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  • Cited by 129
Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
June 2012
Print publication year:
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Book description

What was the role of merchant guilds in the medieval and early modern economy? Does their wide prevalence and long survival mean they were efficient institutions that benefited the whole economy? Or did merchant guilds simply offer an effective way for the rich and powerful to increase their wealth, at the expense of outsiders, customers and society as a whole? These privileged associations of businessmen were key institutions in the European economy from 1000 to 1800. Historians debate merchant guilds' role in the Commercial Revolution, economists use them to support theories about institutions and development, and policymakers view them as prime examples of social capital, with important lessons for modern economies. Sheilagh Ogilvie's magisterial new history of commercial institutions shows how scrutinizing merchant guilds can help us understand which types of institution made trade grow, why institutions exist, and how corporate privileges affect economic efficiency and human well-being.


‘Sheilagh Ogilvie shows yet again the brilliant scientific results to be achieved from combining an economist's clarity of mind with a historian's respect for how it actually was. She demolishes the Panglossian story put forward by the New Institutionalists, reminding us that for guilds as for manors and taxes and trade a proud power could trump efficiency. Elegantly written, decisively argued, her book is an instant classic.’

Deirdre McCloskey - University of Illinois, Chicago

‘This book will make it impossible for anyone ever to argue again that merchant guilds were beneficial to society just because they produced benefits for their own members. Ogilvie's magisterial analysis of their complex social impact will change radically the way we think about not only guilds themselves but about institutions, social capital and economic development from the Middle Ages right up to our own day.’

Paul Seabright - Toulouse School of Economics

‘In this tour de force, Ogilvie upends the current scholarly consensus that merchant guilds were institutions whose economic and cultural qualities promoted economic development and social solidarity. By examining large numbers of these guilds and their vast historical literature, she demonstrates instead that they were monopolies, rent-seeking institutions that continued to exist as long as they served to distribute a disproportionate share of economic goods to their members and their rulers.’

Thomas Max Safley - University of Pennsylvania

'… this is a very important book that gives rise to a number of highly significant questions for future research.'

Source: Reviews in History (

'Ogilvie’s conclusion has profound implications for the study of economic institutions, and that is what makes this an important book - one might even call it a game-changer.'

Source: EH-Net (

'This book not only effectively demolishes the efficiency thesis regarding merchant guilds, but, more importantly, also provides a framework for analysing institutional change, and it will define the terms of how social institutions should be researched and evaluated for years to come.'

Source: Economic History Review

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