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The Craftsman (part 3)

July 20, 2009

“The medieval craftsman’s authority rested on the fact that he was a Christian.”  Perhaps !!! isn’t the most cogent response to this, but it’s hard to find another.  People didn’t really have a choice about being Christian back then, unless you were Jewish, in which case you were restricted to certain lines of business.  The point Sennett is making is that since Jesus was a carpenter and idle hands were the devil’s workshop, the nobility of work was joined with the idea of the spirituality of work.  (Far be it from me to cry PC, but it seems odd that this history of craftsmanship excludes the Islamic and Asian worlds, both of which were pretty busy in that department around that time.) 

His description of the guilds and apprentice systems presents an interesting picture of the conflict between “autonomy and authority” omnipresent in craftsmanship – like abbots of monasteries, the masters and guildmasters held patriarchal authority out of necessity: 

There were no effective police in medieval towns, whose streets were violent both day and night.  The equilibrium of the monastery was absent in the city:  violence on the streets seeped into and among the workshops.  The Latin word auctoritas stands for a personage who inspires fear and awe and so submission: the master of a workshop had to inspire such sentiments to keep order in his house.

I can’t help thinking of the bossy buffalo dad on American Chopper when I think of these guildmasters.

Autonomy was minimal at the lower levels – most apprentices worked on a bench all day and then slept beneath it.  Sennett traces the orderly march from apprentice to journeyman to master, but it all seems too orderly – as if talent, in the world of messy human relations, were all it took to succeed.  Like the figures he discusses later in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, drawn as calm and happy in the midst of foul-smelling backbreaking labor, a human element seems to be missing from the story.  But regardless of what other characteristics and behaviors led to success, there does seem to have been a high regard for talent, as he documents how few sons inherited their father’s craft businesses automatically, the business often going at the master’s death to the most capable man.

Unlike other craftsmen, the goldsmith was the “knowledge worker” of his time:  unshackled from a single site and a single town, the goldsmith carried his skills in his head, skills that allowed a man alone to execute a job rather than requiring a building full of weavers or dyers.  And, unlike bolts of cloth, gold in small quantities was both valuable and portable.  In the goldsmith’s case especially, “authority” meant a solid reputation as a man capable of performing assays both accurately and truthfully.  This is the first of many instances in the book of the importance of the sense of touch.  By the end of the Renaissance a simple test employing scorching with hot air could determine the purity of gold, but

Before that, the medieval goldsmith had to use many tests…In the assay, “hands-on” was no mere figure of speech…the most important of his tests depended on his sense of touch.  The goldsmith rolled and squeezed the metal, trying to judge from its consistency its nature.  The sense of touch was itself in the Middle Ages endowed with magical, indeed religious properties, as in the “king’s touch,” the king laying hands on a subject to cure scrofula and leprosy.  In craft practice, the slower and more searchingly the goldsmith worked with his hands, the more truthful he appeared both to his peers and his employers.  Instant results employing a single test were suspect.

Sennett’s favorite modern day equivalent to the roving craftsman is the Linux programmer (not just any programmer, but the Linux programmer, mind you), going from job to job and reliant on his reputation to precede and endorse him.

Up next: the craftsman vs. the artist.

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