Skip to content


The names given to trade associations are many.1 They date back to our earliest civilizations.2 Hammurabi’s Code of Laws (1,780 B.C.E.) is often cited as an origin:

188. If an artisan has taken a son to bring up, and has caused him to learn his handicraft no one has any claim.

189. If he has not caused him to learn his handicraft, that nursling shall return to his father’s house.

The Oldest Code of Laws in the World, the Code of Laws Promulgated by Ḫammurabi, King of Babylon, B. C. 2285-2242, Translated by C. H. W. Johns. Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1903, 1903. Print.

The Laws of Solon included a similar edict, where a son was not required to care for his father, if the father failed to teach the son a trade.3

Legends about the 2nd Roman king, Numa, are another early source:

He distributed them [the body of the people] accordingly, by arts and trades, into musicians, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, leatherworkers, curriers, braziers, and potters. the remaining trades he grouped together, and made one body out of all who belonged to them.

Plutarch, Life of Numa 17

In Ovid’s Fasti, several colligia are named: spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, shoemakers, carpenters, sculptors, and painters.

The earliest historical Roman law recognizing the rights of collegia is evidenced in Table VIII of the Twelve Tables:

27. Guild members shall have the power … to make for themselves any rule they wish provided that they impair no part of the public law.

Yale, David ; Johnson, Allan Chester ; Coleman-Norton, Paul Robinson ; Bourne, Frank Card ; Pharr, Clyde. The Yale Law Journal, 1962, Vol.71 (7), p.1369-1374

By the time of Julius Caesar, the power of collegia was so great that the Senate passed laws severely limiting them.4 Emperor Trajan went further. None-the-less, by the Fourth Century, many different guilds existed, including subspecialties.5  The Byzantines preserved these traditions.6 Leo VI is credited with the Book of the Prefect, essentially a list of regulations concerning collegia around 900 A.D.

All societies depend on the transfer of “shop skills” from one generation to the next. When artisans organize themselves into collegia, their collective power has led states to promulgate laws regulating, and sometimes abolishing, their existence.

1 The historical accounts referring to guilds can use the following terms, in Latin: gildonia, confratriae, convivial, fraternitas, confranternitas, consortium, societas, solidatum, convivium, unio, conjuration, or collegia; in English: guild, gild, fraternity, confraternity, mystery, mistery, corporation, brotherhood, company, commonalty, livery company, trading corporation, municipal corporation; in Swedish: gilda, gille, skrå, and ambete; and in German: gilde, zeche, gaffel, genossenschaft, association, verien, einung, and zunft, to list a few of the variations.
Workers, Collectivism and the Law, Chapter 1: Guilds: brother[sister]hood, friendship, and mutual aid, footnote 3.

2 David B. Weisberg: Guild structure and political allegiance in early Achaemenid Mesopotamia. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , Volume 32 , Issue 2, June 1969, pp. 379 – 381

3 Plut. Sol. 22.1. Dillon, & Garland, L. (2010). The law-givers of Athens: Drakon and Solon. In Ancient Greece (pp. 318–339). Routledge. c.f.

4 THE COLLEGIA AND ROMAN LAW: State restrictions on voluntary associations, 64 BCE–200 CE. (1996). In Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (pp. 90–105). Routledge.

5 E.g., faber tignarius (beam craftsman), faber tignarius (chariot maker), faber intestinarius (interior woodworker), fabri citrarii (exotic woods), faber plaustrarius (wagon maker), faber pectinarius (comb maker), faber lectarius (bed maker). Ulrich. (2017). Glossary of Roman Woodworking Terms. In Roman Woodworking (pp. 269–336). Yale University Press.

6 Watson. (1998). The digest of Justinian (Rev. English language ed.). University of Pennsylvania Press. Vol. 4, Section 22.