A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Origins of Woodworking Practices in the Era of the Medieval Guilds

According to Lujo Brentano -- in his 50-page "Preliminary Essay on the History and Development of Guilds" in Toulmin Smith's 1870 English Gilds -- (an image of this book's title-page is below on the left) ... the craft guilds themselves orginate around the beginning of the 11th- to the middle of the 13th-century. ...

... And, Brentano continues, town-by-town, the origin of specific craft guilds depend on the rise of the various trades. Once organized, the craft-guildsmen provide for the maintenance of the customs of their craft, frame further ordinances for its regulation, and see -- as they are able -- these ordinances properly executed, and punish any guild members who infringe upon these regulations. But, as Brentano shows, these rights for the guilds do not come without a continual struggle. Moreover, ever so slowly, elements of such principle of democracy as free votes entered into the equation, and soon, guild by guild, become the "rights" of members.

Economic historian Sylvia L. Thrupp argues that Brentano's 1870 essay is brilliant, particularly in its political aspects.

Sources: Toulmin Smith, ed., English Gilds, with the long subtitle, "The Original Ordinances Of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds: Together With Þe Olde Vsages Of Þe Cite Of Wynchester; The Ordinances Of Worcester; The Office Of The Mayor Of Bristol; And The Costomary Of The Manor Of Tettenhall-Regis, From Original Mss. Of The Fourteenth And Fifteenth Centuries, Issue 40, Part 1, with an introduction by Lucy Toulmin Smith, and a preliminary essay on the history and development of gilds by Lujo Brentano London: Early English Text Society, 1870; reprinted, 1963; Sylvia L. Thrupp, "Medieval Gilds Reconsidered", Journal of Economic History 2, No. 2 November., 1942, pages 164-173; Bo Gustafsson, "The Rise and Economic Behaviour of Medieval Craft Guilds", in Power and Economic Institutions: Reinterpretations in Economic History London: Edward Elgar, 1991; William Bosshardt and Jane S. Lopus, "Business in the Middle Ages: What Was the Role of Guilds?" Social Education 77, No 2, 2013, pages 64-68.

On the Worldwide Universality of Guilds

According to historian Bo Gustafsson -- "The Rise and Economic Behaviour of Medieval Craft Guilds", Power and Economic Institutions: Reinterpretations in Economic History 1991 -- in Western Europe, from their beginning, craft guilds are city-based organizations. From the 12th-century to the middle of the 19th-century, craft guilds serve as forms of precapitalist industrial organization. Each guild has its master, journeymen, and apprentices, but also have at least limited democratic leanings. Located in relation to the trading quarters of the towns, guilds organize the craft artisans into their respective trades, supervise the quality of the articles produced and lay down "fair" prices. But, with the introduction of free trade in the mid-19th-century, craft guilds are abolished.

At the same time, as a sort of economic countervailing force in Britain and the rest of Europe, from the late medieval era, and increasingly during the 16th- to 18th-centuries, parallel with the guilds, domestic industries, based in rural locations, emerge and continue prosper. This economic growth occurs in competition with the craft guilds, which become, successively, more and more conservative. It is on the basis of these forms of production — not the craft guilds — that modern capitalist industry grew up.

Nonetheless, during their time, the craft guilds are institutions with exceptional vitality. Their existence centers in the medieval era and a handful of centuries that follow. The age of guilds is one where they are characterized both by a gradual stagnation coupled with a tendency toward secrecy and a conspiratorial guarding of privileges, privileges that are sanctioned by usage. Given these conditions, in some respects it is strange that these guilds have such a long life.

And, furthermore -- as the heading above suggests -- craft guilds are not a specifically a Western phenomenon, because in fact these institutions occur, culture-by-culture, worldwide, as city-based industrial forms of production in all pre-industrial/precapitalist economies.

In Islamic societies, guilds rise from the 9th-century in the cities of the Califate -- think Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, Cairo and so on — developing particulalry rapidly from the 11th-century. As in Western Europe, these Islamic guilds exhibit a complicated character, with religious, social, political and economic functions. But of their limits in adjusting to change, in the 19th-century, the Islamic guilds succumb to competition from Europe's modern industries.

In India, tracing back to the 7th-century B.C., guilds exist in urban centers, and like their European and Islamic counterparts, they have a democratic character, are corporate, self-governing organizations with economic, social and religious functions. They had apprentices, journeymen, masters, worked out rules for appropriate labor methods and control of product quality, prices and market conditions.

In China, guilds have an organization also very similar to the West European ones, including apprentices, journeymen, masters in their respective crafts. Apprenticeship lasts three to five years, and the number of apprentices—journeymen per master is fixed. Like their counterparts in other cultures, Chinese guilds levy fines for any attempt to attract labor from other artisans, and lay down minimum prices for their products.

In Japan the guilds (kumai), which date from the 14th-century, also have prescriptions for the volume, quality and price of the products, the specific location in town of the guild, the process and conditions of labor and the length of apprenticeship, which was usually seven to ten years. Like guilds in other parts of the world, the Japanese kumai function at the same time as a sort of charitable institution, which -- in case of sickness and distress -- are caregivers for their members. With Japan's Westernization after 1860, their guilds, as well as many other ancient institutions, are abolished.

Sources: Bo Gustafsson, "The Rise and Economic Behaviour of Medieval Craft Guilds", in Power and Economic Institutions: Reinterpretations in Economic History London: Edward Elgar, 1991; Gustafsson chapter is in pdf on hard-disk; and Roy C Cave and Herbert Henry Coulson, A Source for Medieval Economic History New York: Bruce Publsihing, 1936; New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.

British Laws for Laborers and "Artificers": The Emergence of the 1563 Statute of Artificers

Just look at British law up to the 18th-century. In the 14th-century, with the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) and Statute of Labourers (1350), and several further statutes – in 1361 and in 1388 - Britain's central government legally regulates labor. The ultimate legislation is the 1563 Statute of Artificers. Local magistrates are given power to regulate wages in agriculture, while guilds regulate wages for the urban trades. Its effect, then, is far-reaching: it transfers to the newly forming British state functions previously held by the feudal craft guilds.

With the 1563 Statute of Artificers, the government seeks to

  • compel service by the idle
  • curb movement by agricultural servants and artisanal and manufacturing workers
  • suppress their wage demands by fixing legal rates and by making annual hiring the norm
  • tie workers to their employers for the duration of their contracts and to their social status for the duration of their lives
  • Temporary Image, a make-do until something more appropriate surfaces.

    Source: Kate Aughterson, ed., The English Renaissance: An Anthology of Sources and Documents New York: Routledge, 1998; William Matthew Flinders Petrie, Report of the Board of Regents, Smithsonian Institution. Board of Regents, United States National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC: The Institution, 1920; Peter C. Welsh "Woodworking Tools, 1600-1900" Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1966 (Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology: Paper 51 Bibliography 227); Philip Walker, "The Tools Available to the Medieval Woodworker", in Woodworking Techniques Before A.D. 1500: Papers Presented to a Symposium at Greenwich in September, 1980 Seán McGrail, ed., Oxford, England: B.A.R. International Series 129, 1982, pages 349-356.

    To introduce yourself to the unbelievably wide range of woodworking hand tools, check out the glossary entries on these ancient tools:Link to file, "Origins of Tools Medieval"

    The image directly below captures the actual conditions that exist in the woodworking trades and its allied fields throughout Europe -- including Britain -- in the 16th-century.  The 17th-century polymath, Joseph Moxon, "nails" the importance of smithing when in his 1683 "Preface", he says Smithing

    ... is a great Introduction to most other Handy-Works, as Joyner); Turning, &c. they (with the Smith) working upon the Straight, Square, or Circle, though with different Tools, upon different Matter; and they all having depen-dance upon the Smith's Trade, and not the Smith upon them.

    Sources: Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises New York: Praeger, 1970, no pagination; Bernadette Longo, Spurious coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing Albany State University of New York Press 2000, page 46. on order 1-29-14

    The image below of 14th-century blacksmiths at work is helpful because it illustrates several operations in a trade closely allied with woodworking. Many woodworking tools are of metal or at least contain metal -- hand saw blades, "irons" for planes, heads for hammers, bits for braces, (as in "brace and bit").

    For accessible images of actual medieval tools, checkout such books as Garrett Wade's 2001 Tools: A Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia or Garrett Hack's 1999 Classic Hand Tools.

    Artificers Can Fall Into Two Categories:

    And employers caught not following these labor regulations are subject to many of the same penalties as workers who defy the law. The legislation -- a response to the press towards higher wages in the generation that follows the devastation caused during the Black Death (1348-50) in Britain -- puts great powers in the hands of men who are charged with local enforcement of the law.

    The emergence of the British gentry, their appointment as Justices of the Peace, their role as local enforcers of British labor law are, taken together, intimately connected, caused by the reaction of Britain's central government to the Black Death, in which a third to half the population of England alone die.

    The laws of the 14th- and 15th-centuries distinguish two main groups of agrarian workers, the agricultural "servants" and "labourers". The first group, the agricultural "servants", are hired by the year, are normally young, unmarried, and live in their masters' household. The second group, the laborers, are hired by the day, might be married, and work for several employers.

    On the other hand, the so-called "artificers" can fall into two categories: they might be servants, or they might be masters, the latter members of the huge range of craftsmen in the manufacturing trades, including the large textile industries and building trades. The "masters" employ many laborers -- in especially in the building trades, as carpenters, joiners, coopers -- and they also take on apprentices and employ journeymen -- that is, workers who have completed their apprenticeships but are not yet masters themselves.

    Century by century, all these terms appear time and time again, in the statutes and court records, and finally in the Statute of Artificers (1563), are consolidated into a single law. The Statute of Artificers is the key statute that shapes the law until the 19th-century. In effect, as the law itself states, the Statute of Artificers recodifies the

    "great number of acts and statutes concerning the retaining, departing, wages and orders of apprentices, servants and labourers, as well in husbandry as in divers other arts, mysteries and occupations."

    While the intent of the Statute of Artificers is debated, clearly both central officials and local authorities think that labor needs to be both forced into service and prevented from bidding up wages. The Statute's aim:

  • control inflation
  • prevent trades leaving towns for the countryside
  • forestall/repress riot and disorder caused by recurrent harvest failure/economic depression
  • Taken together, the Statute of Artificers links economic purposes with issues of governance, in particular of the young and disorderly: the statute intended to curb "the licentious manner of youth" and keep them "under government" until age twenty-four, thought to represent maturity.

    Put succinctly, the 1563 Statute of Artificers recapitulates and elaborates virtually all elements of earlier legislation:

  • compulsory service
  • apprenticeship
  • penalties for leaving work
  • attempts to tie workers to particular status and employers
  • official wage rates
  • .

    In effect, the Statute of Artificers stipulates that

  • wage rates are to be adjusted as necessary by the justices
  • seven-year apprenticeships -- long common in many towns -- are the norm, definitely required to exercise a trade
  • year-long hiring is made mandatory in a list of named trades
  • a quarter-year's notice is required on either side
  • those without work are to be forced to take service
  • mandatory testimonials serve as passes to control labor movement
  • there were minimum hours and set times for meals according to season with penalties for infractions
  • compulsory work could be demanded in harvest
  • Source: Adapted from Douglas Hay, “England, 1563-1875: The Law and Its Uses”, in Douglas Hay and Paul Craven, eds., Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1563-1955 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, pages 62ff.

    Digging For Personal Accounts of Woodworking Practices in the First Industrial Revolution

    The economic and social upheavals of the 19th-century generated by rapid industrialization encourages more people to record their experiences, some good, some tragic. Further into the 19th-century, however, with the growth of literacy, writing an autobiography approached a rite of passage, including among ordinary people who never attained to any position of power or leadership. Autobiography, then, is both a widespread and a popular form of self-expression, a venue - to make a kind of sense out of an existence which might otherwise seem meaningless -- that enable writers to find their own voice, and with that voice, take their place in the narrative of the century’s history, geography and social change. Autobiography’s merit - that it is the direct, personal record of the individual himself, whether actor or eyewitness, without a second voice, say the biographer today, acting as a filter by interpretation -- is undeniable.

    The very partiality of the account is, therefore, part of its value, but also part of its weakness as a entirely valid account. Autobiographies are part of a body of material considered historical evidence that has to be approached with suspicion: autobiographers may suppress or misrepresent the truth, may exaggerate or sensationalize, may tell only their side of the story and thereby make the part that is told misleading.

    For these first hand autobiographical accounts, we are indebted to the men and women who participated the century’s century’s events, and who recorded their struggles, whether in early labor agitation, against oppression in the work place, involvement in trade unionism, campaigning for a freer press, or making Britain’s Parliament more broadly representative of the entire population.

    Social historian John Burnett has collected 19th-century autobiographies into two anthologies: Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People for the 1820s to the 1920s (New York: Penguin, 1974) and Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (New York: Penguin, 1982). In the preface to Destiny Obscure Burnett, ticks off both the advantages and downsides of writing a history that includes autobiographical accounts of the period. One advantage, obviously, is that, today, readers can view events of the period through the eyes of an onlooker, giving anyone an opportunity of benefiting from first-hand observations. For later generations, fortunately, such personal accounts give images of what a peoples’ lifetime struggles actually involved, and thus bring us closer to the “truths” - the “realities” - about past histories that otherwise are difficult for us to discover.

    Childhood and Child Labor in the Second British Industrial Revolution

    Jane Humphries, an Oxford professor of economic history and fellow of All Souls College, offers in her 2010 study, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution , what she claims is a unique account of working-class childhood during the British industrial revolution, 1790-1850. This period is considered the "classic era of industrialization". She uses over 600 autobiographies by "working men" of the 18th- and 19th-centuries. With her account, she claims to illuminate working-class childhood in contexts untouched by conventional sources, that is to say, non-biographical books, newspapers, official documents, etc.

