Medieval Towns: Crafts and Guilds Term Paper

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Did the crafts and guilds actually build a foundation for formal business and social organizations? This also is very likely.

And indeed, isn't it germane to explore what the growth, development and ultimate sophistication of medieval crafts and guilds may have led to?

In the interest of the big picture, this paper looks now at that pivotal point through an interesting, lengthy article written ten years before Rosser's piece, Alfred Kieser (Administrative Science Quarterly, 1989) takes the history of guilds and places it in a big-picture setting, far more theoretical and philosophical that Rosser would do - albeit Rosser's attention to detail provides a wonderfully rich picture of England - and how the English lived and worked during the medieval period. Kieser asserts that "medieval guilds were not yet formal organizations but formed important predecessor institutions in the evolutionary process that led to the emergence of organizations." Why is this concept an important issue for a researching writer to pursue?

Because, Kieser explains, a careful study and analysis of the origins of crafts and guilds shows that the "genesis and changes of complex institutional structures like markets or organizational hierarchies..." In later English society were not the result of the "intentions and actions of rational designers" at all. In fact, Kieser believes these institutional structures were due in the main to a two-part process first called "growth" and later termed "evolution." These processes, which led to formal organizations, had been adopted for distinctly different reasons (and even "accidentally," Kieser adds) but were preserved simply because "they enabled the group in which they had arisen to prevail over others." In other words, they grew because they gave power, authority, and a sense of greater social value.

Albeit the organizational and institutional framework Kieser discusses evolved from crafts and guilds, he insists that "the evolution of markets for labor and capital did not precede the evolution of institutional mechanisms for the incorporation of labor and capital." Instead, he argues, "labor markets and these institutional mechanisms coevolved."

Kieser's theory becomes philosophical - yet quite profound in a practical sense - in his section entitled "Evolution of Evolution Mechanisms." In this section he lays out a theory that the mechanisms that helped social structures evolve - e.g., for example, the mechanisms set up within the crafts and guild structures to provide workers with credit, trust, and social credibility - "are subject to evolutionary processes themselves."

In that sense, human beings were no longer "dependent on the slow mechanisms of genetic evolution," but rather, they were now on the fast track - the swifter movement of the mechanisms of cultural evolution." Social stratification followed "kinship systems" and formal organizations followed this initial social stratification witnessed in the crafts and guilds, Kieser continued.

The decline of the crafts and guilds

In the pages following Kieser's scholarly examination of the evolutionary processes that grew out of the guilds and became organizations and institutions, he takes time to describe the "Decline of the Guild"; the guild's downward spiral occurred in the late 15th Century, Kieser explains, though in fact, Kieser's description of the decline of the guilds differs quite markedly from Rosser's view. Kieser explains that when the guilds began reacting to "economic crises by reinforcing their cartel," that restricted their adaptability, and as a result, factories, manufactories and "putting-out systems" were able to expand at the guilds' expense.
" Meanwhile, the requirements - and costs - for obtaining masterhood were increased until they were "barely attainable"; and this, along with the fact that "absolutist rulers" no longer saw guilds as necessary, but rather as "an aggravating ulcer," contributed to the guilds' downslide.

Rosser, meanwhile, writes the in the "late" medieval town, "the hazards of unemployment and ill health dogged both masters and journeymen," and the men and women who had jobs "strove to dissociate themselves from...the terminally poor." When the number of poor ballooned to about one-third of society, medieval towns were threatened by "innumerable rootless and unskilled immigrants... [leaving] petty criminals, prostitutes, cripples and the permanently unemployed beyond the pale." The breakdown of a fluid, once-thriving crafts and guild-based economy can be seen in these descriptions.

Weird things about medieval English life and times

The aspects of English medieval society reflected in the writing used for this paper do not encompass all the still-primitive beliefs of that period. For example, insects could be put on trial for criminal acts; the dead could be executed; corpses could return to life; and demons could carry people through the air. These bizarre ideas are found in Strange Histories: the Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Pace from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (History Today, 2004).

Biographical Sketch of Gervase Rosser

Dr. Gervase Rosser (M.A., Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S.) is a widely published British author specializing in the history of urban cultures in early modern Europe - notably medieval Europe. A lecturer in Modern History at St. Catherine's College at Oxford, Dr. Rosser is also interested in the history of art in the Renaissance. His books include: Medieval Westminster, 1200-1540; The Church in the Medieval Town; and The English Medieval Town: A Reader in English Urban History, 1200-1540. Currently, "With Dr. Jane Garnett he is preparing a book on miracle-working images in Italy" (University of Oxford, 2004).

Use of sources by Rosser

In the copy of the work that this writer reviewed, Rosser's numbered references for the most part seemed to make sense and gave editorial back-up to what he was asserting in his narrative. Though many of his sources were in German (and a translation would have been helpful), this issue did not present any confusion or vagueness as to his litany of beliefs and clarifications.


Bloomquist, Thomas W. "Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe." Business

History Review 66.1 (1992): 216-219.

Epstein, Steven. Wage Labor & Guilds in Medieval Europe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

History Today. "The Medieval World: Reviews." 54.11 (2004).

Kieser, Alfred. "Organizational, Institutional, and Societal Evolution: Medieval Craft

Guilds and the Genesis of Formal Organizations." Administrative Science Quarterly

Rosser, Gervase. "Crafts, Guilds, and the Negotiation of Work in the Medieval Town."

Past and Present 154 (1997): 3-31.

University of Oxford. "Faculty Postholders: Dr. Gervase Rosser." Available at

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