Wikipedia states that "The alleged oldest commercial corporation in the world, the Stora Kopparberg mining community in Falun, Sweden, obtained a charter from King Magnus Eriksson in 1347". Is this actually the earliest instance of incorporation, though? How did the practice come to exist?

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    Poorly defined. The nature of the subject of analysis changed over time such that the "Stora Kopparberg" is not a "commercial corporation." Does the question relate to medieval charters, or to commercial corporations, or to state charted collectivites? Jun 26, 2012 at 3:44
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    You must define more clearly what you mean by "incorporation" or "corporation". In the modern legal sense, a corporation is a legal entity with rights and responsibilities that are inapplicable to the individual share-holders.
    – user2590
    Aug 25, 2013 at 19:07

4 Answers 4


Depending on your definition of corporation, you could claim that Venice and other merchant cities of Italy were akin to corporations. Guilds could well be said to have been pseudo corporations and the Templar orders a pseudo-bank.

Corporations allow for a united front against competition, taxes, and a sharing of profits. The Merchant Adventurers of York (founded in 1357) are another example of a union of merchants.

  • Please read up on the differences between corporations and partnerships. You are referring to several different types of partnership that are clearly not corporations. Jan 12, 2014 at 6:16
  • Corporation: "a company or group of people authorized to act as a single entity (legally a person) and recognized as such in law" or "A legal entity that is separate and distinct from its owners. Corporations enjoy most of the rights and responsibilities that an individual possesses", which properties none of your examples meet. Jan 12, 2014 at 6:18

The earliest instance of a "corporation" as we recognize them today has to be the Dutch East India Company which was established in 1602. The Dutch East India Company was the first to issue shares that were tradeable on a stock exchange in its company in part to raise capital for its operations. At the time of its founding similar trading companies focused on the trade with India started to be founded. E.g. the East India Company in England.

So, western Europe was the first place that the "modern corporation" concept arose.

  • This was my understanding as well, however it postdates the OP's 1347 so doesn't actually answer the original question. Would you mind elaborating further on your point?
    – Bryce
    Jun 26, 2012 at 2:10
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    The confusion comes in with the OP's last two questions. The first question is solely looking for the oldest instance of some form of incorporation. The second question is looking for the first instance of incorporation. With respect to the second question the first instance of incorporation as we understand it today (at least in the realm of for-profit businesses which are the dominant corporations of our time as opposed to municipal corporations, or non-profit corporations) would have to be the Dutch East India Company, because it sold shares tradeable on a stock exchange.
    – ihtkwot
    Jun 26, 2012 at 3:36
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    Well, the Dutch East India Company is rather the first instance of a public corporation. Jul 21, 2012 at 12:13
  • @LennartRegebro agreed, which is why I tried to make clear that I meant it as the first instance of a "modern corporation" which is what we are all familiar with.
    – ihtkwot
    Jul 21, 2012 at 22:33
  • @ihtkwot - In the modern legal sense, a corporation is a legal entity with rights and responsibilities that are inapplicable to the individual share-holders. Was that the case with Dutch East India Company?
    – user2590
    Aug 25, 2013 at 19:09

The word "corporation" originates from Ancient Rome. Ancient Rome had special laws concerning the creation of corporations. Under the republic the creation of corporations was free, but starting from the reign of Augustus, only the Senate could approve the creation of new corporations.

A Roman corporation was unlike the modern ones. It was more like a club, trade union, or society. All members of a corporation were liable for the corporation's debts. Many corporations were created with non-commercial purposes. For example, the Church was considered a corporation legally.

There was also a body called the Council of Corporations in ancient Rome, which was re-created by Mussolini in the 20th century.

