In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Guilds

  • Introduction
  • Definitions, Theories, and Terminology
  • Reference Works
  • General Studies of Medieval European Guilds
  • Guilds in England
  • Guilds in Germany, Netherlands, and Scandinavia
  • Guilds in Italy
  • Guilds in France and Spain
  • Origins of European Guilds
  • Guilds and Economic Innovation and Development

Medieval Studies Guilds
Joseph P. Byrne
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0252


Guild as used in medieval scholarship is a term denoting an association of people bound by common interests and goals and a dedication to certain related tasks that are largely well articulated. In England, guild, or gild, might refer to a collection of occupationally related artisans or merchants, to male members of a parish, or to men and women joined voluntarily for religious purposes into what was elsewhere referred to as a confraternity. All guilds shared religious as well as social functions, such as collecting and distributing charity, sharing worship and feasting, aiding distressed members, and burying dead members. Guilds that were analogous to arti, Zünfte, corporations, gremios, and ghilde on the European continent also organized economic sectors of a city and represented members’ political interests. Guilds appeared during the urban revival of the 11th and succeeding centuries, perhaps continuing older Roman or Germanic patterns of association. As cities grew in sophistication, guilds grew in number and expanding functions, as reflected in their statutes and member rolls that have survived. Scholarly interest in medieval guilds has broadly followed wider intellectual trends. Collections of guild materials appeared in the great Victorian-era source compilations, and the rise of trade unions prompted reflections on guilds as their ancestors. While early-20th-century work was often legal and institutional, with economic historians following closely, social history focusing on women, rowdy journeymen, and education of youth has taken its place more recently. Traditional views have held that guilds retarded economic development, though revisionists have challenged and replaced these beliefs with detailed studies and reinterpretations. Comparative studies have disclosed important similarities and differences within and between medieval European cities and regions, and differential studies have even gone global in scope. This article is limited in a number of ways. It sidesteps what in England are often called religious guilds, while privileging associations of craftsmen and, to a lesser extent, merchants. Professionals, such as physicians, lawyers, and bankers are generally ignored here as well, unless appearing alongside artisans or merchants. Of growing interest to scholars are rural guilds, but attention here is on urban organizations. While some works cited are exclusively medieval in scope, many cover guilds after 1500 as well. Regionally, most entries represent England, northern Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and France, with Spain and Scandinavia appearing occasionally. All materials are in English, German, French, Italian, or Spanish, while some sources are in Latin.

Definitions, Theories, and Terminology

While it might seem obvious what an author refers to with the term guild, or any of its many translations in European languages, it is often the case that she needs to specify what is being meant. In England guild, or gild, may denote a religious association, a purely social one, or one limited to members of a particular occupation. An occupational guild may have bound fellow craftsmen, merchants, or service professionals, such as bankers or notaries. Since many source traditions used labels such as societas or corporatio or schola for organizations of varying types, the issue is not simply a matter of an author agreeing to use a term in an unvarying manner. Further, some guild scholars argue against using simple qualifiers, as in the English “craft” guild versus “religious” guild, pointing out that many guilds constituted both types and, thus, such labels are misleading. Modern Continental usage generally distinguishes religious associations from occupational ones by use, for the former, of a cognate with the English “brotherhood”: cofradía, confraternità, or Brüderschaft. The author of Derville 1994 harnesses the various usages of the French métier in this article in sorting out five distinct referents in Saint Omer over two decades. Similarly, the author of Heusinger 2010 creates a functional typology of German guilds or guild-like associations in an attempt to make sense of the medieval social landscape. The authors of Irsigler 1985 and Schmidt-Wiegand 1985 laid the groundwork for this direction of German scholarship a quarter century earlier. Irsigler seems more concerned with modern scholarship and its loosely applied vocabulary. He recommends applying the term Gilde to Kaufleutekorporationen consistently, while using Zünfte for gewerbliche Verbände as his editor does in the anthology’s title. He would further specify politische Zunft when the need arose (p. 70). Theoretical issues take different forms. Black 1984 treats guilds as early or contemporary steps to state development and finds important insights in the writings of major later medieval political/theological theorists. Reininghaus 2000 applies modern geographical research to regional patterns of presence and characteristics in northwestern Europe. Comparison is also at the center of Holbach 2016, which studies familiar guild centers such as Florence and Ghent through the lenses of modern social science.

