Who are the Compagnons?
March 17, 2018 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Marvel at Tiny, Perfect Staircases Made by a Secret Society of French Woodworkers The name “compagnon” translates to “companion,” relating to the brotherhood between members and the shared identity of a movement that, today, encompasses around 12,000 permanent, active members. Professions usually fall into one of five “groups,” depending on their principal material: stone; wood; metal; leather and textiles; and food. Within these groups are bakers, clog-makers, carpenters, masons, glaziers, and many more. In the past century, new trades have been added and old ones have fallen away.

But whatever the craft, the journey from apprentice to “compagnon” is long and highly specific, and culminates in the completion of a “masterwork”: an item that showcases the skills acquired over at least five years of sustained study. And here are some masterworks of staircases.
posted by MovableBookLady (21 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating. I wonder whether Freemasonry started as a stoneworking-specific variant of this before becoming decoupled from its original trade.
posted by acb at 7:52 PM on March 17, 2018

Fascinating post, thank you!
posted by merriment at 7:54 PM on March 17, 2018

(sometimes, it is whispered, these tiny staircases may be discreetly distributed in wilderness areas as part of an ancient contract avec les feés, where hunters and hikers are well advised to keep a safe distance)
posted by mwhybark at 7:54 PM on March 17, 2018 [11 favorites]

Do any of these go to Heaven? And, are those for sale? Like that one over there by the bustling hedge row.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 8:01 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

And, are those for sale?

For real, they do turn up at auction and such. Antiques can be costly, but there is range, down to cheaper knockoffs, made quickly and without love for money.
posted by BWA at 8:17 PM on March 17, 2018

But where are the cowans and eavesdroppers ascending and descending?
posted by yhbc at 9:37 PM on March 17, 2018

This is really interesting. I want to see some of the pieces by more modern tradespeople. An electrician's work, for example.
posted by entity447b at 11:25 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

My profession sucks, and is objectively worthless.
posted by aramaic at 11:36 PM on March 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

These can be ranked by degree of suggestiveness, as in this recent xkcd.
posted by TedW at 2:00 AM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Women have been allowed since 2005?
posted by jeather at 6:06 AM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I couldn't find an electrician's masterwork, but to give you an idea, here's a plumber companion masterwork. There's more examples on this wiki page (in french).

Women have been allowed since 2005?

Yep, companions are very conservative and traditionalists at heart so that doesn't surprise me. Those guys are tied to cathedral builders and so on. The comparison with freemasons is not far fetched. They used to have this mandatory pilgrimage (not sure if they still do) where you travel around the country living and learning from other companions along the way. It's very much a men's world and they probably thought women were a distraction from their "brotherhood". It's also a small and closed group that probably didn't have much external pressure to open up their club to women until very recently.
posted by SageLeVoid at 6:30 AM on March 18, 2018

I wouldn't say that their society is really secret. Actually, when you hire someone to do a little work in your house, knowing that person is a compagnon is a huge relief and a token that that person has got great skills. It's true they still have to do a tour de France and a chef d'oeuvre (produce a masterwork) though.
posted by nicolin at 6:53 AM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

My wife did her apprenticeship in the Compagnons, it really is a pretty crazy thing. Although recent changes have drastically altered it.

One of those really French things.
posted by EricGjerde at 8:16 AM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

France is good at this sort of thing. There is the perhaps related Meilleur Ouvrier de France.
posted by lagomorphius at 8:19 AM on March 18, 2018

Here's the wikipedia page on the Compagnons, with lots of specific info on their working lives:
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:16 AM on March 18, 2018

I'm taking a machine woodworking class at a furniture-making school...also completed an intro to wood finishing class last weekend. The first thing I learned is that the galaxy of knowledge that is woodworking could take a few lifetimes to explore. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:05 AM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're in New York I highly recommend going to see these in the flesh at the Cooper Hewitt.
posted by enn at 12:01 PM on March 18, 2018

Although recent changes have drastically altered it.

How so, EricGjerde? I'm curious.

posted by tavella at 12:24 PM on March 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read this as "secret bookcases" and said "my kind of people".... and also thought eponysterical, and then read the title again.
posted by mightshould at 3:05 PM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

The French gentleman who spent two decades building a working miniature Ferrari now makes so much more sense to me. Previously.
posted by wnissen at 9:28 AM on March 19, 2018

Tavella - it used to be they took in 16 year olds, now with some legal changes they only take 18+ and they are also trying to require college degrees. before it was all about tradecraft training, now it's changing a lot towards more of a schooling approach.

It used to be male-only (and many of the trades in the Compagnons are still male-only) so people like my wife had a really hard time there. France is not a nation of equality, especially in the trades.

One other interesting fact is that when you join, you "lose your name", and you are renamed after the place you came from... so for example of you're from Toulouse, you become "Toulousan". etc. Similar to how the french foreign legion worked. They took in a lot of runaways, orphans, and whatnot back in the day, so it's not surprising they would change their name and then relocate them to a different part of france for their apprenticeships.

The history is fascinating, they are one of the remaining medieval trade guilds, and definitely craftsmen beyond compare.
posted by EricGjerde at 9:27 AM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

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