A thieves' guild is an association of criminals who participate in theft-related organized crime, usually in a fictional context. A thieves' guild is a common feature of old-fashioned urban locations in various types of fiction.
A central feature of Cervantes' story Rinconete y Cortadillo, set in 16th Century Seville, is the city's strong and well-organized thieves' guild built to the model of the medieval guild. As in any other profession, a young thief must start as an apprentice and slowly work his way to become a master craftsman—in this case, a master thief. No one could come into a city and start on a career as a thief without belonging to the local guild (as Cervantes' protagonists soon find out), which would have been in many cases true also for a medieval tailor or carpenter wandering into a strange city. And the thieves have their own church where they go to pray (shared with prostitutes)—which indeed was typically the case with respectable guilds in a medieval city.
Using this novel to claim that such Thieves' Guilds are historically based faces difficulties. Rinconete y Cortadillo is a picaresque novel — a work of satire. The 'Thieves' Guild' being the analog of the ruling class - all the outer show of piety, respectability, even charity and ideals of justice, but robbing and killing all the same. Given this context any attempt to link this novel with a historical social reality is problematic.
The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall gives historical accounts of various historical criminal organizations. The closest to fictional Thieves' guild tropes arose in France - the Cours des Miracles. From this group the concept of the "King of Thieves" or "King of Beggars", who supposedly held power over all criminals in a given city, may have its origin.
Andrew McCall also gives a historical view on the life of a thief in the period. Theft was rarely a career, most often it was opportunistic. Due to brutality of medieval justice, habitual thieves would tend to have short careers. A first offender might be maimed or branded. A second offence (attested by the marks of the first) typically led to execution. A maimed man would often become a beggar and so the association between beggars and thieves existed. However, associations like the Cours des Miracles were exceptional and associations like the one described in Rinconete y Cortadillo are fictional.
Modern fantasy fiction and role-playing games took up the concept extensively, starting with the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story "Thieves' House" by Fritz Leiber, in 1943, and further stories set in Lankhmar.
In popular culture
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- The Elder Scrolls series of role-playing video games contains a prominent Thieves Guild.
- Quest for Glory series has a Thieves' Guild that the player can join, and plays a major role in completing the game, depending on the player's career path.
- Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild (Discworld)
- In the works of Raymond E Feist set in Midkemia a Thieves' Guild, known as the Mockers, based in the Kingdom city of Krondor features in many of the novels, often playing a significant role in the story. The guild is run by a mysterious figure known as the 'Upright Man', the identity of whom is at one point revealed to be Jimmy the Hand.
- The Guild of Thieves, a computer game exclusively about a Thieves' Guild.
- The Black Magician (novel series) involves a Thieves' Guild as a central plot element.
- David Eddings' series tend to include Thieves' Guilds, such as in The Elenium and The Tamuli. The Belgariad and The Mallorean imply that the intelligence services of Drasnia and Mallorea are analogous to thieves guilds, particularly in the characterization of Prince Khelder of Drasnia (aka Silk, Ambar of Kotu or Radek of Boktor).
- The Assassin's Creed video game series features a Thieves' Guild.
- Thief Gold has a Thieves' Guild level.
- Gambit is a member and heir of the New Orleans thieves guild, adopted son to Jean-Luc LeBeau, the King of Thieves.
- Featured to varying degrees in several installments of the Might & Magic series of computer games, but most conspicuously in Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, where the High Priest of the Kingdom of Enroth does double-duty as head of a state-run Thieves' Guild with a very similar ethos and modus operandi to that in Ankh-Morpork as mentioned above.
- In John Norman's Gor series, there is a "caste of thieves" in the city of Port Kar.
- The Rattlebone Brotherhood, uniting "thieves, swindlers and cutthroats" is a major force in the society of Arvanneth—a New Orleans surviving thousands of years into the future of an Earth gripped by a new Ice Age, in Poul Anderson's novel, The Winter of the World.
- The MMORPG RuneScape features a thieves' guild.
- The science-fiction series Babylon Five featured a thieves' guild in the made-for-TV movie Babylon 5: A Call to Arms