  • Black, Antony. Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

    Emphasis is on craft rather than religious or merchant guilds. “How did guilds affect European social sentiment and political theory? To what extent did they provide, as the family obviously did, an analogue or prototype for the polity?” (p. 11). Chapters on the Middle Ages (pp. 3–95) explore the “ethos” of craftwork in theology and political theory, especially that of Aquinas, Bartolus, and Marsiglio of Padua.

  • Derville, Alain. “Les métiers de Saint-Omer.” In Les métiers au Moyen Âge: Aspects économiques et sociaux; Actes du colloque international de Louvain-la-Neuve, 7–9 octobre 1993. Edited by Pascale Lambrechts and Jean-Pierre Sosson, 99–108. Publications de l’Institut d’Études Médiévales 15. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1994.

    Studies the dominant role of merchants in regulating craft guilds for their own benefit. Outlines five distinct ways civic “bans” of “métiers” (1280–1300) use the latter term: for the economic sector, all workers in a given occupation, weavers, professions, and non-merchant skilled occupations or crafts.

  • Heusinger, Sabine von. “Von ‘antwerk’ bis ‘Zunft’: Methodische Überlegungen zu den Zünften im Mittelalter.” Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung 37 (2010): 37–71.

    DOI: 10.3790/zhf.37.1.37

    Categorizes four guild types by functions: political, commercial, confraternal, and military. Some were narrowly specialized, others much broader in scope. Terminology at the time was very fluid, creating problems for scholars today.

  • Holbach, Rudolf. “Mittelalterliche Zünfte und Handwerker im Lichte Wirschafts-, Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaftlicher Theorien.” In Craftsmen and Guilds in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Edited by Eva Jullien and Michael Pauly, 15–36. Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte—Beihefte 235. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.

    Overview of social and cultural theories that underlay recent scholarship on guilds, with an eye on future research programs in treating what social science theories might continue to tell us about guilds. Largely but not exclusively German-language materials reviewed. The collection exemplifies emerging approaches to guild history by blending case studies from Florence, Rouen, Ghent, and Spain with social scientific theories.

  • Irsigler, Franz. “Zur Problematik der Gilde- und Zunftterminologie.” In Gilden und Zünfte: Kaufmännische und gewerbliche Genossenschaften im frühen und hohen Mittelalter. Edited by Berent Schwineköper, 53–70. Sigmaringen, West Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 1985.

    Accepting that medieval Germanophone terminology for guilds and other urban associations is varied and used irregularly, Irsigler presents and recommends a more uniform usage by modern scholars.

  • Reininghaus, Wilfried, ed. Zunftlandschaften in Deutschland und den Niederlanden im Vergleich: Kolloquium der historischen Kommission für Westfalen am 6. und 7. November 1997 auf Haus Welbergen. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2000.

    Contains seven articles from a conference held in 1997 in Westphalia in which German and Netherlandish patterns of guild presence and functioning were compared. “Guild regions” are considered geographic areas within which patterns of urban guilds shared important characteristics. Includes historiographical discussion of trends in German comparative regional scholarship since the work of Gustav Schmoller and Georg Schanz in the 1870s.

  • Schmidt-Wiegand, Ruth. “Die Bezeichnungen Zunft und Gilde in ihrem historischen und wortgeographischen Zusammenhang.” In Gilden und Zünfte: Kaufmännische und gewerbliche Genossenschaften im frühen und hohen Mittelalter. Edited by Berent Schwineköper, 31–52. Sigmaringen, West Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 1985.

    Surveys medieval terminology for guilds in Germanic lands, seeking to disentangle the various usages.

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