Guild, in medieval Europe, an economic and social association of men in the same business or craft. The word is from the Anglo-Saxon gildan, “to pay,” because every member paid his share toward the expenses of the society. Merchant and craft guilds flourished from the 11th to the 15th century, then declined.
The guilds appeared with the growth of towns and played a major role in the development of municipal government. The craft guilds are sometimes regarded as forerunners of modern labor unions, but there is no direct relationship. Some of the guild terms, such as master, journeyman, and apprentice, survive in modern craft unions. Some fraternal orders, notably the Masons, trace their origins to craft guilds.
In general, the term “guild” referred to any society, or fraternity, for the promotion of common interests. Some guilds were primarily social or religious associations, and in the beginning probably most guilds were of this type. Guilds were first mentioned in the eighth century. In this period when government was weak it was natural for men to form voluntary societies to promote common interests.
During the 11th century, merchant guilds were formed in many towns. They arose out of the need to protect commerce and industry in towns, which were outside the scope of the feudal system and thus had no laws or customs governing economic affairs. In many places, town charters specifically stated that the inhabitants of a town could form a guild. Often, the leaders of these guilds also became the leaders of municipal governments.
Originally, each town had only one guild, which included both merchants and craftsmen. Members of the guild had a monopoly on trade in that town. The guild regulated economic life, fixing prices and wages and seeing that goods were manufactured by reliable and well-trained persons. Guilds also established schools, promoted the interests of the Catholic church, and served as social clubs.
As industry developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, members of each occupation or trade began to organize their own specialized guilds. These guilds, called craft guilds, supervised the quality of goods produced, regulated working hours, and approved the admission of new guild members. They usually were not involved in town government. A successful craft guild eventually would achieve a monopoly on the trade of the type of goods its members produced.
The craft guild included three classes. At the top were the masters, skilled craftsmen who owned and operated the shops. Next were the journeymen, who had learned the craft and were paid employees of the masters. The lowest class consisted of the apprentices, who worked for board and room while learning the trade.
The rise of craft guilds weakened the merchant guilds, and there was a long period of conflict between the two. In addition, during the 15th century, trouble developed within the craft guilds themselves, as masters attempted to preserve their monopoly in towns by allowing fewer journeymen to become masters. Journeymen eventually formed their own associations to improve working conditions and to secure better wages and shorter hours.
Guilds further declined as trade between towns and between countries increased in the latter part of the Middle Ages. With an expanded trading area, a new type of merchant emerged, one who engaged in large-scale trade. Large business enterprises were formed, and guilds, which were designed to operate only in single towns, gradually became obsolete.