Institutions and European Trade: Merchant Guilds, 10001800 (Cambridge Studies in Economic History - Second Series) Paperback – 3 Apr 2014
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'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.' Reviews in History (history.ac.uk/reviews)
'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.' EH-Net (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.' Economic History Review
A magisterial new history of commercial institutions, this book shows how the study of 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.See all Product Description
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This isn't an easy way to write a book because it could easily degenerate into a mere recital of weakly connected citations, but the author joins the disparate sources together masterfully into a concise whole. Not many historians balance their detailed source material with broad general arguments as skillfully as she does. It is clear that she has studied economics and social science more widely than any history curriculum would require, and she puts all of that knowledge to good use. As far as the methodology of historical writing is concerned, this book therefore sets a new standard and I sincerely hope that other historians emulate it.
As for its subject matter, this book is an attack against overly positive views of European merchant guilds. Medieval merchant guilds strived for, and were often granted, commercial monopolies. Some modern historians have argued that this was a good thing because the guilds facilitated commercial security and contract enforcement, provided solutions to information problems and kept prices stable. The author challenges each of these claims in turn.
The thrust of her argument is twofold: (1) Merchant guilds were not always beneficial to the economy, and in many cases they were directly harmful. Rulers granted commercial monopolies not for reasons of efficiency, but for their own benefit. Well-organized guilds with monopolistic rights could help the king fend off political and financial threats from the nobility in return for their exclusive privileges. This collusion hindered both economic development and (this final conclusion is my own, not the author's) the emergence of political representation. (2) Alternative institutions for solving the problems of commerce existed, even inclusive ones which served everyone. They were utilized by many merchants and performed functions that state bureaucracies would later appropriate, but even though they functioned well in many places their development was slow in the shadow of the monopolies. As the author puts it: particularized trust was a substitute for generalized trust.
Just like Aristotle's works, this is a book that most readers probably would not read a second time. The reason is the same in both cases: the argument is so clear and comprehensive that when you finish the book you will consider the matter settled, at least for the next 1500 years.