 1988, 281-2). The fact that the guild system could not meet the needs of the capitalist development of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was increasingly profound (Papageorgiou 1988, 283). The gradual deliberation of the Greek regions followed by socio-political instability during the same period simply “certified” the dissolution of the guilds and their replacement by professional associations with different characteristics and functions (Papageorgiou 1988, 285).

In any case, there were a lot of similarities between the craft guilds in Ottoman colonies and those in Venetian ones. One of the major characteristics that craft guilds of both origins had in common, was the subdivision and fragmentation of craft guilds into guilds that were highly specialized and small in size (Baer 1979, 579). The fact that the number of craft guilds’ members was usually low (10-100) facilitated the institutions’ internal cohesion and control. Certainly, there were also multi-member craft guilds, such as the guild of watchmakers (12,000 members!) and the guild of candle makers (5,500 members) in Istanbul (Baer 1979, 579).

Another similarity is that both in the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian colonies the workshops of fellow craftsmen were concentrated in the same area, street or market, named as “tsarsi” or “bezesteni” for Ottoman guilds (Efthimiou 2003, 328-9). This aimed at a decrease of professional competition and a better control of the manufacture products by the authorities (Panopoulou 2010, 155).

Furthermore, in contrast with other types of guilds – such as the guild of money changers (sarafidhes) in Constantinople, which included Greeks, Armenians, and Jews – the internal operations of the craft guilds were facilitated by the fact that in the vast majority of cases their members shared the same religious beliefs and ethnic identity (Baer 1979, 604). Both in the Ottoman Empire and in the Venetian colonies the heterogeneous – in terms of religious affiliation and ethnicity – craft guilds were the exception, rather than the rule. Women’s participation depended on the region and the profession. For example, in the case of weavers (abatzidhes), who could work at home, women often participated (Efthimiou 2003, 329).

Moreover, the hierarchy inside the workshops (master – apprentice – servant), the apprenticeship contracts, the internal structure and the leadership of the craft guilds, the guilds’ charters as well as their relation to the church, their social role and charitable work are all common aspects of the craft guilds in Ottoman colonies and those in Venetian ones.

In the Ottoman Empire the head of a workshop (master) was called “baskalis” or “oustabasis”, and was responsible for the control of the production and the promotion of the products, as well as for the remuneration of the craftsmen. The masters were the only ones who were members of the craft guilds and had the right to participate in decision-making and voting (Efthimiou 2003, 329). Similarly, in Venetian colonies the master was called “maistro” and had the right to practice a profession, own a workshop, and supervise the work of the apprentices and servants (Panopoulou 2010, 160). In both cases an apprentice (named as “kalfas” in the Ottoman colonies and “lavorante” in the Venetian ones) used to become a master when his knowledge and performance was certified and he paid a certain amount of money (mastoria) to the guild (Efthimiou 2003, 330). However, in the Ottoman Empire the duration of the apprenticeship had no limits, while in the Venetian colonies the average time spent for an apprenticeship was five years (Panopoulou 2010, p.159).

The management of the guilds was done by governing boards (consisting of up to twelve members in the case of Ottoman colonies), which were elected by the general assemblees of the guilds (named as “lontza” or “capitolio”, depending on the region). A craft guild’s leader, whose tenure was one to two years, was called “protomastoras” and was recognized by the communal authorities. He officially represented the guild and punished whoever violated the set rules (Efthimiou 2003, 331). In Venetian colonies the foundation act, the objectives, the regulation and the decisions of the guilds as well as the names of the members can be found in the so-called “mariegola”. The latter also determined the membership fees, which included an annual fee (luminaria) and an access fee (bona entrata), while there was a special charge for foreigners (Panopoulou 2010, 165). Exceptionally, in Crete the guilds were represented by the so-called “vardiani”, who were also the guardians or heads of the monasteries, where the guilds were based (Panopoulou 2010, 167).

Nevertheless, in both the Ottoman and Venetian colonies the craft guilds, as all other types of guilds, had a close relationship with the Church (Efthimiou 2003, 334) and a significant social activity, from founding schools and hospitals to donating for the old, weak or poor community members.

The craft guilds in the Greek territory both under the Ottoman and Venetian rule started to terminate their activity at the same period as the other types of guilds did and for similar reasons. The high competition derived from European industries and the structures of the intensive capitalist development in the nineteenth century eroded the level of socio-economic equality between the guilds’ members, causing conflicts between them. In almost all craft guilds the gap between wealthy and poor members increased at such extent that in some cases the poor ones abandoned their profession and were proletarianized (Papageorgiou 1988, 282-3). In the early twentieth century, the workers started to form their own associations aiming at mutual support, resulting in the division of most of the craft guilds to associations of capitalist employers and associations of workers/employees (Papageorgiou 1988, p.284). 

