Craft Guild

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Craft Guild


under feudalism, an organization of city craftsmen according to occupation; craft guild members were economically independent small-scale producers.

Western Europe. The organizations of city craftsmen reached their greatest development in the countries of Western Europe, where the medieval urban population had achieved a large measure of self-government. The rights gained by urban dwellers facilitated the joining together of craftsmen into craft guilds and contributed to the growth of the craft guilds that were already in existence. Craft guilds were formed in the 11th and 12th centuries in France, Germany, and England, and possibly even earlier in Italy; they reached their apex in the 13th and 14th centuries, when most of the cities of Western Europe had their various specialized craft guilds. Thus, for example, there were craft guilds of weavers, clothworkers, cloth dyers, shoemakers, tanners, bakers, butchers, carpenters, and metalwork craftsmen.

The formation of craft guilds was associated with a characteristic trait of Western European feudal society—its tendency to organize social groups into separate corporate entities. Besides the craftsmen and artisans, other strata of the urban population that organized themselves into craft guilds included musicians, fishermen, gardeners, physicians, and various specialized retail tradesmen. Merchants, too, joined together in special corporations, or guilds, that resembled the craft guilds.

Only independent craftsmen who had their own businesses were full-fledged members of the craft guilds; such craftsmen, called masters, owned the tools of their trade as well as the shops where they worked, aided by journeymen and apprentices. In order to become a master, a man not only needed to have sufficient material resources to open his own shop; he was also required to serve a term of apprenticeship (ranging from two or three years to as much as seven years or even longer) and to work a certain time as a journeyman. Once they were joined together in the craft guilds, the master craftsmen usually obtained the right to manage their own internal affairs under the general supervision of city authorities. The craft guilds were governed by assemblies of masters and by special officials elected by the craft guild members; frequently, however, such officials were appointed (or confirmed after their election) by the city authorities.

The craft guilds’ activities were primarily determined by the production interests of the urban craftsmen. The craft guilds fought (not always successfully) to establish a system under which craft guild members would be granted monopoly rights—that is, exclusive rights to produce and sell a given type of handicraft within the bounds of the city and its environs. The regulations imposed by the craft guilds on the production and marketing of handicraft products had the twofold purpose of creating favorable conditions for guild members’ economic activities and eliminating competition in their respective fields; the guilds’ charters contained such specifications as masters’ and journeymen’s working hours and conditions of work, the technology of the production process, the quality requirements for finished articles, the prescribed locations and conditions for the purchase of raw materials and the marketing of finished goods, the length of time and conditions of apprenticeship, and sometimes the number of journeymen and workbenches that each master was allowed in his workshop. The chief justification for all these measures was the limited range of the market; the limited demand for handicraft items was related to the predominance of the natural economy in feudal society.

Despite the equalizing tendency of craft guild regulations, the small-scale production of goods created distinct opportunities for property-based stratification. In the large urban centers, such stratification had already reached considerable dimensions in the 13th and 14th centuries, especially where large quantities of handicraft articles were produced for export (for example, in Florence, Ghent, and Bruges). Within the craft guilds, distinctions were made on the basis of the masters’ varying degree of affluence. Likewise, stratification developed among the various specialized craft guilds—some of which became, in effect, associations of entrepreneurs who distributed work to craftsmen from other craft guilds.

As in the case of other medieval corporations, the craft guilds’ influence extended to all aspects of the lives of their members: for example, the guilds exacted conformity to specific rules of conduct, provided mutual aid, organized joint holiday celebrations, and participated in religious processions; they also constituted the nuclei of urban militia forces. Each craft guild had its own emblem, depicting the tools of the particular craft, as well as its own seal and cash funds.

The craft guilds played a major role in the social conflicts within each city. Defending the interests of a broad range of craftsmen, the craft guilds headed the struggle against the urban patriciate and in many cases seized control of the city’s administration—usually in the cities where a highly developed craft was predominant in the urban economy (for example, in Florence, Cologne, and Ghent). As a rule, however, it was only the richest and most influential craft guilds that reaped the rewards of such victories.

