What was a merchant guild? A guild – in its most general form – is an association of people who share some common characteristic and pursue some common purpose. The shared characteristic can be anything: religion, nationality, neighbourhood, cultural interests, military service, good works, political convictions. But by far the commonest is occupation.
Medieval and early modern Europe had a few religious guilds (more often called fraternities), but most guilds were formed around shared economic activities. Guilds were least prevalent in the primary sector, although guilds of farmers, gardeners, winegrowers, shepherds and fishermen formed in some medieval and early modern European societies. Guilds were most prevalent in industrial occupations, with a majority of urban craftsmen and even many rural proto-industrial workers forming guilds. But guilds were also widespread in tertiary production, with service professionals such as barber-surgeons, musicians, artists and chimney sweeps organizing guilds in some European economies.
By far the commonest tertiary-sector guilds were formed by merchants. Narrowly defined, merchants were wholesale traders. They specialized in trading for profit, dealing in goods that they did not produce themselves and selling them to other wholesalers, to retailers or to industrial, commercial, institutional or other business users, but not directly to consumers.