Patricians and Artisans

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Patricians and Artisans



Urban Elites. The citizenry of the towns consisted of the patriciate and the artisans. Almost every town had a relatively small group of families that had the largest for-tunes and controlled most of the political offices of the town. These individuals represented the patriciate. Most men in the patriciate belonged to one of two clusters of occupations: they were either merchants and bankers or they belonged to one of the learned professions, primarily the law. They emulated the nobility by not actually making anything, but by controlling the activities of those who did make things. Also like the nobility, patricians preserved their social distinctiveness by blocking upward social mobility for all but a few nonmerchants, or professionals. Elite families forged multiple links by marriage and made various deals to ensure that they were represented politically

in urban policy. Occasionally, one patrician family came to exercise such a powerful role in the city that they became de facto rulers of the city. In free city-states such a concentration of power might lead to a showdown in which either the powerful family was driven into exile, or it would overthrow the institutions of self-government and turn itself into a principality. Other than that, there were comparatively few differences in the social attitudes or position of the patriciate in either free city-states or ordinary towns, though the former did have more authority over their surrounding countryside.

Guild Cycle. The term artisan refers to all people involved in basic manufacturing requiring any special skill or technique. The life of the artisan was shaped by the craft guilds, which ran the trade in any given city. Though the specifics of guild organization could vary greatly from one town to another and one craft to another, there was a general life cycle that virtually all guilds imposed on their members. A person learned a craft first as an apprentice in a master’s shop. After some period of apprenticeship, the craft member would become a journeyman. After serving a period as a journeyman, the member would become eligible to become a master, with his own shop. For the most part, girls were excluded from the usual artisan training cycle. If they learned the techniques of a particular craft, it was in the shop of their own parents or husbands, rather than in the traditional craft route. Usually, only masters had a say in how the guild was run. Apprentices and journeymen were subject to the authority of masters both in the individual shops and in the general regulations that the guild promulgated.

Apprenticeship. Children began their artisanal careers at an early age. It was common for parents to make a con-tract for their sons to become apprentices at the age of six or seven. The contract specified the length of service, sup-port, and conditions of the child’s initial training. For all practical purposes, the apprentice then became a member of his new master’s household. Most apprentice positions were achieved through connections. The oldest son of a master in a particular craft would be apprenticed to a prominent master in that same craft. Other sons might apprentice in a different craft or the same craft, but without the assurance that they could eventually inherit their father’s shop. The apprentice would live and work in the house of the master. Initially, his responsibilities would be menial. He would clean up scraps, sweep the floors, and bring materials to the other workers in the shop. In most cases, he would learn the craft first by observing, and then by introduction from the master and the other workers in the shop. After a few years, he would have learned enough about the craft to be able to contribute to any shop. At that time, he would leave the security of his hometown and, bearing a letter of introduction from his hometown guild, he would undertake the next stage of his training as a journeyman.

Journeymen. Journeyman status was complicated by the fact that it consisted of two distinct groups of people. In the guild model, apprentices became journeymen to learn more of the tricks of the craft so that they would become qualified to be masters. But only some journeymen could reasonably aspire to become masters. After all, it was not in the interest of the other guild masters to allow too many guild shops in any given town. They might lose business to the newcomers. The guilds themselves deliberately limited the opportunities to open a shop in order to assure that masters could earn a living wage. Usually only the journeymen whose fathers already ran a master’s shop that they could inherit would be assured of becoming masters some day. They set out on their wanderings in their mid to late teens, going from town to town in order to learn nuances of the craft that they might not have learned by staying in one shop. The other group of journeymen may or may not have begun their travels in the hopes of eventually becoming masters, but over time they discovered that their path to advancement was blocked, no matter how much skill they may have acquired. They became perpetually locked into journeyman status. They provided the bulk of the labor for the larger master’s shops in the towns. So journeymen were, on the one hand, a group of late adolescents and young adults who were just learning the more refined techniques of their trade, and, on the other hand, older men whose career ladder had peaked.

