collage of Sheilagh Ogilvie

Favourite scholars: Sheilagh Ogilvie and exclusionary medieval guilds

Within my first weeks in Oxford, I was introduced to the work of Sheilagh Ogilvie and her brilliant, yet controversial, remarks on the exclusionary nature of medieval guilds. 

The narrative often followed by major medieval economists is that guilds were useful organisations that brought commercial protection to masses of traders. This perspective is taken by Gary Richardson, who remains prominent in the field. He views the topic from a mainly economic standpoint: that guilds were fruitful in the aggregate free market (collective platforms in which people buy and sell without intervention) and product regulation. Created largely as lobbying groups to protect the free market from laws being created to decrease profit, many believe that guilds are necessary for collective action against unfair employers and to avoid individuals who do not contribute to a system become a burden on its resources (known in economic terms as the free rider problem). Stated best by L. J. Alston, the commonly held view is that “formal institutions are necessary if the full gains from specialisation in an extended market are to be captured”. In other words, Alston argues that in order for the benefits of individuals utilising only their specialised skills for profit to be fully seen, we need formal institutions (such as guilds) to protect the markets in which their products can be sold. 

medieval guilds engraving
Beverley Town Trail: Medieval Guilds and Crafts. Copyright Bernard Sharp.

In a field-changing manner, Ogilvie is able to exhibit how European guilds were monopolistic organisations. In a bold manner, she writes about how guilds contributed to poverty cycles by marginalising populations and stifling social change. All members of a guild were punished for unacceptable actions by one individual, creating a collective pressure to subscribe to social norms enforced. If a commercially engaged individual did not wish to subscribe to these norms or lacked skill levels deemed high enough, they were excluded from the many perks of a guild and would lose significant incentive to join the market. From a societal lens, she highlights how it is clear that since Late Antiquity guilds were exclusive in the type of person they admitted. Most European guilds excluded women, religious minorities, immigrants, the poor, and individuals disliked by members of the guild. These already socially marginalised groups being excluded from institutional economics contributes to cycles of poverty and prevents any possibility of achieving financial independence. 

Others, such as S.R. Epstein, argue that guilds created a sense of female empowerment by allowing widows to be masters of a craft once their husbands passed away, enabling financial independence. However, Ogilvie highlights how this exception does not create true autonomy: the worth of the widow is still found in her connection to a man, even if he is deceased. She further refers to how guilds prosecuted women who attempted to enter the market of their craft by capping the wages of female spinners. Although Epstein claims that this is due to women having lower productivity, Ogilvie is able to identify that the lower productivity rates are a result of the disproportionate opportunities available to men to build skill, such as formal apprenticeships. The exclusion of these already marginalised groups in medieval society allowed for their increased reliance upon those with the economic power to sell them the goods they need, therefore advancing the position of the guild members further facilitating monopolisation of basic craft markets. Since guilds barred these groups from entering the market successfully, they directly contributed to cyclical marginalisation at a social and economic level. 

Ogilvie also highlights how the corrupt and hierarchical guilds stifled social change. Strong connections existed between European guilds and the Catholic Church. Ogilvie states that “in medieval England, some merchant guilds bore the name of a patron saint, employed a chaplain or priest, and engaged in good works”. While the Catholic Church was a clear standard for strong institutions at the time, it was also riddled with corruption and exclusivity. Naturally, guilds would take on similar group norms to their ideal strong institution: the medieval Catholic Church. Yet guilds did not always practice ‘loving their neighbours’. In fact, Ogilvie states that they often engaged in “bitter conflict- even violence – against individuals and other guilds”. Religion in the context of guilds acted as a method of preventing social change and diversity in membership, instead of aiming to act in a good and just manner.

Ogilvie’s truly fresh perspective allows us to evaluate productivity in terms of societal impact, and no longer purely within the context of economic output. Nonetheless, guilds are an important foundation for modern economic entities that laid the foundation for modern economic institutions, such as trade unions. Her discoveries beg the question: is economic productivity beneficial to a medieval society if it directly hurts those who are most marginalised? In order to determine the general productivity of institutions in contributing to the fostering of economic development we must be able to observe how these institutions treat all those who wish to engage in the market. Ogilvie’s is able to highlight the connection between corruption and marginalisation within guilds and the increasing monopolisation of markets that were once accessible to many in the medieval world. This transformation of how we view guilds allows the historian to ponder if the exclusionary cultures of coercion and success in aggregate free market product regulation are mutually exclusive; perhaps guilds sit uncomfortably in the middle.