Origins of Political Change—The Case of Late Medieval Guild Revolts

New EHES working paper

Fabian Wahl is a PhD
student at the University
of Hohenheim

In the last decades there has been an increasing interest in the role of institutional innovations in the late medieval and early modern period for the “Rise of the West” and the “Great Divergence” between the Western countries and the rest of the world.

Within this literature, many papers have dealt with the consequences of the changes that occurred in this period in national and regional political institutions and regimes. However, these studies rarely provide a systematic empirical analysis of the origins of these institutional innovations. Yet, uncovering the roots of participative institutions in later medieval central Europe is essential for understanding the medieval roots of the “Great Divergence” and, more broadly, the origins of political change. Furthermore, it can also be informative about the relationship between economic and political changes as the political change of this period paralleled a notable economic recovery, i.e. the “commercial revolution”.

By investigating the origins of the late medieval guild revolts the recent EHES working paper by Fabian Wahl seeks to shed light on these issues. He argues that guild revolts constituted an important trigger for the turn towards more inclusive political institutions found in the later medieval period. Craftsmen and other groups of citizens, for instance, often gaining political rights in the aftermath of a guilt revolts.

The study is based on uniquely large and systematic data on the prevalence and outcomes of guild revolts in 104 cities in Germany, Austria, the German-speaking area of Switzerland (plus Geneva), Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Countries for every hundred year period between 800 and 1800 AD.  This data are part of a larger dataset on participative political institutions in pre-modern European cities, which the author had constructed and that can potentially be used to assemble many other research questions (see Wahl 2014).

To construct this database, the author reviewed more than 100 historical sources to ensure that the created variables cover as much of the universe of participative political institutions in later medieval cities as possible. The collected data is the most comprehensive and detailed collection of information about the late medieval guild revolts that the author is aware of.  Furthermore, it is the first data set on political institutions or regime types that is systematically defined on city-level and thus makes it possible to exploit variation in political institutions between cities. Based on this data set, the working paper provides an overview of the temporal evolution and spatial distribution of successful guild revolts. The latter is depicted in Figure 1 showing in which cities a successful guild revolt occurred and which outcome it had. Cities in which the guilds gained the majority or all of the seats in the city council are red colored, cities in which the guilds gained at least some seats in the city council are shown in blue.  Finally, cities in which there were no –or no successful—revolts are grey colored.

Guild revolts in 104 cities in Germany, Austria, the German-speaking area of Switzerland (plus Geneva),
Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Countries

Among other things, one can infer from the map that there were almost no cities with guild participation in the north of Germany and the Netherlands, i.e. in core area of the Hanseatic League. This is in line with historical evidence that the Hanseatic League often successfully suppressed guild revolts and defended the ruling merchant elite in its member cities. In central Germany (primarily today’s Saxony, Lower Saxony, Hesse and Franconia) there is a medium frequency of guild participation and there are only a few cities with a guild constitution (Brunswick, Goslar and Magdeburg) all of which were members of the Hanseatic league and important political, commercial or ecclesiastical centers and therefore probably predestined for the outbreak of a guild revolt. In those cities the guilds succeeded in their attempts to gain political power despite the opposition of the Hanseatic League. There are almost no cities with guild participation in Bavaria what could be due to the comparatively strong position of the Bavarian ruler and to the fact that bishops there (as e.g. in Passau) were often successful in beating the guilds.

As a next step, an empirical analysis of the origins of the guild is conducted. The results of the performed probit regressions can be summarized as follows: The typical city subject to a guild revolt had a certain degree of autonomy, was located in a large territorial state, was in an area with low urban potential and suitability for agriculture, i.e. it dominated a rural area  with  relatively low agricultural productivity. Furthermore, it did not have any pre-existing participative political institutions and was a center of the textile industry. It had many neighboring cities located at a medium and large distance (between 50 and 250km away) that also experienced guild revolts, but not many in its direct vicinity that witnessed revolts. The significance and different signs of neighborhood spillovers shows how the guild revolts were determined by strategic considerations as well as chance and risk expectations.

In conclusion, a city’s urban potential, i.e. its relative position to other cities and the degree to which it dominates the region surrounding it, as well as its agricultural productivity were important. This confirms the importance of the agrarian crisis and the Black Death for the occurrence of guild revolts. Being a commercial and especially an industrial center also played a certain role for the revolts that resulted in a complete success for the guilds.  This points to the existence of a virtuous cycle of economic and political opportunities where political change endogenously emerges from preceding economic changes.

The blog post was written by Fabian Wahl, PhD student at University of Hohenheim and the working paper can be downloaded here: