Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Apprenticeship, Guilds, and Craft Knowledge

  • Bert De MunckEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_247-1

Related Topics

Artisanal epistemology Boarding Brotherhoods Ceremonies Citizenship Craftsmanship Education Industrial revolution Labor Learning on the shop floor Patriarchy Rituals Skills Socialization Technology Upbringing Urban history Urban middling groups 

Introduction: Learning on the Shop Floor

As shown in the entry “Artisanal knowledge and craftsmanship,” practical skills and craft knowledge were predominantly acquired on the shop floor throughout the medieval and early modern period. Skills and technical knowledge were passed on from father to son or from master to apprentice in a process of learning by doing. While the master demonstrated the tricks of the trade to the apprentice, the latter learned by imitating and in a process of trial and error. Whenever needed, the father or master – or perhaps also a journeyman – explained what went wrong and needed to be improved (De Munck and Soly 2007; recent views in Prak and Wallis 2019a). As this implied the investment of time and effort from the part of the master and entailed the risk of loss when the apprentice for instance spoiled a batch of raw material, the parents or the guardians of the apprentice were mostly required to compensate the master. This could be done in a financial way, by paying a fee to the master, but both parties could also agree upon a minimum term to serve. Apprentices often learned longer than technically necessary, so that they compensated the master with gratis labor or labor at below market rate in the final years of the term – which explains why longer apprentice contract were often cheaper than shorter ones (Grießinger and Reith 1986: 153; De Munck 2007a: 41–9). Such arrangements were mostly agreed upon in an apprentice contract, which could be concluded orally, but could also be written down on a piece of paper kept by both parties or even be registered by a notary (e.g., Grießinger and Reith 1986; Reith 1989; Hamilton 1995; De Munck and Soly 2007; De Munck 2007a; Wallis 2008; Minns and Wallis 2011).

The apprentice contract did not only stipulate the fee and the term, but often also included payment modalities and default clauses, specifying, for instance, that the fee had to be paid up-front or in installments or that a fine was due when the apprentice ran away. In addition, clauses were included about board and lodging, the responsibility for clothing, shoes and laundry, and arrangements for when the boy would turn sick (e.g., De Munck and De Kerf 2018). Nor was the contract limited to financial and economic arrangements. Not seldom, apprentice contracts also fixed a master’s responsibilities in terms of upbringing and disciplining; the master, for instance, promising that the boy would fulfill his religious duties, would be home at night, or went to primary school 1 day a week (e.g., Smith 1981; Kaplan 1993; Pellegrin 1993). Throughout the early modern period, learning a craft was closely connected to upbringing, socialization, and disciplining (a recent state of the art in Prak and Wallis 2019b). While the existence of contracts could give the impression that the relationship between master and (the parents and guardians of) apprentices was predominantly businesslike, the terminology used rather invoked a relationship of master and servant. The master was expected to act like a substitute father of sorts, and the apprentice was mostly urged to “serve” his master diligently and obediently (Smith 1973, 1981; Krausman Ben-Amos 1988; Rappaport 1989: 232–8; Lane 1996, ch 10). This is why social historians have mostly seen apprentice contracts as instruments of socialization, disciplining, and the regulation of the labor market rather than economic contracts in the modern sense of the term (Smith 1973, 1981; Reith 1989; Kaplan 1993; Pellegrin 1993).

