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.
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