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  • Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300–1800 by Bert De Munck
  • Pamela H. Smith
Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300–1800. By Bert De Munck (New York, Routledge, 2018) 312 pp. $155.00 cloth $51.95 paper

In this ambitious book, De Munck traces both small and large transformations in craft and merchant guilds, in attitudes to labor, in cities, in corporative ideology, and, most profoundly, in the conception of what constitutes a political entity. His account begins with medieval communal revolts, the resulting growth of communes and guilds in the late tenth-century Italian peninsula and early eleventh-century southern Netherlands. In both regions, about 25 percent of the population lived in cities by the thirteenth century, a density unmatched in other parts of Europe. The formation of communes resulted in a radically new body politic that included those who labored with their hands as citizens and members. As De Munck argues, the rise of corporate bodies, indeed, the ideology of urban corporatism itself—rooted in “an ontologically grounded” ideal of a “harmonious social whole” (288)—developed through the sixteenth century in diverse forms in different cities. It formed a core political economy around the identity of free masters as patriarchal heads of household and foundational building blocks of the body politic.

Although much of the rhetoric and many of the practices endured through the seventeenth century, corporate ideals had begun to dissolve earlier for a multitude of reasons. As De Munck and others maintain, even if the language of republicanism often sounds similar in its talk of the collective, it is a collective of individuals, not a body composed of necessary members. By the mid-seventeenth century, a tipping point was reached, expressed by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 when he described corporations as “worms in the entrails of a natural man” (283). Corporations, guilds among them, lost credibility and political power (often being chartered by a territorial ruler by the end of the seventeenth century) in the eighteenth century, leading to the abolition of guilds in the late eighteenth century.

De Munck’s focus is the particular ecosystem of guilds that grew up in the southern Netherlands, which, in some towns, continued to hold political power well after those in Italy had lost it. He argues that these guilds made “an indelible impression upon the urban political and social fabric between the late thirteenth and the sixteenth century” (7). The high point of guilds, and of corporative institutions and ideology in the southern Netherlands, lasted from the late thirteenth to the final blow to the region by Spain in 1585, thereafter continuing to decline until they were abolished in 1795 under French occupation. But, as De Munck recounts, a long slow transformation had already started in 1400 with the territorial centralization undertaken by the dukes of Burgundy.

Increasing absenteeism of guild members at corporate events was a harbinger of the transformation that would take place by the eighteenth [End Page 151] century, when Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations could overlook, denigrate, indeed, completely misunderstand, skilled handwork:

Long apprenticeships are altogether unnecessary. The arts, which are much superior to common trades, such as those of making clocks and watches, contain no such mystery as to require a long course of instruction. The first invention of such beautiful machines, indeed, and even that of some of the instruments employed in making them, must, no doubt, have been the work of deep thought and long time, and may justly be considered as among the happiest efforts of human ingenuity. But when both have been fairly invented and are well understood, to explain to any young man, in the compleatest manner, how to apply the instruments and how to construct the machines, cannot well require more than the lessons of a few weeks: perhaps those of a few days might be sufficient

(quoted on 289).

De Munck’s book attempts to synthesize much recent literature about guilds, examine it in the light of his own extensive research on the southern Netherlands, and, in a limited way, pronounce on some well-known controversies...


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pp. 151-153
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