An article written for ASJRA by…
By Dr. Stephenie Slahor
Notwithstanding the recent television show about apprentices, the “real” apprentice system began centuries ago. Those who created different types of wares, jewelry, metalwork, textiles and so on had an apprentice system that was strictly regulated and enforced through their guilds.
Parents usually began the process of apprenticing their children, with boys the most likely to become apprentices. When the child was about eleven years old, his parents would visit with a “master” in the trade and discuss the child’s abilities and motivation for becoming an apprentice. If the master agreed, the child packed up a few belongings, and a small mat and blankets, and went to live with the master. Sometimes the parents paid a fee to the master for agreeing to take the child to educate him, but it is likely that some masters chose apprentices on the basis of talent they showed, too, so that fee may not have been a requirement for arrangement.
The master lived at his shop, usually “above the store” on the upper floor, where there were living quarters for the master, his wife and his own children. The apprentice usually slept beneath the workbench, but did take his meals with the master’s family. Apprentices were little more than servants to their masters so their “place” was the master’s shop. The master’s living quarters were off limits to the apprentice, and the master and his family were not to be disturbed there except for an emergency.
The new apprentice learned about the workshop, customer show room, and the storeroom, and where everything was located or stored. The apprentice also had to learn the names of the tools and supplies used in the trade.
The apprentice was not allowed to visit any inns or taverns unless in the company of the master, or even the apprentice’s own family without the permission of the master. The apprentice was expected to devote nearly all his time to the work given him, and to do that work with his best efforts.
Little by little, the apprentice was given more training. Of course, starting at the bottom rung of the ladder of knowledge meant the apprentice often had the more tedious or strenuous tasks to do. Exhaustion usually ruled by the end of the workday. Most crafts demanded steady hands and rested eyes so sleep was important and the nighttime was for rest.
Sunday was not a workday. The apprentice would accompany the master and his family to church, and perhaps some diversion or activity, but, at sundown, the apprentice was expected back at the shop where his supper awaited him.
As the years rolled on, the apprentice would grow more skilled at the master’s craft. At about age fifteen or sixteen, the apprentice might be allowed to attend the master’s guild meetings, but did not vote or take part in discussions. The guildhall was a meeting place for those who practiced the particular craft of that guild. Generally, the guildhall was a showy city landmark and contained a large meeting hall, paintings of past masters of the guild, and displays of items crafted by members of the guild.
Only the most skilled crafters were admitted to the guild’s membership, which consisted of those persons who were allowed to have shops in the city where their goods were crafted and sold. Consequently, the guild held many meetings about whom to admit. Also of importance was the setting of prices. he guild made sure that its members sold at prices that were fair and consistent. The guild could also regulate the hours worked by a master to assure that no one worked too many hours and the guild also had a member welfare function. At guild meetings, the names of members who were sick, injured, or too old to work were read, along with the particular aid each needed. Guild members could vote to pay a stipend to those needing financial help, or vote to render whatever aid was necessary. The money came from dues paid by the members. Meetings of the guild might also discuss complaints from the members about being cheated or wronged by a customer. Remedies would be discussed, then a member of the guild would be charged with the task of pursuing the remedy with the city’s mayor or the courts.
The guild reviewed applications of those who sought to become members. The applicant’s work samples were reviewed, and the applicant was questioned about his skills and his character. Only the best were admitted and anyone with poor ethics, or whose work was not of a good quality, would be denied membership.
Most guilds, including those for goldsmiths, operated similarly. The guilds were there to regulate the quality of what was produced and the business of selling what was produced.
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths began in London in 1327 with a Royal Charter from King Edward III, and another Royal Charter in 1393 from King Richard II for allowing the guild to own properties and rents for charitable purposes. The company also tested gold and silver. Like other guilds, the Worshipful Company had a patron saint in the person of St. Dunstan.
London was not the only site of a goldsmiths’ guild, though. In the 1200’s, Paris already had over 100 goldsmiths and jewelers. Apprentices were expected to learn how to certify, work, file, solder, forge, saw, cast and polish gold. (It was not uncommon for goldsmiths to be jewelers as well.)
As a business, goldsmiths created many ceremonial and artistic objects for the church. Such items as chalices, patens, monstrances, pyxes, censers, candlesticks, crosses and seals were created. The market was not strictly the church, though. Royalty and nobility enjoyed the prestige and beauty of gold, too, so goldsmiths created items of personal adornment and household decorations such as flatware, platters, goblets and art. Jewelry was common for both men and women of nobility.
The Black Plague interrupted some of the commerce of the time, but once Europe overcame the plague, commerce increased and goldsmithing was once again flourishing in the late 1400’s and onward. Not only London and Paris dominated, but also Bruges, Utrecht, Florence, Strasbourg, and Cologne.
At that time, much of the world’s gold was coming from Africa, with Venice serving as the main marketplace for gold coming to Europe. Exports were forbidden until the gold was refined to at least 23 carats/958 fine. Venice controlled most of the gold trade for 400 years.
Later, additional discoveries of gold occurred in Hungary and Bohemia. The Renaissance explorers were beginning voyages to the “New World” in pursuit of the fabled sources of gold and other precious commodities. Those new stores of gold expanded the goldsmithing trade and, although still a precious commodity, gold items and jewelry became more popular as gold became more affordable to people becoming more financially secure as the European economies grew in the Renaissance and later.
So a goldsmith apprentice, as in other trade, worked for his master for at least seven years, and, if the apprentice’s work was consistently good, his master would submit an application to the guild on the apprentice’s behalf, recommending journeyman status. (The word “journeyman” is from the French word “journee,” meaning day, implying that the journeyman would be paid for his work by the day.) At the guild, there would be testimony about the apprentice’s character, and a vote taken on whether to grant journeyman status. If granted, the apprentice was not yet a foreman or master, but he was a step up from apprentice. The move from apprentice to journeyman usually occurred when the person was eighteen to twenty in age. It was an important move because a journeyman was paid for his labor, and the unpaid apprenticeship was over. The master might also give a portion of the shop’s profits to the journeyman for items on which they had worked together.
In about three years from becoming a journeyman, the applicant could submit a “masterpiece” of his trade to the guild. That masterpiece work would be used as a sample to judge whether he was ready to be admitted as a member of the guild. Earning the title “master” was an honor, but came only after careful review of the work and the person, to be sure that the guild was inducting a worthy candidate.And that’s the story of the “real” apprentice