The origins of mutual aid

I have a letter in the national press today, my last in the name of Co-operatives UK, reflecting on the current flowering of mutual aid in communities across the UK.

Previous waves of self help and mutual aid led to the formation of institutions so many of which have endured to today and indeed have also played a positive role in meeting needs at a time of crisis. My underlying question is this:

what new institutions will come out of today’s tech-enabled and hyperlocal mutual aid?

Because I touch on the origins of mutual aid, I expand on this a little here, drawing on my book, free to download, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

It is always a good idea to reread Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin, setting aside where his data and opinions are out of date. But the roots go back far further than the publication of this great work at the dawn of the twentieth century.

As a formal model of organisation, mutual aid arguably predates the modern formal private and charitable sectors by a thousand years.

Some of the earliest records of mutuality are from the Roman Empire. One of the practices was a variety of groups of artisans organised into ‘collegia’: formal membership associations. One authority, in the late Empire years, was St. Augustine of Hippo, the Algerian and Roman philosopher. He looked to set the ground rules for how mutual trade and exchange should operate, through the concept of a ‘just price’.

The term collegia (the root of the modern word ‘college’ of course) translates from Latin as ‘joined together’. Across the Roman Empire, collegia might be arts troupes or they might be groups of silverworkers, rag dealers or woodsmen. Some were burial societies, supporting members at a time of financial cost as well as religious and cultural significance. We know of associations from inscriptions, papyri and the writings of contemporaries in the Hellenistic period from the fifth century BCE. But the terms used, the members involved and the purposes set were extraordinarily varied – the number of different associations listed over the period stands at 2,500 on some counts and that is only the ones we know of today.[i]

We can paint an evocative picture of collegia through the example of one case study, a stone’s throw from the walls of Rome, the statutes of which are preserved in inscriptions. The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia was founded in around 153 AD by a wealthy Roman woman named Salvia Marcellina.[ii] She endowed a building on the Appian Way, to commemorate her late husband and this served as a dining club for its members, and a burial society. With member subscriptions and an endowment, the college lent money to its members, using the interest to pay its expenses. The college itself was limited to sixty members. It admitted new members only when it needed to replace those who had died. As a member, you were guaranteed a burial, including all of the costs associated with a smooth passage to the after life – funeral rites at home, burials outside of the city, with a procession from one to the other.

The college had a President, the officers were curatores, or ‘caretakers’ and the body of regular members was termed the populus, ‘the people’.[iii] Just as later co-operatives and mutuals would come to be known in many countries as ‘societies’, we can sense that the ways in which collegia like this were set up were intended to echo a view on how the wider world should be structured.

The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia and its ilk were self organising associations, concerned with equity among members but not necessarily or typically egalitarian – whether they were formed for banquets by groups of aristocrats or indeed burials by groups of slaves.[iv] The sceptical views of Pliny the Younger in his letters might have held for many. As he put it, nothing could possibly be more “distressingly inequitable” than unflinching equality for all.[v] Just as seats in the theatres in Rome were organised by rank (in Augustan times), so the collegia, whether based on trades or cults, whether with members of military veterans or diners and drinkers, tended to operate with levels of status and rank. Some boasted an elaborate array of punishments for transgressions.[vi]

Beyond this, it is hard to generalise about the nature of the collegia. The nineteenth century German scholar Theodor Mommsen focused on collegia as burial societies, asserting that they were one of the few civil society organisations allowed to operate in Roman cities under the Emperors. In truth, first, burials were never universal across collegia and second, the relationship with the state was never so simple. Yes, there were crackdowns at times on civil organisation; Julius Caesar issued the Lex Iulia, which appears to have included a prohibition on voluntary associations. Yet there was a loophole in the same law for those that were formally approved, longstanding or set up in the name of public service. Jonathan Scott Perry cautions that the evidence from inscribed documents is that Roman associations were widespread and unrestricted in practice.

Mutuals do not leave fossil bones with DNA that can lead us to construct an evolutionary tree or paint a picture of diets and daily life aeons ago. They leave references, rules and, in more modern times, plenty of minute books. That evidence trail may be stronger, for the last one thousand years, in Europe but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that formal co-operation was strongest there or strong only there.

Other regions had their own experience of formal or informal mutuality. One that I admire was the Ahi (‘brotherhood’ or ‘generous, open-handed’) movement in Anatolia, modern Turkey was started in the thirteenth century by Pir Ahi Evran-e Veli.

Ahi Evran was a master leather craftsman and scholar, born in Iran in 1169, travelling west at a young age to escape invasion by the Mongols. His vision of mutual aid, that spread throughout the region and lasted for centuries, was not one of a single community or even a single town. He envisaged a world of guilds, workers connected together and operating in a context of ethics and faith that could enable peaceful collaboration across the economy and society.

Sometimes, we have to look back to be able to move forward.


[i] Kobel, E, Dining with John, Brill, 2011

[ii] Donahue, J, The Roman Community at Table During the Principate, University of Michigan Press, 2004

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Schumacher, L, Slaves in Roman Society, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[v] Pliny, Ep, 9. 5. 3 cited in Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[vii] Perry, J, The Roman Collegia, Brill, 2006

[vi] Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

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