Lifestyle. Like the apprentices, journeymen mostly lived and worked in the household and shop of a master. Yet, unlike the apprentices, journeymen did not have family-backed contracts that regulated their roles with the masters. Instead, their interactions were regulated by the local guilds. The process of finding work was straightforward. The journeyman carried a letter from his hometown guild, demonstrating that he had passed apprentice status. When he came to a new town, he would go to the guildhall of his guild and present his letter. At the guildhall, he would be informed if there were any masters looking for workers. If so, he would be directed to the master’s shop and work would be arranged. If not, he would be lodged at the guildhall for a brief period of time, perhaps given a small sum of money, and sent on to the next town. The journeyman would continue wandering from town to town until he found temporary or permanent work with a master.

Associations. The shared lifestyles of journeymen created a distinct culture. In order to represent their interests against the masters of the guild, journeymen also created their own organizations to back up their culture. Even more than the guilds, these associations were reminiscent of a modern trade union. They would negotiate the terms of employment for all journeymen in a town’s guilds and punish those who refused to accept the terms. For example, in the hat-making trade of France, journeymen steadfastly refused to make more than two hats a day. If masters tried to increase their workload they would go on wildcat strikes to enforce their preset limit. They also forced masters to recognize periodic holidays when the journeymen would be exempt from work. Among the more notable customs was “Blue Monday,” which was a day off to recuperate from excessive drinking on Sundays.

Masters’ Shops. A master’s shop was both his business and his home. In general, the master made all decisions about what was to be produced and who would produce it within the shop. He also had parental control over the lives of his apprentices and journeymen. He would be accountable if they violated town rules, and, in turn, was allowed to enforce household discipline on them. Masters and journeymen all ate at the same table. Guilds preferred that masters be married men. Masters’ wives could help in running the shop, both by looking after the apprentices and journeymen and by assisting in sales or some parts of production. A married couple was also considered a better source of moral guidance for the journeymen and apprentices than a bachelor would be.

Gaining Master Status. As noted above, the path to master status was often restricted. In general, the first goal of the guild was to ensure that all masters had a chance to earn enough to live on. Guilds restricted the number of masters so there would not be excessive competition for customers. When a potential new master applied to open a shop, he would have to produce a masterpiece to prove that he was competent in the skills of the trade. The masterpiece was a certification of competence, not a test of merit. The mere fact that one could produce the best or most elaborate masterpiece did not mean that one would be accepted as a master. That decision was left up to the guild based on its own criteria, which rarely made skill a top priority. The most effective way to become a master was to be the son of a master and inherit the business from the father. Another effective way was to be wealthy and buy one’s way into the guild. Both of these approaches minimized the chances that the new master would fall into poverty and thus bring disgrace to the guild.


1. No master shall henceforth enter into any association, fraternity, league or combination with any journeyman or other worker, nor shall journeymen and workers make any common laws or regulations except with the express approbation of masters and council of the city.

2. All employed persons, whether indentured to knights, artisans, or burghers, and all journeymen residing in this city shall, furthermore, swear an oath of obedience to masters and council, pledging themselves to advance the interest and honor of the city and do nothing to cause it harm or injury as long as they shall serve this city and reside in it....

3. No journeyman or other employed person shall from now on have a common room or house, nor any place, house, or garden in which to congregate for talk of common affairs or negotiation on conditions of work, nor shall they be permitted to form any kind of association for banding together....

4. Journeymen shall not prevent a master from employing, for whatever reason, whomever he wishes to employ, for no employed person has the right to negotiate with a master or with another journeyman concerning conditions of employment. All such negotiations shall take place before the guild and nowhere else....

5. Journeymen shall hold their funeral processions on holidays only, and not on working days.

6. No journeyman or other employed person shall henceforth carry a sword, foil, or long knife, nor any other weapon save a common bread or cutting knife not to exceed one span in length....

7. No three journeymen or other employed persons shall wear identical hats, coats, trousers, or other identifiable marks.

