A review essay on The European Guilds


Ogilvie’s The European Guilds is a major contribution to economic history and institutional economics. This review essay surveys the main contributions of Guilds, locating it in a long-standing debate over whether craft guilds contributed positively or negatively to economic development in medieval and early modern Europe. The wealth of evidence Ogilvie amasses suggests that craft guilds should be thought of as organizations that primarily benefited their members at the expense of non-members, and used regulations to extract rents and exclude outsiders.

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  1. 1.

    See, for instance, McCloskey et al. (2014).

  2. 2.

    See the discussion in de Roover (1958, p. 418-420).

  3. 3.

    This is Ogilvie (2011).

  4. 4.

    There was also a response to Epstein by Edwards and Ogilvie (2008).

  5. 5.

    For example, Sven Beckert in Empire of Cotton makes a passing reference to crafts guilds as aiding workers in “maintaining some of the rhythms of the farm” and hence implicitly protecting worker autonomy. This view is not original to Polanyi but can be traced to scholars in the Historical School such as Sombart and to the modernist/primitivist debates between German language scholars of ancient Greece and Roman (see Peukert, 2012).

  6. 6.

    See for example (Xue 2016; Bateman 2019).

  7. 7.

    See, for instance, the discussion in Alesina and Giuliano (2015).

  8. 8.

    See also Richardson and McBride (2009).

  9. 9.

    Indeed, as implied by the logic of the transitional gains trap, they may have survived even if they did not generate net benefits for members (Tullock 1975).

  10. 10.

    For instance, Clark (2007, p.212) proposes that “institutions destructive of output will be reformed.” One recent restatement of this argument is that the institutions are efficient given constraints (see Leeson 2019). The logic of maximizing behavior implies gains from trade will be exhausted. But this argument gains purchase by subsuming any thing that prevents these gains from being realized into the constraints including transaction costs, culture, and ideology. Thus when the constraints change, then so do the (efficient) institutions. This framework, though not without its uses (i.e. in helping to understand the emergence of particular institutions), does not provide much insight for economists interested in exploring the consequences of real world institutions.


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Correspondence to Mark Koyama.

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Koyama, M. A review essay on The European Guilds. Rev Austrian Econ 33, 277–287 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11138-019-00476-7

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  • Guilds
  • Institutions
  • Rent-Seeking

JEL Classification

  • N0
  • N43
  • D72
  • Y3