Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France

The Rites of Labor: Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France

Cynthia Bouton

Compagnonnage emerged out of and drew upon Medieval and Early Modern craft guilds and confraternal associations. As changes in the economy distanced masters from workers and subordinated the latter to the pressures of the market, compagnons evolved a distinct identity for themselves. Truant describes how compagnons adapted many of the practices and rituals performed by earlier corporations and confraternities to their goal of establishing their own control over “the placement, assimilation, and fraternization of journeymen from various regions of France” (p. 66). She asserts that, by the eighteenth century, journeymen had elaborated a rich associational life, which included a “dynamic tension between equality and hierarchy, brotherhood and exclusion, spontaneity and structure” (p. 108).

Truant offers an impressive and nuanced analysis of the journeymen’s associational life. For lack of space, I will mention two areas largely ignored by previous scholars: the ways compagnons created fictive kin and encoded gender. Not only did they see each other as brothers, but journeymen also called the inns where they resided “Meres” and the men and women who ran them “peres” and “meres.” Moreover, Truant underscores how fraternal bonding included both forming tighter relations with the “meres” as care-givers and the “spoilation of women” through gang-rape and shared prostitution.

Compagnonnage survived the French Revolution, but also underwent internal changes. Although illegal (but largely tolerated) even in the Early Modern period, the abolition of the Ancien Regime corporate structure threatened to destabilize the brotherhoods. Truant argues that post-Revolutionary compagnonnage witnessed increased differentiation among the various sects, stricter enforcement of membership rules, greater emphasis on tradition – real or mythic, and more elaboration of internal hierarchies. Herein lies what Truant believes is the reason for both the continued vibrancy of compagnonnage in the nineteenth century and its ultimate marginalization and decline. “Preoccupation with symbols reestablished compagnonnages as viable organizations of mutual aid and labor resistance, but at the same time, changes emphasizing discipline, hierarchy, and subgroup definition undermined fraternal sentiment and strained relations between compagnons and novices” (p. 226). Continued commitment to corporate values in an increasingly capitalist world ultimately limited its ability to respond to changing times. Despite efforts to reform compagnonnage, little changed.

Truant combines original work in the archives (provincial as well as Parisian) with a strong foundation in the historical and anthropological literature to create a rich history of the way French journeymen understood and attempted to shape their changing world. She firmly locates her contribution within the context of that already offered by Emile Coornaert, and more recently William Sewell, Michael Sonenscher, and Stephan Zdatny and goes beyond them to follow the story from the Early-Modern to the Modern period.

Cynthia Bouton Texas A&M University

COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning