Book review – The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis

8-minute read

This review is a case of one book leading to another. When I read Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trap, one argument he raised as to why the Industrial Revolution arrived as late as it did, was the resistance to innovation by guilds. But beyond certain vague and probably romantic notions, what do I really know about medieval guilds? And thus I found myself sitting down with The European Guilds, a hefty 645-page book by economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie, published in The Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. This meticulously argued book crushes the idea that guilds served the common good. Instead, argues Ogilvie, through their profiteering they held Europe in an economic stranglehold that lasted for centuries.

The European Guilds

The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis, written by Sheilagh Ogilvie, published by Princeton University Press in February 2019 (hardback, 645 pages)

Two clarifications are in order before proceeding. First, Ogilvie’s definition of craft guilds. She includes not just occupational guilds (a sober reminder that once upon a time not everything was made in China and came to us on container ships), but also guilds of primary producers (e.g. farmers and miners) and the medieval service sector (e.g. porters and musicians). However, since it is such an established term in the literature, “craft guild” here encompasses all of these. With one exception. Because, second, this book follows her 2011 book Institutions and European Trade that examined merchant guilds (i.e. wholesale traders) and asked many similar questions. As guilds persisted for centuries, does that mean they were efficient institutions that benefited the economy at large or were they merely looking after the interests of their own members? As it turns out, asking these questions means unwittingly stepping into an academic turf war, as opinions are deeply divided.

The core of Ogilvie’s work revolves around two databases – one qualitative, the other quantitative – that reveal how guilds behaved. For this, she has painstakingly compiled 17,384 observations spanning over nine centuries from 995 to 1899 from historical documents, archival records, and the work of numerous historians. She then systematically interrogates these databases to provide empirical answers to a range of questions and suppositions about craft guilds: when, where, and how frequently they behaved in certain ways.

What this reveals is that guilds lobbied their governments for formal privileges expressed in ordinances, charters, and other pieces of legislation. In return, guilds assisted governments financially (e.g. by offering taxes, loans, or revenue shares) and sometimes practically by e.g. contributing manpower to armies. This widespread collusion: “[…] offered a highly effective way for two sets of powerful beneficiaries – rulers and businessmen – to redistribute larger slices of the pie to themselves […]” (p. 80).

“[…] were [guilds] efficient institutions that benefited the economy at large or were they merely looking after the interests of their own members? As it turns out, asking these questions means unwittingly stepping into an academic turf war.”

With governments willingly turning a blind eye, guilds got up to all sorts of unbelievable chicanery. They put in place entry barriers to occupations: only guild members were allowed to practise a given occupation, and guilds decided who got in. Next to charging high fees for membership and licenses to practice, there were restrictions on what you could do, and membership could be refused for any number of reasons: gender, ethnicity, age, marital status etc. Guilds manipulated markets and created artificial scarcity: they set productivity quota, limited the sizes of workshops, forbade the use of certain tools, capped wages of labourers, and set upper limits on prices paid to suppliers of raw materials. They excluded women from entering guilds or at the very least from attaining a high station – though, obviously, restrictions were “flexible” for female family members of guild masters.

But what about other benefits? Surely, guilds ensured high-quality work? Not really. Guild ordinances rarely mentioned quality regulations, barely monitored or punished poor-quality output by guild members, and readily certified substandard or counterfeit goods. Corruption was rife. Faced with high prices, consumers would frequently buy wares illegally at black markets. Then what about investment in so-called human capital by providing training through apprenticeships? Nope. Many guilds did not require them, others administered outdated examinations, passed unqualified candidates for the right bribe, exploited apprentices as cheap labour, or insisted on unreasonably long apprenticeships lasting many years. Innovation then? That question led me to this book in the first place – The Technology Trap mentioned Ogilvie’s work. Guilds vehemently resisted technological innovation and hindered the spread of knowledge, unless it happened to serve their interests.

Though I am barely scratching the surface with the above, the picture that emerges of guilds is that of intensely corrupt institutions guilty of racketeering at every turn. They served the interest of their members first and foremost, and any benefit to outsiders appears to have been entirely unintentional. As mentioned, this view is not without its detractors and Ogilvie repeatedly references the work of historians Stephan R. Epstein and Maarten Prak whose book Guilds, Innovation and the European Economy, 1400–1800 draws many contrary conclusions.

“[…] the picture that emerges of guilds is that of intensely corrupt institutions guilty of racketeering at every turn. They served the interest of their members first and foremost, and any benefit to outsiders appears to have been entirely unintentional.”

The European Guilds is meticulously documented and clearly structured. It is easy to follow her line of reasoning as Ogilvie reiterates her conclusions at the end of sections and chapters. What lends credibility to her arguments are the numerous contemporary sources she quotes. A multitude of voices from the past speaks to us through these pages, injecting much colourful historical detail into the book. It makes her analysis compulsively readable and I raced through whole sections slack-jawed at times. A few examples – some comically absurd, others horrific – should whet your appetite:

In sixteenth-century Rome […] people paid the wine-carriers’ guild for permission to transport their own wine […]” (p. 144)

“[…] the Augsburg bookbinders’ guild backed up their expulsion of an undesired apprentice in 1760 by sending his father an anonymous letter mentioning murder […]” (p. 161)

In 1780 […] the Rome gold-leafers’ guild tried to limit a widow to the statutory six- months’ practice, whereupon she appealed on the ground that she had conducted the craft alongside her husband for over thirty years […]” (p. 253)

In fourteenth-century Cologne, counterfeiting the guild seal was so rife that the town council ordered the woollen-weavers’ guild to keep the sealing pliers under lock and key.” (p. 325)

“[…] in sixteenth-century Dijon […] the hatters’ guild required candidates to make a masterpiece that was fifty years out of style, so that no master even knew how to make it.” (p. 416)

Around 1272, a Guelph called Barghesano who had been driven out of Lucca erected a water-driven twisting mill in Bologna, for which he was hanged in effigy in Lucca.” (p. 495)

Towards the end, I was left with two questions. First, how on Earth were guilds able to get away with all of this? Although Ogilvie does not dedicate a chapter to specifically answering this question, the patient reader will find plenty of examples of laws favouring guilds, and of guilds using intimidation and physical violence. It seems members of the public had little recourse to the collusion between guilds and rulers. And second, why did guilds eventually disappear? This is discussed at the end of the book, but only very briefly. The answer is still debated and involves a complex of factors, but it seems both powerbrokers and business-owners gradually turned their backs on guilds, with them being abolished at various dates in Europe. Another useful addition would have been a glossary of the many professions that have long since disappeared. Besides historians, who remembers the jobs done by coopers, draymen, furriers, turners, wire-drawers, or worsted-weavers?

Coming to this topic as an outsider I am hesitant to pick sides. However, based on my reading of this book and Frey’s The Technology Trap, the argument of guilds not being a force for the greater good seems very convincing. Especially the many contemporary sources that Ogilvie quotes here are hard to discount. Thus, this book comes highly recommended for readers interested in medieval history and specifically the history of craft guilds. However, there is so much historical detail here that general history buffs will undoubtedly find much to enjoy too.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The European Guilds

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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