The limits of this website make it impossible to relate the long history of the trade guilds in any great detail. We must content ourselves with simply casting an eye over the most important dates, periods, and characters in the story.
The earliest traces of Compagnonnage date back to the Middle Ages.
It is only through documents still extant that we know of the existence of groups of young journeymen who travelled, helped one another, practised rituals in various circumstances, and possessed common attributes and vocabulary. Most of the earliest records of these compagnons (“companions”) are to be found in judicial archives.
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.
The first Companions’ associations of which we have certain proof made their appearance in the 16th century. From 1514 up until the 1580s, Companion Printers in Lyons and Geneva were organised into protective associations, travelled, went on strike, carried out reception ceremonies and used secret handshakes and other signs of recognition.
1514 to 1580: Journeymen printers in Lyons and Geneva organise themselves into protective associations, travel, go on strike, carry out induction ceremonies, and make use of secret handshakes and recognition signs – the earliest use of ritual known to us.
The 17th century saw divisions spring up between societies, which started experiencing difficulties with the Church.
There are increasing numbers of documents bearing on guilds and concerning a wide range of trades. Many French cities now contain journeymen’s associations. Stonemasons and other workmen leave graffiti – nicknames and drawings of tools – on the Pont du Gard, the spiral staircase at Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, the Temple of Diana in Nîmes, and elsewhere.
In the 18th century, the guild system extended to cover other trades and found itself in conflict with masters of corporations.
Guilds are located in towns along the Loire, in the Maine and Nantes, along the Atlantic coast, and in Garonne, Languedoc, Provence, the Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Champagne and Paris.
Thanks to references made in judicial archives, we can add many further guilds to those already mentioned – tanners/curriers, tawers/chamois-leather dressers, coppersmiths, glaziers, saddlers, roofers, cloth shearers, dyers, ropemakers, edge-toolmakers and blacksmiths, cloth-makers, and plasterers.
In the 19th century, the guild system was faced with the rise of the industry, a drop in numbers of members, and strove to become a more united movement.
Guilds continue to be prohibited under the Empire, but, as the authorities have no real power to prevent them from existing, they content themselves with keeping a close eye on their doings and putting a stop to their “coalitions” (strikes and blacklistings). Brawling between rival societies reaches new heights.
The 20th century saw major reorganisation of the guild system.
Up until 1914, guild members attempt to curb the fall in their numbers by setting up “apprentice protection societies”, responsible for negotiating contracts with companies where apprentices would receive sound training. They also organise professional training courses in a number of cities. There is also reconciliation between the Compagnons du Devoir, the Union Compagnonnique and the Charpentiers du Devoir de Liberté.
The Musée du Compagnonnage opened its doors to the public on Easter Day 1968. We owe its existence to the perseverance of Roger Lecotté (1899-1991), curator of the Bibliothèque Nationale and a specialist in folklore and trade guilds. Beginning his campaign in 1951, he strove to convince guild movements of the necessity of conserving their heritage and presenting it to the public at large.