Sworn association, typically of merchants, craftsmen, or tradesmen. Most guilds were associated with a particular town or city. They flourished in Europe in the medieval period and had considerable social, political, economic, and religious power. Additionally, craft guilds often monitored training, standards of production, and the welfare of their members. Significant patronage was provided by religious, social, and commercial confraternities. Information on the activity of specific guilds is given in this dictionary within the relevant articles on cities and on countries (in the latter, especially under ‘Painting and graphic arts’ or ‘Art education’).
The origins of guilds remain obscure, as in their medieval form they appeared to combine characteristics that recall both the social solidarity of the Roman collegium and a concern for skilful craftsmanship that is more easily identified with Germanic societies in the early Christian centuries. Following the expansion of towns and trade after c.ad 1000, the social strata of the commune—a sworn association of equals—developed into subgroups of people who practised a common trade. This was particularly true in Europe’s towns and cities, although it must be seen in the context of an overwhelmingly rural society. From the 13th century guilds became essential to most aspects of civic life and reflected the advance of the division of labour. They were responsible for, among other trades, the production of leather and textiles (e.g. cloth merchants, dyers, stretchers, fullers, weavers, tailors, tanners, and cobblers) and for building (e.g. masons, tilers, plasterers, carpenters, and blacksmiths). In ...