The Craftsman Chapter 2

The Workshop

  • Definition: a productive space in which people deal face-to-face with issues of authority.
  • Focuses on who commands and who obeys in work but also on skills as a source of the legitimacy of command or the dignity of obedience. In a workshop, the skills of the master can earn him or her the right to command, and learning from and absorbing those skills can dignify the apprentice or journeyman’s obedience.
  • Take into account… autonomy, self-sufficing work conducted without the interference of another.
  • In craftsmanship there must be a superior who sets standards and who trains. In the workshop, inequalities of skill and experience become face-to-face issues.
  • The successful workshop will establish legitimate authority in the flesh, not in rights or duties set down on paper. In the failed workshop, subordinates like the Russian construction workers will become demoralised or, like British nurses at the medical convention, grow angry in the physical presence of those whom they much nonetheless obey.
  • The social history of craftsmanship is in large part a story of the efforts of workshops to face or duck issues of authority and autonomy.
  • Workshops do have other aspects, in their dealings with markets, their quest for funds and profits
  • The social history of workshops emphasizes how the institutions have organised themselves to embody authority.
  • A significant moment in the history of workshops occurred at the end of the medieval era…

The Guild House: The Medieval Goldsmith

  • Medieval craftsman’s authority rested on the fact that he was a Christian
  • Early medieval monasteries like Saint Gall in Switzerland
    • The workshops followed the precepts of authority according to the dual canon of the faith: the Holy Spirit can appear to mean and women under these conditions; the Spirit is not, however, contained within the walls.
  • The guilds: Legal documents partly sustained the guilds, but even more then hands-on transmission of knowledge from generation to generation aimed to make them sustainable. This ‘‘knowledge capital’’ was intended as the source of the guild’s economic power. The historian Robert Lopez pictures the urban guild as ‘‘a federation of autonomous workshops, whose owners [the masters] normally made all decisions and established the requirements for promotion from the lower ranks
    [journeymen, hired helpers, or apprentices].’’
  • In the medieval guild, male authority was incarnate in the three-tiered hierarchy of masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Contracts specified the length of an apprenticeship, usually seven years, and the cost, usually borne by the young person’s parents. The stages of progress in a guild were marked out first by the apprentice’s presentation of the chef d’oeuvre at the end of his seven years, a work that demonstrated the elemental skills the apprentice had imbibed. If successful, now a journeyman, the craftsman would work for another five to ten years until he could demonstrate, in a chef d’oeuvre élevé, that he was worthy to
    take the master’s place.
  • The apprentice’s presentation focused on imitation: learning as copying. The journeyman’s presentation had a larger compass. He had to show managerial competence and give evidence of his trustworthiness as a future leader. The difference between brute imitation of procedure and the larger understanding of how to use what one knows is, as we saw in the previous chapter, a mark of all skill development. The medieval workshop was distinctive in the authority invested in the teachers and judges of this progress. The master’s verdicts were final, without appeal. Only rarely would a guild interfere in the judgments of individual masters in a workshop, for in his person the master united authority and autonomy.
  • [Does your craft guild begin with the master’s workshop? Where he worked?]
  • The apprentice goldsmith was place-bound while learning how to smelt, purify, and weigh precious metals. These skills required hands-on instruction from his master. Once the apprentice had locally presented his chef d’oeuvre, however, he could move from city to city as a journeyman, responding to opportunities. The traveling goldsmith journeyman made his presentation élevé to the corporate body of master craftsmen in foreign cities. Through his managerial talents and moral behavior he had to convince these strangers that he could become one of them. The sociologist Alejandro Portes observes about modern economic migrants that they tend to be entrepreneurial in spirit; the passive stay home. This migratory dynamism was built into medieval goldsmithing.
  • Ibn Khaldun (one of the greatest sociologists): The goldsmiths seemed to him like Berbers, made strong by travel and mobility. Sedentary guilds, by contrast, appeared to him inert and ‘corrupt.’ The good master, in his own words, ‘presides over a travelling house.’
  • On the other side of the coin, migrant labor and the flow of international trade in the medieval era provoked some of the same fears we experience today. The great worry of urban guilds was a market flooded with fresh goods the guilds had not made. Guilds of medieval London and Paris in particular mounted defensive actions against the growth of trade in northern Europe. This threat they warded off by imposing punishing tolls and tariffs at the gates of cities and by strictly regulating the operations of fairs within cities. Itinerant guilds such as the goldsmiths sought contracts that would maintain the same conditions of labor wherever a goldsmith worked. Like ancient Greek weavers, these medieval craftsmen sought to hand down craft practices intact from generation to generation. Hannah Arendt’s rhythm of ‘‘natality’’ and extinction was their enemy, for reasons of keeping the craft practice internationally coherent.
  • If adult goldsmiths formed a kind of analogue to modern flexible workers, moving to where the work is, still guild members forged a strong sense of community. The guild network provided contacts for workers on the move. Equally important, the guilds emphasized the migrant’s obligations to newly encountered goldsmiths. Elaborate ritual did the work of binding the guild members to one another. Many goldsmithing guilds had, moreover, associated fraternities that included women, the fraternities supplying help for workers in need, from organizing social occasions to buying burial plots for the dead. In an age when written contracts between adults had little force, when informal trust instead underpinned economic transactions, ‘‘the single most pressing earthly obligation of every medieval artisan was the establishment of a good personal reputation.’’ This was especially an urgent matter for itinerant goldsmiths, who were strangers to many of the places in which they worked. The ritual life of guilds and their fraternities provided a frame to establish their probity.
  • ‘‘Authority’’ means something more than occupying a place of honor in a social web. For the craftsman, authority resides equally in the quality of his skills. And in the goldsmith’s case, the good skills that established
    the master goldsmith’s authority were inseparable from his ethics.
  • Honesty reinforced… the repute the truthful craftsman mattered politically as well as economically… he certified that the wealth of a nobleman or of a city government was genuine.
  • … workshop conceived as a craftsman’s home – a place that unites family and labour
  • All medieval guilds were based on the hierarchy of the family, but these were not necessarily blood ties. 
  • The workplace… a surrogate family… however… (this) also restrained the authority of the surrogate father. The master was enjoined by a religious oath that no father had ever to swear in words, that of improving the skills of his charges. This contract, notes the historian R. S. Epstein, protected apprentices against ‘the opportunism of their masters. They were [otherwise] liable to be exploited as cheap labour’ without any benefit to themselves.
  • Correspondingly, the apprentice was contracted by religious oath to keep the secrets of his master… The guild’s religious oaths established reciprocal honour between surrogate father and son rather than simple filial obedience.
  • [There is a separation between honour and love]
  • Treating the child as an incipient adult…
  • The surrogate father’s sworn oath to pass on a skill was a surer guarantee than the biological father’s power to pass on a business so that the young adult could be master in his own house.
  • Decline of the medieval workshop – most important reason is the knowledge it could pass on by imitation, ritual and surrogacy. 

