The 13th-century Saint-Julien abbey dominated the view from our apartment and having such an ancient element of France’s cultural heritage in our “backyard” seemed surreal. But the truth is that the mastery required to create so many of France’s important cultural elements was not simply due to chance. Rather it was the result of a system that evolved over the centuries directed by the skills and experience of masters in the trades that work with stone, wood, metal, leather, textiles, and many other crafts. And today, the kings’ reigns have ended, but the true legacies of the chateaux, cathedrals, and other magnificent buildings of France can still be seen in the artistry of stone cutters, carpenters, glaziers, and more.
The Compagnonnage movement, dating from the Middle Ages, began with the creation of the stone-cutters guild. Over time, associations of other craftsmen and artisans likewise facilitated the transfer of various crafts, skills, and knowledge from generation to generation. The beginnings of Compagnonnage can be traced to fraternities of skilled workers that built medieval cathedrals throughout Europe, and some see them as ancestors of trade unions and cooperatives. The members of these groups were known as compagnons – companions, fellows, or brothers.
In those times, guilds of certain trades formed alliances of master workers. The guilds ensured that standards were maintained and that their members’ skills and products were of high quality. They required apprenticeships of a minimum duration with a teacher of proven skills. Then after several years of training, apprentices could then work for a master. These young, inexperienced craftsmen, typically eighteen to twenty-five years old, traveled and gained training on a three- to seven-year working “tour de France” doing apprenticeships with masters.
Once an apprentice had advanced their skills to become a master, he would present a “master piece” to the guild members to show that he possessed the necessary skills in his craft.
Today, the Compagnons still offer apprenticeships in the trades to thousands of young French men and women (the first woman was admitted in 2006 among the stonemasons).
Jeannie and I, along with my brother Mike and his wife Kathy, spent close to two hours admiring the displays in the Musée du Compagnonnage, located in the former Saint-Julien abbey in Tours. It not only provides history of Compagnonnage but among its collections are included many detailed and impressive “chef-d’oeuvre” or masterpieces that reflect the superb skills and craftsmanship of the artisans of the guilds. It was a very interesting museum of the history and works of these craftsmen’s guilds
This Post Has 10 Comments
Gay Kenington17 May 2023
In the UK these organisations are called Guilds – and they are still present and active – although most of the older ones are London based & not always as active in keeping the traditional skills alive as you might hope… Fascinating museum, thank you.
Wayne Mackay15 May 2023
Awesome display of craftmanship!
Linda14 May 2023
Really enjoyed reading about the apprentice history. My Dad did an apprenticeship in upholstery and my uncle learned cabinet making. Because of my dad’s trade he was sponsored to come to this country by a former apprentice. Love seeing all the artifacts. Great museum. Thanks for sharing.
Linda Tisdale13 May 2023
Learned something new and beautiful examples of work!
Katherine A Fooshee13 May 2023
An amazing museum!
Missy Ortega13 May 2023
Thank you for this history about the Compagnons. I was glad reading about the first woman among the stone masons. Very interesting .
Elizabeth13 May 2023
I’m so enjoying going on these trips with you all this way ! I hope you are all finally feeling better too
Alice13 May 2023
Thank you so much for sharing!
Niels13 May 2023
Agreed, a fantastic museum – we went there on your recommendation later when we joined you in Tours. Incidentally, the system was widespread in all of Europe. We also still have some trades in Denmark which partly use it, although apprentices typically are now also getting tuition at schools in some periods of their apprenticeship, interleaved with periods of working and learning “on the job” at a master. Back in the day, when an apprentice was fully educated and presented his masterwork, he would then typically travel around Europe (or farther in the world) as a companion (“svend” in Danish) to gain more experience before maybe returning to work for a master some years while saving money to set up his own workshop as a master and maybe hire his own companions and apprentices.
Missy Ortega12 May 2023
Thank you so much for sharing this with us! I was very happy learning that a woman was included among the masonry crafts. Way cool!