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The Guild System in Germany Essay

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2020

The rise of the guild system in Germany occupies a unique and bright page of the European history. Dating back to the Middle Ages, guilds for a long time had been the key representations of local self-government and created the basement of the modern European city self-regulation.

Guilds are often seen as a typical German phenomenon, but in fact, they were spread across all Europe and other countries of the world1. Guilds were specially regulated associations of craftsmen, for example, bakers, textile producers, blacksmiths, jewelers and others. Later guilds became more spread among the merchants, who as a rule united due to the goods they sold2. The reason for the formation of guilds can be explained by the need to protect trade and other professional interests in the existing local government conditions.

German state was highly decentralized so that the central authorities could not ensure the security of shipments and sale of goods and the rights of various professional groups. Moreover, the guilds were seen as a logical outcome of the rising intercity and international trade. A guild was a professional community, where all the members were equal and equally obliged to recognize the authority and protection of their community. The merchants guarded their goods together, created farmstead on fairs and shopping malls, strove for various benefits and tax reliefs3.

As it can be seen from the image of the guild, the labor there was precisely divided among the members. Everyone had his or her responsibilities and followed the established procedure. It is also notable that women are present in the picture. Women were initially not allowed to participate in guilds but gradually, with the emergence of full production structures, woman were used as an efficient workforce. However, in the vast majority of guilds women were not granted official membership4.

It can be stated that the guilds were distinctively united and stable because of mutual interest of their members and relative independence from the state. It was in the interests of the members to have mutual obligations and support each other in case of shipwrecks, thieves’ attacks or any other troubles. A guild was an efficient mechanism to ensure security and establish some common trade and manufacturing standards.

In German cities, the influence of guilds was extremely high, so they often acquired the functions of courts and supervision authorities. With the strengthening of self-determination of German towns and their isolation from integral social organisms, the guilds started to form their independent trade law. Guilds were gradually turning from patronizing associations into closed corporations with a special legal status and many privileges5.

Such “domestic economy…was the prevalent form of the economic organization prior to the rise of the factory system”6. Guilds were the harbingers of the further transition to more developed manufacturing forms during the industrial revolution.

Overall, it can be seen that in the history of German local self-government guilds were a vivid example of the combination of territorial and corporate beginnings in self-government structures. Guilds were more than just professional associations. They were the evidence that the citizens are the primary source of self-governing initiatives and that the state should consider their will when establishing any regulations. The coexistence of guild and city self-government exerted a significant influence on the overall evolution of institutions and forms of self-government.

Bibliography

Caldwell, Amy R., John Beeler, and Charles Clark. Sources of Western Society since 1300. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.

Lucassen, Jan, Tine De Moor, and Jan Van Zanden. The Return of the Guilds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Weber, Max. General Economic History. Mineole, NY: Dover Publications, 2012.

Footnotes

  1. Max Weber, General Economic History (Mineole, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 230.
  2. Amy Caldwell, John Beeler, and Charles Clark. Sources of Western Society since 1300 (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011), 299.
  3. Jan Lucassen, Tine De Moor, and Jan Van Zanden. The Return of the Guilds (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9.
  4. Jan Lucassen, Tine De Moor, and Jan Van Zanden. The Return of the Guilds (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 23.
  5. Max Weber, General Economic History (Mineole, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 234.
  6. Amy Caldwell, John Beeler, and Charles Clark. Sources of Western Society since 1300 (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011), 299.
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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Guild System in Germany." June 26, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-guild-system-in-germany/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Guild System in Germany'. 26 June.

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