The Master Alone: The Caftsman Becomes an Artist

  • Artist workshop – originality
  • ‘Originality’ (from Plato and others): ‘something where before there was nothing. Originality is a marker of time; it denotes the sudden appearance of something where before there was nothing…
  • Medieval craftsman… (also) innovat(ed), but their craftwork changed slowly and as the result of collective effort.
  • Salisbury Cathedral for example:
    • For instance, the immense Salisbury Cathedral began, in 1220–1225, as a set of stone posts and beams that established the Lady Chapel at one end of the future cathedral. The builders had a general idea of the cathedral’s eventual size, but no more. However, the proportions of the beams in the Lady Chapel suggested a larger building’s engineering DNA and were articulated in the big nave and two transepts built from 1225 to about 1250. From 1250 to 1280, this DNA then generated the cloister, treasury, and chapter house; in the chapter house the original geometries, meant for a square structure, were now adapted to an octagon, in the treasury to a sixsided vault. How did the builders achieve this astonishing construction? There was no one single architect; the masons had no blueprints. Rather, the gestures with which the building began evolved in principles and were collectively managed over three generations. Each event in building practice became absorbed in the fabric of instructing and regulating the next generation.
    • [is there an example of this in Chinese context?]
    • Cellini’s story does, in sum, enable a certain a sociological contrast between craft and art. The two are distinguished, first, by agency: art has one guiding or dominant agent, craft has a collective agent. They are, next, distinguished by time: the sudden versus the slow. Last, they are indeed distinguished by autonomy, but surprisingly so: the lone, original artist may have had less autonomy, be more dependent on uncomprehending or willful power, and so be more vulnerable, than were the body of craftsmen.
    • Unmotivated workers … suffer not so much
      from the work they do as by how it is organized. This is why we should not give up on the workshop as a social space. Workshops present and past have glued people together through work rituals, whether these be a shared cup of tea or the urban parade; through mentoring, whether the formal surrogate parenting of medieval times or informal advising on the worksite; through face-to-face sharing of information.
    • Originality resulted in: the mater’s own mastery changed in content; claims for his distinctiveness and originality now posed a motivational problem for him. He would need the will to fight in order to validate these claims. His honour took on an adversarial character. The workshop would serve him as a refuge from society.

‘His Secrets Died with Him’: In Stradivari’s Workshop

  • In a workshop where the master’s individuality and distinctiveness dominates, tacit knowledge is also likely to dominate. Once the master dies, all the clues, moves, and insights he or she has gathered into the totality of the work cannot be reconstructed; there’s no way to ask him or her to make the tacit explicit.
    • The open market shrank the time frame of the master’s dominion. E.g. the Stradivari workshop of violin making
    • Secrets of the genius (poet John Donne) imagines the innovator as a phoenix rising from the ashes of received truth and tradition.
  • The history of the workshop shows, in sum, a recipe for binding people tightly together. The essential ingredients of this recipe were religion and ritual. A more secular age replaced these ingredients with originality—  a condition separate in its practical terms from autonomy, originality implying in the workshop a new form of authority, an authority frequently short-lived and silent. 
  • One mark of the modern world is that we have become as worried about paying obeisance to authority in this personalized form as to authority of an older, more religious sort. To quote just one instance of this worry: Cellini’s near-contemporary Étienne de La Boétie was one of the first to question submission to higher authority through either admiration or imitation. In his view, people are more capable of freedom. In the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, he wrote: ‘‘So many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has not other power than the power they give; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. . . . It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or rather, bring about their own servitude.’’ Servitude through admiration or tradition must be cast off. If correct, then the workshop cannot be a comfortable home for the craftsman, for its very essence lies in the personalized, face-to-face authority of knowledge. And yet it is a necessary home. Since there can be no skilled work without standards, it is infinitely preferable that these standards be embodied in a human being than in a lifeless, static code of practice. The craftsman’s workshop is one site in which the modern, perhaps unresolvable conflict between autonomy and authority plays out.