Aid and brotherhood
The word “companion” derives etymologically from two Latin words: “cum” (with) and “panis” (bread). A companion is someone with whom one shares bread; it is therefore similar to the informal French word for “friend”, “copain”, which has the same Latin origin. Companions are therefore duty-bound to provide mutual aid, support and assistance. This obligation is rooted in the notion of brotherhood.
All compagnons of the same association (and often even of other associations) form Pays (“Regions”) or Coteries, terms which signify “brothers” and “comrades”. “Regions” refer to all those who work on the ground (joiners, locksmiths, bakers, boilermakers, shoemakers, etc.), while “Coteries” refer to those who work on scaffolding (stonecutters, masons, construction carpenters, plasterers, and roofers; plumbers – who derived from roofers – are also included).
Until the mid 19th century, guild associations were only composed of young men who had completed the “Tour de France”. Once they had returned home and settled down, married or become their own bosses, they “thanked” (that is, left) their society. During the years in which they lived fully within their guild, strong links were forged among them. They shared the joys and sorrows of the adventurous communal life they had known in the cities where they had once worked. A part of their wages was placed in the “tin” during meetings or “assemblies”.
The sums accumulated, often on Sundays or during special subscriptions, served to help companions who had been unable to find work; they were also used to compensate for loss of wages caused by illness or work-related accidents. Guild members were obliged to visit ill comrades in hospital. Funds from the “tin” were also used to pay for the funerals of workers who had died far from their families, as well as for other collective occasions of a more celebratory nature; a companion’s departure from a city was preceded by a conduite (“accompaniment”) and an arrosage (“drinking to mark the occasion”) and banquets held during patron saint’s festivals.
Solidarity with the guild was also demonstrated when a member of a Region or Coterie was imprisoned following a brawl or was being sought by the police. Furthermore, if companions were badly treated by an employer or were refused a pay rise, they would abandon the workshop or leave the city, thereby depriving the employer of qualified workers (a form of “blacklisting”). During strikes, the “tin” provided guild members with the means to subsist until the pay rise was granted.
In the late 19th century, guilds also instituted a system of funding retirements.
For several centuries, the guilds played a vital role as workers’ aid societies and workers’ unions. While these functions gradually lost importance with the appearance of organised unions (in 1864 and in 1884) and of mutual aid societies, health insurance and retirement insurance, the duty to offer assistance and brotherhood among guild members continued undiminished.