The craft guilds differed among themselves in specific respects, such as forms of organization and functions, and the changes that took place within them accorded with the distinctive features of each country’s socioeconomic and political structure. Specific changes were also related to such factors as the nature of the city’s economy (that is, the predominance of industry or of trade) and the type of industry in which a given craft guild was founded. The extent of the craft guilds’ independence vis-à-vis the city authorities and the state varied considerably. In some instances the craft guilds enjoyed broad autonomy, while in others they were strictly supervised by the city authorities or official state bodies. Greater restrictions were placed on the craft guilds’ autonomy in the centralized states than in the decentralized ones; in France, for example, the craft guilds were less autonomous than they were in Germany.

In their initial stage, craft guilds were a progressive force that strengthened the craftsmen’s economic and legal position. The craft guilds contributed to the development of handicraft techniques and helped raise the level of workmanship by enforcing the observance of definite rules with respect to production technology, apprenticeship, and masters’ qualifications. The growing number of highly developed craft guilds was a major contributing factor in the rapid economic upsurge of the Western European countries from the 12th through the 14th century.

A different situation obtained from the 16th through the 18th century: in the early stages of capitalism, the craft guilds acted as a brake on economic progress; by supporting and protecting small-scale handicraft production, they hindered the development of emerging capitalist economic forms. New forms of production—capitalist domestic industries and manufacturing— assumed the leading role in technical and economic development. During this period the organization of the craft guilds and their functions changed substantially. A sharper line of social demarcation was drawn between masters and journeymen. Being forced to compete with the more advanced forms of industry, the masters sought to maintain their own position by transforming themselves into an exclusive privileged estate. “Closed’” craft guilds were created by a “locking out” process—that is, by restricting the admission of journeymen to membership; the various means used to this end included setting higher entrance dues and strict requirements for the “masterpiece” that each craftsman had to produce in order to gain entrance to a craft guild. A concomitant of these changes was the growing exploitation of the journeymen.

All these developments together led to the exacerbation of the conflict between masters and journeymen and the shift from journeymen’s associations to organizations actively opposing the masters. The journeymen and apprentices, now in effect hired laborers, were losing any real chance they may have had of becoming masters, while the masters, having enriched themselves, were turning into the entrepreneurs of early capitalism. To a considerable extent, the craft guilds had lost the right of self-government and were subjected to continuous and petty controls and fiscal exploitation by the state and city authorities.

With the establishment of advanced capitalist relations and the consequent recognition of the principles of free capitalist entrepreneurship and competition, the craft guild system came to an end even in those branches of industry where small-scale handicraft production had survived. The French craft guilds were abolished in 1791, during the French Revolution; in Germany all the restrictions imposed by the craft guilds on handicraft production were removed by law over the course of the 19th century.

Asia and North Africa. Specialized craftsmen’s associations also existed in such countries as China, Japan, India, Persia, the Arab countries, and the Ottoman Empire, where the economic status of urban craftsmen during the Middle Ages and in early modern times was in many ways analogous to that of their counterparts in feudal Europe. In these countries, however, such associations did not attain the level of development of the Western European craft guilds; unlike the latter, they had no self-government rights, and they played no significant role in their countries’ history.