Apprenticeship and Guilds

In addition to the master and servant logic, the relationship between master and apprentice was often also embedded in a guild culture. Craft guilds were mostly established from the late medieval period on, with most foundations of guilds to be situated between roughly the thirteenth and the fifteenth century, depending on the region (De Munck et al. 2006; Mocarelli 2008). Once established, access to the guilds was mostly conditional upon the finishing of an apprenticeship term. While master’s sons could often become member (master) with a limited range of ritual requirements (e.g., providing wine and wax or offering a meal to the other members), outsiders needed to be apprenticed (and sometimes be boarded) with a master for a fixed minimum term (Farr 2000: 33–41; De Munck and Soly 2007; Klüge 2009: 151). The terms were mostly set by the guilds themselves, and while they were related to the technical difficulty of the trade, they could differ substantially from region to region, from city to city, and also over time (see e.g., Grießinger and Reith 1986: 152; Reith 1989: 3–4; Krausman Ban-Amos 1991: 155, 170; Kaplan 1993: 451; Schultz 1993: 63–73; Ehmer 1997: 186; Epstein 1998: 690). The reasons for this are a matter of debate among historians. In addition to the difficulty of the trade, labor market regulation and the wish to restrict access to the guilds are pointed at as reasons for discrepancies, mostly resulting in longer terms (see, e.g., Reith 1989:3–4; Kaplan 1993: 451). England was a special case, as the famous statute of artificers prescribed a 7-year term across trades and cities from 1563 on – thus serving as the case par excellence to argue that the difficulty of the trade was not the sole determinant of the term (cf. Lane 1996). In addition to the term, entrance to the guild as a new member could be conditional on demonstrating a minimum skill level in a master’s test or “master piece,” the characteristics of which were mostly also defined by the guild (Rappaport 1989: 248–249; De Munck 2007a: 68–80; Ogilvie 2019: 410–20). Other requirements for new members included paying a fee and, as well, fulfilling ritual requirements such as offering a meal to the board and/or the other members (recent views and references in Klüge 2009, ch 3; De Munck 2018, ch 3; Ogilvie 2019, ch 3; Prak and Wallis 2019b).

Most guilds guarded that new masters met the standards of the guild in terms of skill level and product quality. This might also have been the reason behind yet another guild regulation related to apprenticeship, viz. the maximum number of apprentices per master. Typically, a master was only allowed to train one apprentice at the time, although this could be two or – exceptionally – three as well (De Munck 2007a: 140–4; Klüge 2009: 303–5; Ogilvie 2019: 186–9). The precise reason behind such maxima is again food for discussion among historians, as this can be looked at from an economic as well as a social perspective. While social historians have argued that the maximum number of apprentices prevented apprentices from being exploited as cheap laborers (e.g., Grießinger and Reith 1986; Endres 1996: 383; Kaplan 1993: 455–6), economic historians could argue that it served to guarantee skill levels and, hence, product quality (recent views in Epstein and Prak 2008; also Gustafsson 1987; Hickson and Thompson 1991; Epstein 1998, 2008). What is sure is that guilds increasingly standardized and formalized the training of apprentices, so that learning in an urban context and in incorporated trades differed from learning outside such a framework. Regulations were far less prominent on the countryside, although they could also emerge in proto-industrial districts (e.g., Ogilvie 2003). Nor did they often apply to women. Female workers were sometimes admitted to guilds or did even found guilds themselves but they mostly worked outside a guild framework and had only limited access to more prestigious guilds (Howell 1986; Wiesner 1986, 1987; Simonton 1991; Crowston 2001, 2008: 30–4; Rivière 2016). While they were often highly skilled and intensively trained in, for instance, lace making and as seamstresses, this did mostly not imply formal training requirements and it could mostly not yield them the title of “mistress” (for the liminal position of master’s widows, see Ojala 2016). In part, this is due to the fact that mastership (i.e., the status of freeman) was often related to citizenship. Membership of a guild in most European regions implied being “burgher” (citizen) of the city in question – or sometimes vice versa – a status generally denied to women (Prak 2018: 32, 35).

The Guild Debate

The reason behind the formalization and standardization of apprenticeship requirements by the guilds has been the subject of fierce debates between historians in the last few decades. While the guilds’ requirements were traditionally seen as exclusionary and as deliberate thresholds for outsiders, economic historian Stephan R. Epstein argued in a famous article in 1998 that there could be an economic logic behind them too. According to Epstein (1998), the guilds’ regulations related to apprenticeship stimulated investment in training because minimum terms to serve, registration fees paid by the apprentices, and end-term rewards (i.e., privileged access to the labor market after the end of the term) all guaranteed to the master that the apprentice would not abscond during his term. As argued above, the master often expected a return on his investment once the boy was fully trained but the latter had of course incentives to run away and work for a wage elsewhere as soon as he had acquired the necessary skills (also Epstein 2008). Regulations forcing or stimulating apprentices to serve their term thus made it easier for masters to invest in training and lowered the price of learning (as the master would otherwise ask higher up-front fees). In a similar vein, Jane Humphries (2003) has argued that guilds ensured the quality of training to the apprentices, as the existence of a master piece objectified what had to be learned and thus provided the party of the apprentice with a juridical warrant against being exploited as a cheap laborer (as failing the test would prove that the training had been inadequate). Both Epstein and Humphries thus implied that guilds were economically beneficial in the long run and foster economic innovation – contrary to the olden idea, rooted in classical and neo-classical economics that their regulations hampered the coming about of an efficient free market economy. In line with this, economic historians have argued that the institutionalized apprenticeship systems of European guilds or central states were at the basis of the economic divergence between Europe and the rest of the world, because they would have facilitated training outside one’s own family or kinship network (see e.g., van Zanden 2009; Mokyr 2019).

Social historians have continued to resist these views, however. Sheilagh Ogilvie, in particular, has opposed Epstein’s ideas, arguing that guilds functioned as rent-seeking cartels which deliberately excluded outsiders and collectively set prices – thus returning to the more traditional view on guilds as hindering market mechanisms (Ogilvie 2007, 2008, 2019). Recent research has moreover revealed that the underlying assumption with regard to the learning process of Epstein’s point of view might be inadequate. Epstein’s model is based on a declining learning curve, in which learning is concentrated at the beginning of the term while the return through the provision of skilled labor gradually increases. Yet as recent empirical research has revealed, this might not be how learning proceeded in reality. Based on a large dataset for London and Bristol, Patrick Wallis and Chris Minns (2011) have for instance shown that masters were apparently able to recover their training costs even if apprentices did not follow the rules. While showing that apprentices often departed before the end of the term (and sometimes returned to the same master later), they suggested that recompensating the master with cheap or gratis labor could happen simultaneously or parallel to learning rather than afterwards (for recent views and figures on premature exists, see Schalk et al. 2017).

This position invokes a reality in which apprentices performed dull repetitive and preparatory work, and which might also include household chores. It also serves as a reminder that apprenticeship was not an exclusively economic activity. With hindsight, the position of both Epstein and Ogilvie might be inadequate, as they both frame the guilds in an anachronistic straitjacket – the rationale of which is purely economic, whether it is looked at from an aggregate perspective or from the perspective of a rational rent-seeking actor. In reality, guilds were entangled with the political, cultural, and religious context to such an extent that they cannot be reduced to economic institutions. Guild members worshipped a patron saint and organized collective activities like meals, masses, and processions for their members. They urged their members to be present, including at the funeral of a confrère, and they organized charity and mutual aid for their comembers, in addition to guarding a certain equality among their members by limiting workshop size (e.g., by capping the number of workbenches or journeymen per master) (e.g., Farr 2000, ch 6; Klüge 2009: 306–34, De Munck 2018, chs 5 and 6). In short, guilds should rather be seen as “total institutions” of sorts, which at least in certain periods encompassed the largest part of the life of its members. In the words of James R. Farr (2000: 20-1), it is advisable “to think of corporatism as a cosmology, or as a rhetorical system for ordering the world and making sense of it. It laid out organizing principles which shaped social, political, as well as economic, organization, embracing the principles of paternalism, hierarchy, and discipline in the social and political realm, and the economic principle of containing competition to preserve the livelihood of artisans and channel quality goods to the consuming public at a fair price.”

Guild Landscapes

Nor were guilds uniform and unchangeable institutions. They differed substantially across regions and periods, with the nature of their regulations often depending on political particularities. From a political point of view, early modern Europe roughly counted two types of craft guilds. In Italy, England, the Northern Netherlands, and a range of large cities in France and the German lands, guilds were controlled by large merchants, who used them to control the labor force, shape the production process, and monitor product quality. In these cases, guilds were instruments in the hands of mercantile elites to control manufacturing masters as well as journeymen and apprentices (e.g., Mackenney 1987; Pfister 2008; Soly 2008; also Guenzi et al. 1998). In other regions, such as the Southern Netherlands, Sweden, and a number of (often smaller) cities in German principalities, guilds were rather controlled by manufacturing masters, who used them to regulated access to the trade as a manufacturer and preserve a certain autonomy vis-à-vis the merchants (e.g., Walker 1971; Lis and Soly 1997, 2006, 2008; Edgren 2002, 2006; also Lourens and Lucassen 2000). In these cases, merchants often controlled the export markets just as well, but they had to buy their products from autonomous masters who guarded their (local) product market monopoly as well as their (local) labor market monopsony. In practical terms, the difference is often hard to pinpoint because masters were mostly paid by the piece in both cases, but in the latter case masters guarded the distinction nevertheless, e.g., by ensuring that manufacturing masters rather than merchants warranted product quality and had the exclusive right to apply the guild’s hallmark (De Munck 2007b, 2008). The distinction between “free” and “false” master was made, in other words, by a claim on the possession of craft knowledge, which was denied to the merchants.

The difference between the two types of guilds (and the myriad variation among them) is attributable to the outcome of the late medieval urban revolts, in which the so-called commoners took up arms against the patrician elites who controlled both the urban economy and the urban government in most European cities. Yet the difference should not be overstated, or be seen simply as a distinction between an “oligarchic” and a “democratic” type of governance. While these terms were certainly used in contemporary political philosophy and debate, the difference was far from clear-cut. In both cases, manufacturing masters were part of the urban body politic only as members of their organization (and not as individuals). While the more autonomous guilds of manufacturing masters had mostly succeeded in securing a number of seats for the guilds’ representatives in the urban benches of aldermen and could often – to an extent – elect their representatives (and their board) from the bottom up, in both cases guild-based masters were incorporated in a profoundly hierarchical political system, in which the body politic was literally imagined as a body with a head and members (see, e.g., Najemy 1982; Boone 2010; De Munck 2018, ch 2). Guilds were members of this body politic, and masters were in turn members of the guilds. In both cases, becoming a political subject (as member of the guild) moreover implied learning a trade and exercising it diligently and virtuously in the service of the common good of the city.

Of course, this was only an ideal, and one which moreover dissolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, both economic and political transformations created pressure on the capacity of guilds to control product and labor markets and on their power and autonomy – now also including in regions with relatively “strong” and autonomous guilds. From an economic perspective, it was increasingly difficult to prevent nonguild-based entrepreneurs to produce outside the guild framework, i.e., on the countryside or by employing apprentices and journeymen directly (rather than buying products from privileged masters). The reasons for this included economies of scale but also shifting consumer preferences, which resulted in consumers looking for novelty and fashionability rather than for products with a high intrinsic value (i.e., made with high quality raw material) – which was what the guilds guaranteed (De Munck 2008). From a political perspective, oligarchization, bureaucratization and state formation had a negative impact on the guilds’ autonomy as well as on their ethos of friendship and fraternity. While this has often been seen as a top-down process, recent research has shown that the corporative spirit of guilds waned from the inside as well – with masters increasingly disengaging from collective activities like masses, processions, and meals and with the solidarity among masters declining (De Munck 2018). As such, religious transformation may be part of the explanation too.

All this took place, in any case, in a context in which new economic and political philosophies favored deregulation and free trade as well as individual rights, which both again discredited the guilds’ regulations (Farr 2000, ch 8; Kaplan 2001; Haupt 2002). In Adam Smith’s famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), guilds and guild-like regulations were fiercely denounced. By then, the dominant idea was that, for the sake of efficiency, every employee should have the right to offer his labor wherever he wanted and every employer should be free to employ work force at his own discretion. Apprenticeship rules were therefore increasingly circumvented in the eighteenth century, to be finally abolished along with the guilds around 1800 (depending on the region).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Urban History/Urban Studies InstituteUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

Section editors and affiliations

  • Cesare Pastorino
    • 1
  1. 1.Wissenschaftsgeschichte/History of ScienceTechnische Universitaet BerlinBerlinGermany