While drawing up your genealogical tree, you have discovered that one or more of your ancestors practised a trade and was referred to as a “Master” or “Companion” in parish or public records. You have always heard it said that one of your forebears had done his Tour of France. You have found a stick, or some letters or photos that have led you to believe that he was a Companion, and you want to know more.
Finding out whether or not an ancestor was a “Companion of the Tour of France” and, if he was, trying to reconstruct his life as a guild member, present difficulties of which it is well to be aware. The advice that follows is designed to help those wishing to carry out research on workmen and craftsmen who were possible guild members and who died before the Second World War. For the half century since, there should be enough extant material to find out easily enough whether or not a forebear was actually a Companion.
It is above all essential to understand exactly what is meant by Compagnonnage – a guild system made up of associations of men practising a variety of trades. What was its goal? How was it structured ? What did the Tour of France ? represent in days gone by? And it should be kept in mind that, up until the mid 19th century at least, we are talking about “tolerated" associations.
Once this is all clear, we should take care to avoid false trails, keeping in mind that not all craftsmen were necessarily guild members. We should also distinguish between masters and companions belonging to corporations and Companions of the Tour of France. We must be aware of the fact that a workman who travelled did not necessarily complete his Tour of France as a member of the guild system. We should also distinguish between the guild system and the corporations that existed under the Ancien Régime and not confuse guilds with Freemasonry. Mistakes will be avoided if we bear in mind that other kinds of workmen’s associations existed that were in many ways similar to the guilds. We should also be aware that a Companion did not always practise the same trade throughout his life. He might change activity or any number of reasons, and some among them never made their Tour of France.
You are simply seeking to find out more in order to add to your documentation. Perhaps you are thinking of exploring public or private archives. First of all you need to know which association the ancestor in question belonged to – there were sometimes several covering the same trade. You could set about reading journals, consult lists of guild members’ names or reconstruct the context in which your forebear lived his life by reading the Memoirs that a number of guild members published.
You have found such research interesting and now want to know more about the guild system? You can do so by turning to some of the books that have been written on this vast subject, and by visiting websites that provide resources for genealogists.
Companion around 1900, wearing his colours