8. Whoever violates any of the above stated points or articles shall not be given work by any master in this city....

9. No city that has become a signatory to these articles shall alter them in any way without prior consultation with all the other signatory cities.

Response of the Journeymen Furriers of Strasbourg, 1470

Wise and honorable sires: Concerning the recent troubles between masters and journeymen of the furrier’s guild in Strasbourg, we have heard that the master furriers are asking your worships to compel journeymen furriers to accept employment procedures dictated by your command and intervention, which, though customary among tailors and some other trades, are an unheard of innovation in the furrier’s craft and never before encountered in German lands. Surely you know that our craft has long possessed the liberty of negotiating its own conditions of employment. We cannot condone an infringement on this liberty, whether it be attempted in Strasbourg or elsewhere. We do not doubt that your worships have due regard to this liberty of ours, which was granted to us by your forefathers and predecessors and was affirmed and sealed by the city of Strasbourg itself. We feel certain that you will wish to leave us secure in our just liberties and that you will do nothing to destroy our fraternity and our freedoms. .. .

Response of the Journeymen Furriers of Willstaett, 1470

Our friendly greeting, dear journeymen of the furrier’s craft in Strasbourg. Dear journeymen, we pray that you now cease all work in Strasbourg until your masters shall have decided to respect once again our old traditions, privileges and seals. No honest journeyman will wish to work under the conditions now prevailing. We therefore caution you against allowing yourselves to be persuaded by your masters to act contrary to the interests of all good journeymen by accepting improper and illicit conditions. A man who submits to masters against our cause shall not be forgiven for ten or twenty years. May God help you to conduct yourselves toward us as you would wish us to behave toward you. The new order which our masters are now attempting to impose upon us is unheard of in Germany, in Latin lands, and even among the pagans.

Source: Gerald Strauss, ed., Manifestations of Discontent on the Eve of the Reformation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), pp. 130–137.

Social Distinctions. The fact that guilds were interested in reducing competition among masters does not mean that all artisans led comfortable lives or that all masters were equal. There was, in fact, a fairly substantial gap between the richest masters in a guild and the poorest. In some industries, such as weaving, most masters were quite poor. In the course of the sixteenth century, the distinctions between masters also became more pronounced. Some guilds began to lose control over the artisans of the surrounding countryside, so the pressures of competition became more acute. By 1600 guild production in smaller towns was on the defensive, and the framework for new forms of production was coming into place.

Women and Artisanal Work. The basic model of the guild economy did not foster women’s participation in the world of work. The main way in which guilds encouraged women’s work was to allow the wives of masters to work in their husband’s shops, usually as the sales clerk. Yet, there were many women engaged in artisanal work, despite the apparently limited opportunities. The most successful women artisans tended to be the widows of master artisans. Their experiences within their husbands’ shops enabled them to run the business even after their husbands’ deaths. Such women were highly desired as wives by young artisans, because they represented a fast track to master’s status. However, widows were often reluctant to remarry, precisely because they would lose their newfound financial independence. Usually guilds tried to discourage widows from running independent shops for too long by forbidding them from hiring new journeymen or taking on apprentices, but they were reluctant to remove a shop from a widow’s control.

Women’s Work. There were also some trades which came to be viewed as “women’s work.” Some of the women engaged in these trades were married to men in other lines of work. Others were single women who needed a trade to support themselves. The three most prominent areas in which women found work were in health care (as midwives, hospital attendants, or working in public baths), sales (primarily as market vendors and peddlers), and domestic workers (as maids and servants). Though some women could prosper in these trades, most workers were poorly paid and marginal in their communities. Over the course of the period 1350-1600, women’s work became increasingly marginal. The trend of the era was for more patriarchal control of women’s work, not less.


Martha C. Howell, Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

Richard Mackenney, Tradesmen and Traders: The World of the Guilds in Venice and Europe, C.1250-C.1650 (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1987; London: Croom Helm, 1987).

Merry E. Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, N J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

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Patricians and Artisans

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