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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2009

11 - Guilds in Decline? London Livery Companies and the Rise of a Liberal Economy, 1600–1800


The notion that guilds were antithetical to the development of a capitalist economy has long held sway among English economic historians. Beginning with their most illustrious investigator, George Unwin, historians of the English guilds have assumed that these bodies, with regulatory powers over apprenticeship and working conditions, the authority to limit numbers working in a given trade or to set prices, and a supposed antipathy towards new technology, formed a barrier to economic progress and the advance of market relations. The shedding of these powers and the waning of guild authority over urban economies has been seen as a necessary step in England's development as an industrial and commercial nation. Although the decline of the guilds may have resulted in the loss of economic security by small-scale artisans and their transformation into wage labourers, this was an unfortunate side effect of economic progress. The decline of the guilds has been described in terms that assumed that this process of historical change was the outcome of the workings of underlying historical forces operating from the later sixteenth into the mid–eighteenth century. The story of decline describes the guilds as though they were organic bodies at the end of a life cycle. Unable to adapt to the new conditions and mentalities of the eighteenth century, guild structures became increasingly sclerotic, atrophied, and ‘out of date’.

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