Gratsianskii, N. P. Parizhskie remeslennye tsekhi v XIII–XIV stoletiiakh. Kazan, 1911.
Stoklitskaia-Tereshkovich, V. V. Ocherki po sotsial’noi istorii nemetskogogoroda v XIV–XV vekakh. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Stoklitskaia-Tereshkovich, V. V. “Problema mnogoobraziia srednevekovogo tsekha na Zapade i na Rusi.” In the collection Srednie veka, vol. 3. Moscow, 1951.
Rutenburg, V. I. Ocherk iz istorii rannego kapitalizma v Italii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1951.
Polianskii, F. la. Ocherki sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoi politiki tsekhov v gorodakh Zapadnoi Evropy XIII–XV vv. Moscow, 1952.
Stam, S. M. Ekonomicheskoe i sotsial’noe razvitie rannego goroda (Tuluza XI–XIII vv.). [Saratov] 1969.
Russia. In various cities of ancient Rus’, the growing specialization of handicrafts led to the establishment of craftsmen’s settlements in the posadskie sotni (the city subdivisions generally comprising the tradesmen’s and artisans’ quarters) and in the slobody (tax-exempt settlements); the churches built in these settlements bore the names of saints who were considered protectors of specific crafts. Rus’ can thus be regarded as the birthplace of Russian craft guilds.
In 1722, Peter I the Great instituted a set of regulations establishing a craft guild system that would satisfy state demands for handicraft products. Both freemen and serfs released on quitrent were admitted to the craft guilds. A specific task had to be completed to qualify a man for admission to a craft guild and the title of master. Russian journeymen and apprentices had no rights from the 18th to the early 20th century. The type of craft guild organization that developed under capitalist conditions favored the exercise of arbitrary rule on the part of the masters.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries saw the emergence of craft guilds in Latvia and Estonia, after the conquest of these territories by German feudal lords. In structure and character, the craft guilds of the Baltic region were replicas of the German craft guilds, whose traditions had been transferred to new soil by the predominantly German population of the Baltic cities.
In Byelorussia, in the Ukraine, and in Lithuania—the territories that were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—the craft guilds were based on Magdeburg law, whose provisions were implemented by the city magistrates. After the incorporation of these territories by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, the craft guilds in these areas underwent a series of changes that brought them closer to the Russian model.
The craft guilds of Central Asia and Transcaucasia were essentially different from those of Western Europe: extensive use was made of slave labor, and the interference of the feudal lords and the state resulted in the craft guilds’ almost total lack of autonomy. Starting in the 11th century, craftsmen in the Seljuk states formed closed groups that provided training, admitted apprentices, and formulated work rules. From the 14th century, the craft guilds borrowed the structure and ritual of the dervish communities and military-religious brotherhoods: Among the craft guilds’ distinguishing traits were the relatively free access of new members and the preservation of patriarchal relations.
The craft guild system came to an end in the USSR in 1917.


Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii, vol. 6 (no. 3708) and vol. 7 (no. 4624). St. Petersburg, 1830.
Leshkov, V. N. “Ocherk drevnikh russkikh zakonov o remeslennoi i zavodskoi promyshlennosti.” Moskvitianin, 1852, no. 23.
Tikhomirov, M. N. Drevnerusskiegoroda, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1956.
Liashchenko, P. I. Istoriia narodnogo khoziaistva SSSR, 3rd ed., vol. 1. Moscow, 1952.
Rybakov, B. A. Remeslo drevnei Rusi. Moscow, 1948.
Pazhitnov, K. A. Problema remeslennykh tsekhov v zakonodatel’stve russkogo absoliutizma. Moscow, 1952.
Sakharov, A. M. Goroda Severo-Vostochnoi Rusi XIV–XV vv. 1959.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Through the reign of Mary of Burgundy the initial temporary alliance between merchant networks and the urban craft guilds shifted to a permanent unit of nucleus and periphery of the same faction.
I have already mentioned that some members of the social network of Maarten Lem occupied important political functions in the Bruges craft guilds. His brother-in-law Antoon van Nieuwenhove was dean of the soap makers; another brother-in-law, Cornelis Breydel, was dean of the butchers.
What about the economic position of the members of the craft guilds that were linked to the faction?
While there is strong evidence, as noted above in the case of the Smiths' ordinances, that authority within the craft guilds revolved around and was ordered by a discourse centred on age, apparently this language was also used by the civic authorities, imbedded within the (senior) Trinity guild, to underwrite their authority in a politically neutral way.
(36) Although both readings shed light on the dynamics of their relationship, they miss the more obvious parallel that these figures draw with the master and apprentice of the Craft guild. The playwright collapses these different identities quite skilfully by couching much of the biblical gloss provided by the Primus Profeta in language capable of spanning the two worlds of biblical narrative and artisanal culture.
On the one hand we must consider the unskilled workers who were not members of a craft guild. On the other, we have those who did work within the corporate structures but had not, or had not yet, reached the position of master craftsman, that is to say, the apprentices and journeymen.
Apparently, the weavers, skilled labourers in a craft guild, "cried" as well.
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The quartet - along with two of their daughters - will be simultaneously sworn in as the very first women members of the City of Durham Freemen's ancient craft guilds at a ceremony that gets under way in Durham's Town Hall at 11am.
In the past six years the Freemen, whose craft guilds were believed first established in 1327, have given a total of more than pounds 60,000 to worthy causes in the city - including donations totalling pounds 20,000 to the hospice.
Several of the exhibits recall the nine powerful craft guilds which once held sway in the city, among them the skinners, the saddlers, the cordwainers and the tailors.
After the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 the friary was leased to the town's craft guilds, which made up a powerful trades body in Newcastle.