Harlem Painters Guild

Not bad at all? Reassessing the guilds in the early modern period

Adam Smith famously described the guilds in the following words: »People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law, which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.« For about 200 years virtually all economists and historians shared the view of Adam Smith in regards to the guilds. Smith’s argument has »become akin to an article of faith.« in the words of S. R. Epstein. With Whiggish historians judging the guilds as remnants of feudal society, and Marxist historians viewing them as mere stepping-stones for the inevitable progress, the guilds have almost uniformly been seen as reactionary elements in history. Detailed studies of guilds in recent years have added nuances. Research based on original archival material have added to our understanding and challenged the previously prevalent broad dismissal of any positive influence from the guilds.

The aim of this paper is to investigate and discuss the reassessment of the guilds that have taken place in recent years. The focus will be on the economic influence of the guilds – and how historians have judged it – although other areas will be touched upon as well. Additionally this paper will primarily deal with the influence of guilds in the early modern economy, and only mention their influence in the medieval or early industrial economies en passant. Investigating the economic influence in the early modern period leaves two areas of particular interest: England and The Low Countries. In this paper focus will be on The Low Countries, since the current historiographical debate on guilds mostly concerns continental Europe.

The paper initially sketch out the methodological problems in writing a historiography of the guilds. This is followed by a critical historiographical survey of the various schools that make up the landscape today. At the end of the paper an attempt is made to explain why the multitude of schools have emerged since the mid-70s.

Please note: This is only the introduction from at university assignment I wrote  during my seventh semester as a student of history.

The entire paper can be read here.