- An association of merchants or craftsmen in a medieval or Renaissance city, intended to regulate relations among those who practiced the same occupation and to safeguard the common interests of its members and also (in theory) the general interest of the whole community. Guilds developed gradually and spontaneously as industrial production and commerce grew, and they were common by the 11th and 12th centuries. In many towns, the earliest guild was an association of all who traded or produced goods for sale. Since most early medieval towns were ruled by some external authority (a feudal lord, an imperial vicar, or a bishop) who provided few or no services but regarded the townspeople as subject to his laws and taxes, the early guilds acted to provide basic necessities such as fortifications, potable water, and reliable supplies of food. In many places, the guild of merchants gradually became the real local government and struggled — sometimes by paying money and sometimes by force of arms — to reduce or even to eliminate the authority of the overlord. Since the wealthy merchants dominated the guild, the new town governments were also dominated by the rich. In Italy, many local regimes also faced the problem of incorporating the urban nobility, a military caste of owners of landed estates who were not involved in commerce or industry and who often refused to obey the city's laws. The leaders of the guilds (the popolo) strove to reduce the privileges of the nobility—above all, to compel them to abandon the practice of enforcing their will by armed force and to demolish their fortified urban houses. These struggles took place in nearly every self-governing Italian commune and were especially important in the early history of the republic of Florence.The rise of guilds was important in many parts of Europe, even in regions where cities remained subject to royal authority. Not every large city had guilds. In some places, the rich merchants who dominated local government regarded them as potential sources of political opposition. Nuremberg in Germany, for example, suppressed its guilds in 1349. There, all regulations governing commerce and industrial production came from the city council, and there were no guilds to form and enforce rules of their own. In most cities, however, people engaged in the same trade did develop guilds. In some places, guilds dominated local government. In other places, guilds had little or no political power but were allowed to organize and to regulate their professional activities, always subject to the authority of the city council.In towns that remained small, all guilds were craft guilds, organizations of self-employed artisans who managed both the production and the retail sale of their own wares — for example, bakers, butchers, and shoemakers. Members of such craft guilds produced exclusively for local consumption. Their rules forbade production by non-members and excluded competing goods imported from outside. They supervised methods of production, hours of labor, maintenance of quality, number of apprentices and journeymen, and prices. The guilds also regulated the training of apprentices and the admission of journeymen, young men who had completed their apprenticeship, to the status of independent masters and members of the guild. By the 15th century, in many guilds the established masters created barriers to attaining master status, both in order to limit competition and in order to maintain a pool of skilled laborers available for hire. In some trades, journeymen who were not sons of established masters might be compelled to remain wage-laborers for their entire lives.Such craft guilds also developed in the large cities that became centers of international trade, but these cities also developed guilds of merchants who traded outside the city and directed the production of exportable products. Members of such guilds were no longer simple merchants; their guilds were associations of mercantile capitalists. The craft guilds tried to ensure that all members would have relatively equal incomes and standards of living: no one would starve, but no one would be allowed to get more than his fair share of the total business. The merchant-capitalists could never be effectively regulated in this way because their business extended beyond the city's jurisdiction. Particularly in the textile trades of Italy and Flanders, wealthy merchants controlled the market outlets for the products of local craftsmen. Thus the merchant-exporters could control the prices they paid for work by artisans even though in theory the artisans were self-employed craftsmen. City guilds and even city governments often tried to outlaw this tendency of large-scale merchants to evade local regulation and to reduce self-employed artisans to the level of de facto employees, but since the exporters alone had access to the foreign markets, they were immune to local control.This distinction between the privileged guilds of wealthy businessmen and the humbler craft guilds was highly developed in Florence, where it was built into the political system. The right to participate in politics and to hold public office was limited to members of the 21 officially recognized guilds. But except for about four decades (1343-1382) of democratizing political reforms that ended in a coup d'état by the rich merchants, the seven greater guilds (arti maggiori), composed of the international merchants on whose activities the prosperity of the city depended, were guaranteed a majority on the ruling council (Signoria) and thus controlled public policy on all issues on which they were agreed. The much more populous 14 middle and lesser guilds (arti minori) had some voice on the Signoria, but the rich guilds controlled the government. As in nearly all cities that had guilds, the very poorest Florentines, casual wage-laborers who had no skilled trade, owned no property, and had no guild of their own, were totally cut out of political life. The Ciompi rebellion of 1378 in Florence was an attempt by these unorganized and unskilled laborers to form guilds and so to gain a voice in local politics, but within four years the rebels had been put down by armed force and had lost all the gains that they made in 1378.In addition to their economic and political function, guilds were also important in urban religious and social life. Many guilds paid special honors to the patron saint of their craft, maintaining an altar or chapel in one of the parish churches, attending services together on the saint's feast day, and assessing members for the financial support of such communal activities. They required members to attend services on religious feast days and to be present at the funerals of members. They also provided social welfare services for guild members who suffered from disabling illness, for widows and orphans of deceased members, and for other cases of special need among their members.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.