Craft guilds in Italy

Craft guilds in Italy developed at the end of the Middle Ages, during the growing process of urbanization, especially in the northern part of Italy. Their rise was continuous until the 1760s when the first process of abolition appeared. There are two important blossoming periods for craft guilds in Italy. The first was in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries (thanks to the low level in the first period). The second was during the end of the sixteenth and the first decades of the seventeenth centuries. By 1500 the north of Italy had the highest guild density in relation to the inhabitants. Overall, the trend in Italy is characterized by a constant growth in the number of guilds.

Access to craft guilds was generally restricted to men, with some exceptions regarding widows or specific female guilds. Craft guilds included generally three degrees: masters (‘maestri’), free-workers engaged to work with a contract (‘lavoranti’) and apprentices (‘garzoni’ or ‘discipuli’). Masters were generally independent artisans, having the ownership of the workshop and the possibilityto sign contracts with salaried workers or apprentices. The title of master means the knowledge of the ministerium, the secrets of the craft. The master could also teach the apprentices. Masters could also be employed under other masters as salaried workers. In some guilds there is also a distinction between masters and chief masters (capi-maestri). To have the access to the title of master, one had to follow a specific cursus honorum, which included a period as apprentice (normally between three to six years) and as a worker. Finally they had to pass a final exam, judged by other masters. In the case of foreign workers, they had to work with a master for some years (between one and two years) before they could have access to the final exam. Of course this general picture was different for different crafts. Sometimes apprenticeships and the period as workers were not required and people could have access to the mastership by only paying a fee or by taking a general exam Once they became masters, they could stay in the guild council as first degree members.

Lavoranti (literally workers) refers to free-workers who engaged with a contract under a master. The Italian lavoranti are similar to the European ‘journeyman’, though without a well-defined tramping system as in Central Europe.  In some crafts in order to be lavoranti it was necessary to have passed some specific time as apprentice or to have taken an exam (in the case of foreigners). These workers were normally enrolled in the guild lists by the same masters. They only rarely had access to the guild council. Therefore they sometimes organized themselves into a separate guild; frequently they founded spiritual or laical confraternities in order to defend their duties and rights against their masters.

Garzoni or discipuli are in general young people (6-12 years old) engaged to learning the job and staying for certain period with a master, also known as apprentices. The period as apprentice depends on the craft; frequently the timing was not indicated in the guild statutes and private contracts substituted it.

For the masters, membership guaranteed the right to perform their job alone or to manage a workshop. Membership also gave access to the guild council in order to decide and vote new rules. Within guilds there were also specific associations of masters which performed a particular job. These associations were named colonnelli and they sometimes had the prerogative to decide rules for their specific job or trade.

The political influence of craft guilds in Italy was generally limited. Certainly during the early modern period they lost a great deal of their autonomy. Guild courts were deprived of their competencies and civic councils were limited to urban élites. However, in a few cases craft guilds (especially compared to their importance in the urban economy) maintained their relation with the political power, obtaining protection against foreign competitions and technological innovation. Guilds in Italy were abolished during the second half of the eighteenth century, normally by political orders (Tuscany 1760, Milan 1787, Venetian Republic 1805-7). They were generally substituted by the Chamber of Commerce. 

Sector guilds

Frequently, in Italy there were guilds where the members managed the entire chain of production. The best example was the textile sector. The names of these guilds (Arte della lana, arte della seta, “Università dell’arte…”) indicate that they comprehend the complete sector. Normally only the merchant-entrepreneurs (drapers, rarely single artisans) had access to membership and the guild council. The other artisans (from the beaters to the weavers) were not organized into other guilds, which were normally even prohibited. Though in some cases these artisans organized themselves into confraternities. Formal craft guilds of these artisans were permitted and especially prevalent in major cities such as Milan, Venice, Genoa and Naples. The rules concerning production were decided by the merchant-manufacturers, the sole group that could acquire the raw materials and coordinate the entire production. Access to membership was defined by the guild statutes. In general it was necessary to have produced a number of clothes or served as garzone or ministro (minister) to another merchant for a specified number of years.

These guilds sometimes had a great influence on political power, influencing trade policy and controlling natural resources in the territory.

(Guenzi et al. 1999; Massa and Moioli 2004)

Craft guilds in China

Craft guilds in China were founded at the end of the sixteenth century, but these organizations blossomed two centuries later, during the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century the number of guilds began to decline as a result of government interference.

Similarities with the European guilds were:

  • their religious functions and civic functions (welfare);
  • the master – journeymen relationship. Also journeymen were not allowed to set up their own associations.  

Differences with the European guilds were:

  • the relationship with the political order;
  • no formal membership;
  • their reliance on extended family structures.