Craft Guilds

“Circulation of Skilled Labor in Late Medieval and Early Modern Central Europe” Reinhold Reith

Reading Reith’s framing of the history of tramping (period of traveling journeymen of a craft undergo), guild structure, a sort of mapping of region and craft, and the circulation of tacit knowledge and technology left me feeling surprised that really, up until now, I was thinking of craftsmanship as locally fixed. We’ve read a little bit about the tensions between man and machine locally – that is within a craft or a craftsman with a craftsman body, and I suppose I wasn’t thinking beyond this local node, or between local nodes globally. It seems silly to recognize that certainly knowledge, even tacit knowledge, has influence from beyond the local in terms of technique, technology, and materials. Reith’s summarizes his historical gloss as follows:

  • guilds were omnipresent
  • it was difficult to prevent skilled labor from moving around (beyond local)
  • the impossibility of stopping skilled workers from moving had consequences for the diffusion of technology – skills and knowledge (interested in his definition of technology)

I’m particularly interested in the diffusion of technology. Reith explains

“highly mobile journeymen were a significant force of technological diffusion…[Whereas] forced migration [of masters] helped transfer technology across linguistic and national, although probably not religious boundaries, journeymen’s travels were mostly restricted to areas that were institutionally and culturally more homogeneous, and were thus instrumental in shaping technological pools. By contrast… ‘unfree’ highly regulated markets, and in particular the labor markets of the crafts, blocked the spread of innovations through journeyman tramping: no master was willing to disclose workshop secrets and innovations were unwelcome” (131)

Reith works to make this look at circulation more nuanced though, seeming to focus on illuminating that “forced” was actually more voluntary; journeymen traveled with the objective of gaining technical experience with the intention of returning (131). He explains, with examples in different crafts, that “The recruitment and enticement of desirable specialists occurred across territorial and linguistic barriers in every sector” (133); journeymen traveled to cooperate with large numbers of masters (men and women), other journeymen and apprentices; learned about regional differences in work organisation; and came to recognise different practices, raw materials, and products in their journey. Reith notes that there was potential for failure in this traveling, or migration due to technical, economic, social, cultural, and religious reasons (even to the extent that some journeymen could not return). Reith describes the diffusion of technology in these journeymen’s travels as taking the form of radiation, acquisition through imitation (“imperceptible”) and by migration (“spectacular”) sometimes coercion (132). Reith describes that patterns of mobility varied from trade to trade, but late medieval and early modern skilled workers were highly mobile (141) with the emphasis on acquiring technology to improve craft. But, some crafts were closed to diffusion; not permitting migration of journeymen in or out of a guild resulted from attempting to protect the primacy in a craft; however, in working to conceal what is being made from outside craftsmen, the making cannot be influenced by outside craftsmen  – no new techniques.

I’m interested in the diffusion of technology in terms of technique in the circulation of journeymen and its relationship to tools and its relationship with technological advancement and machinery. I also found myself wanting visualizations of “primary” or “origin” crafts and their form/technique/materials over time/space as influenced by diffusion – a leather glove had a certain type of stitching in France until a journeymen observed and developed the technique of stitching used in Switzerland for X reason – what does the glove look like then? A blend? Something different in the combination of elements? I’d be curious to see this diffusion (and traces to place/people/technique would be really neat).

After reading, I was browsing the web for guilds and came across an exhibit on display at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History: “Mud Masons of Mali”. The exhibit is described on its page as “featuring photographs, original films, objects and tools, tell[ing] the stories of one of Africa’s most celebrated ancient architectural traditions, and it highlights the different challenges masons face today to hold on to their craft in the 21st century”. I thought that this might function as an example of diffusion. There are two short videos about the mason work from the perspectives of the masons, particularly their craftsmanship and their work on the Djenne Mosque – The Great Mosque. Each year, the community gathers for the application of a new layer of mud over the mosque. This is following the traditional technique and tools (much work depicted is done by the hand – hand as tool) of the Boso, described on the Smithsonian site as “a centuries-old craft guild that fosters and oversees the art of mud construction. Techniques and traditions are handed down between generations of masons as young laborers strive to become apprentices and, eventually, after years of perfecting their art, master masons.” The videos show the training and skills needed to build and maintain mud architecture, but illuminate the “contemporary political and environmental challenges mud masons encounter as they struggle to preserve their historic city in the face of modernization”. The Master Mason explains that the masons are striving to maintain traditional building styles while meeting the demand for bigger buildings with more conveniences – indoor plumbing, and painted and tiled portions to reduce upkeep of the mud (the process requires the entire community in part). I wonder where diffusion plays a role here in the desire for “contemporary” (to put it loosely) buildings. But a more striking example is told from the Master Mason in response to the restoration work done by UNESCO workers on the Mosque. In 1988 The Mosque was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site – as a representation of one of the most impressive mudbrick buildings in the world (constructed in 1907). Internally, as described by the Master Mason, there were many hidden cracks that needed to be mended. But the work of the UNESCO workers, he describes as “European” – what does diffusion mean here? Although the materials (not certain of the tools) were the same as the Boso have used, the technique is different. As shown in the video, The Mosque goes from having more rounded shape as a result of applied and shaping mud by the palm, to having more rigid edges (a different technique and aesthetic – the building has changed). I wonder about the exchange of knowledge and technology between the UNESCO journeymen and the Guild of the Boso.

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