Guilds in late medieval Flanders: myths and realities of guild life in an export-oriented environment
Stabel, Peter ( Department of History, University of Leiden)
Journal of Medieval History, 30 (2004) 187–212
Craft guilds were essential for the organisation of urban society in the late middle ages. They not only had their role to play in structuring the urban economy; in the dense urban system of the Low Countries they very often also had important political, cultural and social functions. Historical research has focused during the past decades on the latter functions in particular, leaving aside a reassessment of the older assumptions of the negative impact of guilds on the urban economy.
This paper argues that a multifaceted approach to guild life is necessary, whereby the economic role of guilds is integrated into newly acquired knowledge about guild life. In general guilds functioned as much more open and flexible economic institutions than has been acknowledged by most scholars. Guild regulation, ubiquitous in the documents, must, therefore, be reinterpreted and contrasted with its actual implementation. Moreover, the analysis of artisan careers and of the traditional life cycle (apprentice– journeyman–master) clearly shows how demographic realities such as high death rates and high migration rates cannot but have stimulated the open character of many of the urban guilds, in particular those involved in the export-oriented industries.