Guildlike organizations of merchants and artisans have been known at various times in many parts of the world. Greek merchants' associations were of considerable significance in both the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Under the Roman Empire each provincial city had, as did Rome, its various collegia (some of which were clubs as well as economic guilds); Constantinople later had its efficiently organized corpora. Those guilds were continued in the East and in some of the cities of Italy, where they persisted at least until the 10th cent. Their effect on the creation of medieval guilds is debatable. Some scholars have found the origin of guilds in the old tribal or religious guilds of the Germans.
Elsewhere in the world associations of merchants and of artisans developed and followed a pattern similar to that of the medieval European guilds, flourishing as protective devices or as regulatory instruments of the state. The guilds of the Muslim Middle East developed in the 9th cent. and persisted into the 20th cent., although they never attained the political influence equivalent of those of medieval Europe. In India guilds were highly developed before the time of the Maurya empire, and they continued in existence long after British control was established. The history of the Indian guilds was closely tied in with the caste system. The guilds in Japan were opposed and weakened by the stronger medieval rulers, but they were later used as powerful regulatory devices; they were swept away in the Meiji restoration in 1868. Chinese guilds of unknown antiquity persisted as powerful bodies into the 20th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.