  • This is a very interesting answer, but do you have some references/citations to help support this?
    – Bryce
    Jun 26, 2012 at 2:07
  • Okay, the Romans called it a corporation but it was in modern accounting terms a partnership. It clearly was never a separate legal entity since you state: "All members of a corporation were liable for the corporation's debts". This is the defining characteristic of a partnership (compared to a corporation) in modern terms. Jan 12, 2014 at 6:14
  • @PieterGeerkens what you are describing is limited liability which is not the same thing as corporate status. Land Rover were an unlimited company until a few years ago. Unlimited companies were fairly common and registered by Companies House in England and Wales. Unlimited companies were different from partnerships because the company had separate legal personality. Apr 14, 2015 at 21:18
  • @FrancisDavey: A reference would be valuable; your description appears to be inconsistent with the company history as outlined on Wikipedia, which I read to show either independent limited liability corporate status, or divisional status within a limited liability corporation, since its founding. Apr 14, 2015 at 21:29
  • @PieterGeerkens - sorry trusting wikipedia, can't check the history. But the general point is right, there are still unlimited liability companies in the UK (and they were of course much more common). For example: opencorporates.com/companies/gb/00240822 (a bank). Apr 15, 2015 at 9:43

The Church adapted it from Roman law: "Christianity at its very beginning, found the concept of the corporation well developed under Roman law and widely and variously organized in Roman society. It was a concept that the early Christians soon adapted to their organization and, as a means of protection in the periods of persecution. Whether we attach to the burial corporations (collegia tenuiorum or funeraticia) of the early Christians the importance that De Rossi and other archæologists do, there can be no doubt that in the second and third centuries of the Christian era the corporation was generally resorted to as a means of holding, and transmitting church property. In later times this concept fitted in naturally with the genius of the religious orders, and the great monastic establishments of the Middle Ages were organized on that plan. "In the Middle Ages, all life", says Dr. Shahan (Middle Ages, p. 346), "was corporate. As religion was largely carried on by the corporations of monks and friars, so the civic life and its duties were everywhere in the hands of corporations." The mortmain legislation of the Middle Ages indicates that the corporation, as adapted for the holding of ecclesiastical property, was not only a secure, but a prosperous method of tenure in times of feudal warfare. In one instance, the Middle Ages improved upon the Roman concept of the corporation. The corporation sole was a refinement of the canon lawyers. Its most familiar instance in English law is the bishop, the vicar, or the pastor, who succeeds to the rights of an office and by consequence to the sole custody of its temporalities. Blackstone's division of corporation into lay and ecclesiastical (Commentaries, Book II, ch. 18) has no application in the United States where all incorporated religious societies are treated as private civic corporations." (Catholic Encyclopedia)

From Timur Kuran: "Following the split of Christianity in 1054, and during the struggle to emancipate religion from the control of emperors, kings, and feudal lords (1075-1122), the Roman Catholic Church began calling itself a corporation. This struggle, considered to have culminated in the Papal Revolution,19 gave rise to the new canon law (jus novum) of the Catholic Church. Canon law, which dealt with a wide range ofissues, including jurisdiction, property, and contracts, built on innumerable concepts, enactments, and rules belonging to the inherited secular and ecclesiastical legal systems. Unlike its forerunners, however, it emerged as a systematized body of law. Articulated in texts, it was supported by theories pertaining to the sources of law.

During the incorporation wave of the sixth through eleventh centuries, all across western Europe the clergy had developed a collective self-consciousness and formed effectively autonomous religious organizations. Now, by claiming a corporate identity of its own, the entire Church sought to differentiate itself from the secular world, separate its assets from those of its members, and weave detached clerical collectives into what has been called a “translocal, transtribal, transfeudal, and transnational” corporation with an autonomously shaped chain of authority. The move would also enhance the power of the Church over clergy by weakening clerical bonds to competing sources of authority, such as the family. Where states regained power, the assertion of legal personhood, too, began to matter. Meanwhile, other attempts were made to form corporations with large memberships and elaborate legal systems. Thousands of towns in northern Italy, France, England, and Germany acquired a corporate identity, in some cases through a royal charter, in others simply through the will of residents and the recognition of outsiders."


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