Before knowing the historical work of Tine De Moor, the Belgian commons historian who studied the emergence of commons and guilds in the ‘high middle ages’ in the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium), I had assumed the commons were a permanent fixture of social life. And in a way they indeed are but they also ebb and flow throughout history. What you can learn from this important essay, a strongly recommended read, is that the number of guild and land commons agreements literally exploded in the 12th century, a real explosion of mutualisation practices that commoners and workers used to create solidarity in face of the insecurity of life.

Tine De Moor calls this a ‘Silent Revolution’ because it didn’t involve riots, but the construction of new social institutions. This is a big part of what is also happening now, and what the P2P Foundation has been cataloging, observing and trying to understand.

Article: The Silent Revolution: A New Perspective on the Emergence of Commons, Guilds, and Other Forms of Corporate Collective Action in Western Europe. By TINE DE MOOR. IRSH 53 (2008), Supplement, pp. 179–212

Excerpted from the introduction by Tine De Moor:

“During the late Middle ages, to an extent and with an intensity previously unknown, Europeans formed alliances which were based primarily not on kinship, but on some other common characteristic such as occupation. Guilds and fraternities were organizations providing good examples of that in urban settings, while in rural areas the late Middle Ages were the period when communal land tenure arrangements, or simply ‘‘commons’’, were increasingly frequently formed and then institutionalized. It is not the actual formation of such types of collective action that is so striking, nor did their institutional characteristics make the region in that period at all exceptional, for as the essays in this volume demonstrate, craftsmen and merchants formed guilds elsewhere and in other times.
It was, however, the great intensity of the formation of new units of such collective action that makes this movement striking enough to refer to it as a ‘‘silent revolution’’. A revolution, inasmuch as it was a movement which started from below, and because it might prove to have been as important to the ultimate course of European history as any other revolution; and silent, in that it was at first based primarily on tacit agreements between powerful rulers and demanding subjects, whether villagers or townsmen, and became explicit, which is to say written down, only after a time.

Mostly such agreements were formed peacefully. The rather discreet development of the forms of collective action described here means that for a long time it remained an unnoticed revolution too. Most attention in research into collective action has been devoted to short-term demands for change in the form of riots, protest demonstrations, and the like as motors of democratization and political change. In this article I will argue that the silent revolution to a large extent created the institutional infrastructure for socio-political change, and so for other forms of collective action which became characteristic in western Europe and came to be considered as a vital ingredient in preparing for its exceptional economic head start.”


Image by Andrew Taylor.

1 Comment The Emergence of Commons and Guilds as a Silent Revolution

  1. Michael LewisMichael Lewis

    This is an excellent article. Much to learn hear, including the limitations of the guild and commons models in the current context. Nevertheless, it has got me thinking. There is some common motivations in our current context that parallel some aspects of the insecurity that characterized the rise of the guilds that we can draw from. However, how one makes the principles of fair price and reciprocity operate in the open source domain of the 20th century – this is a challenge. I am think I am starting to understand your struggle Michel at a whole new level.

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