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Musée du Compagnonnage
Musée du Compagnonnage

Origins of trade guilds

Several exist, but not all of them are applicable to the whole body of trades concerned. As regards stonecutters, it seems possible that their organisation into a guild took place quite early on. The building of great edifices required qualified workmen, whom architects went in search of well beyond the construction sites themselves. The fact that workmen travelled across the Kingdom, and sometimes even across its borders, inevitably led to development of mutual assistance, the establishment of regular stopovers during their travels, and the formulation of recognition and reception rituals.

One thing is certain: historically speaking, most guilds made their first appearance as the Middle Ages were coming to an end and the modern age beginning – a period characterised by profound changes in political, religious, social and economic landscapes.

It is possible that the professional communities (or corporations) had started to neglect their charitable duties towards itinerant workmen, which would have led the latter to organise themselves into associations distinct from the corporations.

According to another hypothesis, guilds were formed so that journeymen, who could not afford to become master craftsmen owing to the high charges imposed by existing masters, could set off to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Banding together in order to defend their wages, the young men set about founding associations that had much in common with workers’ unions.

Another hypothesis establishes a parallel between the guilds and the “young men’s societies” of the Ancien Régime. The young journeymen would have seen their journey, and above all the rites of passage involved, as taking them out of adolescence and into adulthood.

Similarities have also been seen between religious brotherhoods and early guilds, which originally could only have been a form of brotherhood designed to promote the practice of this or that trade in application of Christian precepts, and to exercise charity with regard to young journeymen on their travels. None of these hypotheses contradict one another.

Flowing staircase

Musée du Compagnonnage

8 rue Nationale
37000 Tours
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