The guilds played a range of interesting roles in Medieval life. They organised the production and distribution of goods, through a market system, although not a free market, since they were responsible for maintaining the price and quality of goods. They were also responsible for ensuring that their members did not engage in what would not be considered ‘entrepeneurial activities’, for example those who deliberately stock-piled goods to ensure a higher price could be expelled from the guild and thus, effectively, from employment. The guilds also played a significant social role, supporting members in difficulty and their widows and children. They ran the apprenticeship systems, thus providing mentoring for young men and women which is so lacking in today’ society. Guilds had considerable responsibility for civic and political duties including defence against attackers and fire protection.
It is important to consider these various roles of the guilds together, rather than focusing exclusively on their economic role. Part of the problem of the global economy is that corporations are able to operate both their buying and selling activities in a footloose manner, paying no regard to the social and political consequences in the countries that they operate in. In the UK the growth of the organisation Business in the Community is a recognition of the need to address this dislocation, as are the numerous examples of corporate sponsorship, but these initiatives are a far cry from genuine grass-roots connection such as that offered by guilds of producers.
Such medieval ideas experienced a revival around the turn of the 20th century which focused around the writings of the Medievalist A. J. Penty and the ‘guild socialists’ William Morris and John Ruskin. Then, as now, the concern was to end the loss of autonomy and self-respect inherent in capitalist employment patterns and the call for complete and responsible democracy. They saw the opportunity to (in Marxist terms) ‘end the commodification of labour’ through the creation of communities of craftsmen organised through guilds.
1. Details can be found in Frances's Hutchinson's book The Political Economy of Social Credit and Guild Socialism (London: Routledge) and on Frances's pages on this website.
You can download a longer paper about the history and role of guilds here (guilds.pdf: 102KB). You can also read a paper I wrote about links between the thinking of the guild socialists and green political economy here.