The confines of this site do not allow a detailed history of the various craft brotherhoods that constitute the Compagnonnage. Only mentioned here are the dates, the periods and the characters that marked its history.
The earliest trace of Compagnonnage would date back to the Middle Ages. Only a written document can testify to the existence of groups of young journeymen who travel, help one another, perform rites in various circumstances and own specific attributes and vocabulary. Most of the earliest mentions of compagnons come from judicial archives.
Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the origin of the compagnons’ societies. They cannot all apply to all crafts. Concerning the stonemasons, it is possible that they organised in this form quite early: the building of large edifices required qualified labour, which architects sought well beyond the vicinity of the building sites. Such journeying of craftsmen in the kingdom, and sometimes abroad, could have favoured the practice of Mutual Aid, appointed stopovers, secret forms of greetings and ritualised admission in a group.
There is no doubt left about the existence of compagnons’ associations during the 16th century. From 1514 and up to the 1580s in Lyons and Geneva, the printer compagnons were organised in defence associations, travelled, went on strike, had reception ceremonies and used secret greetings. They are the earliest known rites.
In the 17thcentury we learn of divisions between brotherhoods and problems with the Church. The documents concerning the compagnons increase noticeably and relate to numerous crafts. They reveal that the compagnons’ brotherhoods were based in many French towns. Stonemasons, imitated by others, left their names and symbols in graffiti on the Pont du Gard, a spiral staircase in the former cathedral of St-Gilles-du-Gard and Diana’s temple in Nîmes, etc.
During the 18th century the Compagnonnage expanded to more crafts and it came into conflict with the corporation masters. The geographical spread of the craft brotherhoods evolved to a more specific pattern: along the Loire valley, the Atlantic coastline between Nantes and Bordeaux, along the Garonne river, in Languedoc, Provence, up the Rhône valley, in Burgundy, Champagne and Paris. To the craft brotherhoods mentioned for the preceding century, we know from judicial archives that there were now compagnons among the tanners, chamois-bleachers, stove-makers, glaziers, harness-makers, roofers, cloth-shearers, dyers, rope-makers, edge-tool-makers, linen-weavers and plasterers.
Under the Empire (till 1815) the craft brotherhoods were still forbidden, but, unable to erase them, the authorities could at least keep an eye on them and prevent strikes and shop-banning. Brawls were rife again. Later, the Compagnonnage was confronted with the expansion of industry, the decline of its memberships and was brought to consider regrouping to survive.
The 20th century saw a deep restructuring of the Compagnonnage. Up to 1914, the compagnons strove to check the decrease of membership by putting in place ‘societies for the protection of apprentices’ that negotiated the best possible conditions for their protégés. In some cities they also organised vocational training. Rapprochements took place between the Devoir, the Union Compagnonnique and the carpenter compagnons du Devoir de Liberté.
The Musée du Compagnonnage opened its doors at Easter 1968. We owe it to the perseverance of Roger Lecotté (1899-1991), curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) and specialist in folklore and compagnonnage. From 1951 on, he strove to persuade the compagnons’ associations of the need to preserve their patrimony and show it to the public at large.