Emergence of Commons and Guilds as Silent Revolution

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* Article: The Silent Revolution: A New Perspective on the Emergence of Commons, Guilds, and Other Forms of Corporate Collective Action in Western Europe. By TINE DE MOOR. IRSH 53 (2008), Supplement, pp. 179–212

URL = https://www.ris.uu.nl/ws/files/20096187/_PUB_SilentRevolution_IRSH_53_Suppl.pdf


Tine De Moor:

"During the late Middle ages, to an extent and with an intensity previously unknown, Europeans formed alliances which were based primarily not on kinship, but on some other common characteristic such as occupation. Guilds and fraternities were organizations providing good examples of that in urban settings, while in rural areas the late Middle Ages were the period when communal land tenure arrangements, or simply ‘‘commons’’, were increasingly frequently formed and then institutionalized. It is not the actual formation of such types of collective action that is so striking, nor did their institutional characteristics make the region in that period at all exceptional, for as the essays in this volume demonstrate, craftsmen and merchants formed guilds elsewhere and in other times.

It was, however, the great intensity of the formation of new units of such collective action that makes this movement striking enough to refer to it as a ‘‘silent revolution’’. A revolution, inasmuch as it was a movement which started from below, and because it might prove to have been as important to the ultimate course of European history as any other revolution; and silent, in that it was at first based primarily on tacit agreements between powerful rulers and demanding subjects, whether villagers or townsmen, and became explicit, which is to say written down, only after a time.

Mostly such agreements were formed peacefully. The rather discreet development of the forms of collective action described here means that for a long time it remained an unnoticed revolution too. Most attention in research into collective action has been devoted to short-term demands for change in the form of riots, protest demonstrations, and the like as motors of democratization and political change. In this article I will argue that the silent revolution to a large extent created the institutional infrastructure for socio-political change, and so for other forms of collective action which became characteristic in western Europe and came to be considered as a vital ingredient in preparing for its exceptional economic head start."


Conditions for collective action: weak families, tolerant states, and legal recognition

Tine De Moor:

"One hypothesis to explain conditions favourable to the choice of collective institutions has been suggested by Michael Mitterauer, who stresses the importance of the disappearance of family bonds as a factor explaining the so-called European Sonderweg.

He argues that more ‘‘open’’ forms of social organization than systems based on kinship or tribal relations might have played a part in the development of collective action, particularly its corporate form, whereas in societies based on strict family lineage, tribal structures, or clans, there might not have been any ‘‘room’’ for the development of collective action. Anthony Black considers the European guilds ‘‘artificial families’’, which is probably one of the best descriptions of the status of guilds.104 Perhaps the term ‘‘surrogate families’’ would still better emphasize their difference from other societies.

Besides such an open relatively non-kinship-based society, there must be the freedom to organize. Guilds and commons emerged in western Europe in a situation of fragmented sovereignty and a relatively weak state in which different social classes and groups such as the nobility, the Church, and independent cities vied with each other for control of what ‘‘state’’ there was and any established state-like institutions, such as independent communes.

It was typical for western Europe during the Middle Ages that power became negotiable, in which sense the ‘‘cooperative revolution’’ has already been noted, though by other historians and using other terminology. Cooperation then evolved into the broader form of ‘‘negotiation’’ accompanied by an institutionalization of estates into parliaments and imperial and territorial diets.

In sum, guilds needed the political institutions to allow them to develop.

One last point is the legal and political recognition of groups. Legal changes made it possible for corporations to act as single bodies in the name of their members, so that whatever their purpose they had sufficient recognition to function properly. In medieval Europe that was possible because canon law attributed rights of assembly to collectivities, as well as ownership and internal and external representation.

These organizations received their legal recognition according to the principle of universitas, which gave a group a legal personality distinct from that of its individual members.

The concept of universitas was newly introduced to European law in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and although the term, meaning ‘‘corporation’’, was derived from Roman law, the twelfth-century western European interpretation was substantially different from what the term had meant to the Romans. It would carry us too far from our path to expound the discussions among jurists of the period, but the core of the concept important here is that a debt owed by a corporation was not owed by the members as individuals; and an expression of the will of a corporation did not require the assent of each separate member but rather of a majority.110 The principle of universitas established the existence of fictive personalities that are treated as real entities in courts of law and in assemblies before kings and princes.111 Those entities could be economic, such as guilds, educational bodies such as universities, or religious, and so on. Besides recognition of the group as an entity, their regulation needed support from local and state powers. Although the attribution of the right to be a member can itself be considered a property right, since it gives the right to appropriate some of the resources, it differs significantly from the later modern property rights devised from the late eighteenth century onward, which were state-backed ‘‘rights to exclude’’ and, unlike the guild’s and common’s regulations, were not devised to solve an economic problem but to support a newly constructed political order in which individuals rather than groups formed the pillars of society.

Given these conflicting backgrounds, it should be no surprise to us that in the century preceding their almost simultaneous dissolution at the end of the eighteenth century, both guilds and commons were the subject of fierce debate. The abolition of both types of organization was fuelled by the same arguments: these remnants of a feudal, medieval past were the enemies of innovation and economic progress, and the kind of rhetoric that attacked the organizations during the eighteenth century was to a large degree applicable to both types.

The struggle for life by guilds and commons at the end of the eighteenth century shows that corporate collective action needed backing from the state in order to succeed. As soon as that backing disappeared, members of guilds and commoners found it hard to survive."