    Her study, she further claims, allows us to estimate more closely such matters as the age of beginning work, how apprenticeship affects schooling, or the apprentices' social mobility.

    While her years of focus, 1790-1850, witnesses an upsurge in child labor, Humphries mostly skips apprenticeship during the centuries of our immediate narrative on woodworking history -- those formative years in British woodworking history that stretch from the medieval era to the early modern era, roughly 1000 to 1700. And while the roughly 600 memoirs covered by Humphries touch on such matters as mechanization and the division of labor in the 19th-centruy, they also show that fatherlessness and relationships that come from large families -- common in this era of both high-fertility and high-mortality -- can often cast children -- i.e., family members who are also apprentices -- as partners in child-rearing and/or other sorts of assistance for mothers struggling to hold families together.

    As the front-matter of Humphries' book states,

    it offers unprecedented insights into child labor, family life, careers and schooling. Its images of suffering, stoicism and occasional childish pleasures put the humanity back into economic history and the trauma back into the industrial revolution.

    But before the 19th-century, with the limits of literacy acting as a gate-keeper, personal records are more difficult to find.

    Without personal accounts, historians have to use whatever other resources are available, and some of these primary sources are cited below.

    In most towns, carpenters -- called also "wrights" -- are the most common building craftsmen. Not only needed to repair the large timbers designed to support river banks and jetties, carpenters are also employed in the construction and repair of timber-framed buildings. For examples of skills required for timber-framing, see these two files: Hugh Herland and origins of the timber roof .

    As 16th-century British chronicler William Harrison (1535–1593) argues in Chapter 8 -- "Of the Manner of Building and Furniture of Our Houses", 1577 -- in his 16th-century book, A Description of Elizabethan England, written by Harrison as his contribution for Holinshed's Chronicles, as published in Chronicle And Romance: Froissart, Malory, Holinshed; ed., with introductions and notes by Charles W Eliot, New York: P F Collier & Son “The Five-Foot Shelf Of Books: The Harvard Classics", Volume 35. For background on the complicated publication of this material, see G. J. R. Parry, "William Harrison and Holinshed's Chronicles", The Historical Journal 27, No. 4 December, 1984, pages 789-810.

    Contemporary Accounts of Work by Carpenters and Joiners in Medieval Period: Selections From Nathaniel Lloyd's 1931 A History of the English House

    While our knowledge of the origins of the trade guilds remain cloudy -- that is, before the medieval era -- records exist of the activity of trade guilds in the medieval period. These records, moreover, show us today how the wages, the hours, and the conduct by members of crafts such as the joiners', carpenters', shipwrights' are regulated by their respective lodges. In fact, by the 14th-century craft lodges operate in a manner not unlike modern trade unions.

    For example, the British Scholastic philosopher, theologian, translator, reformer and Oxford University, John Wyclif (ca 1320-1384) writes of fraternities and guilds:

    They conspire to support each other, yea even in the wrong, and, by their wit and power, oppress other men who are in the right. ... Also skilled craftsmen … conspire together that no man practising their craft shall take less payment daily than they have agreed amongst themselves, though his conscience may tell him he should accept much less and that none of them shall do such steady true work as might reduce the earnings of other men of his craft, and that none of them shall do ought than hew stone, though he might profit his master twenty pounds by one day's work by laying stones in mortar on a wall, without harm or hurt to himself. [Quoted in G. G. Coulton's Social Life in Britain, p. 491, but here -- in his 1931 A History of the English House, page 22 -- follows Nathaniel Lloyd's rendering into modern English by Nathaniel Lloyd,.]

    True enough, while Wyclif is not your most impartial observer, his claims about how of members of craft lodges combine together for their benefit quickly emerge from his opinions. And no evidence exists about reasons for supposing that human nature in the Middle Ages differs from what it is now.

    The following is from the works by Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church, Oxford -- shows also how, if not properly supervised, 16th-century workmen behave:

    Moste cunnynge woorkemen theare weare prepared, Withe spediest ordynaunce for eauery thynge, Nothynge expedyent was theare oughtis spared That to the purpose myght bee assistynge; One thynge (chieflye) this was the hynderynge, The woorkefolke for lack of goode ouerseers Loytered the tyme, like false tryfelers.

    Thye weare thus manye, a thousande (at the leaste), That thearon weare woorkeynge still daye by daye, Their paymentes contynued, their labours decreaste, For welneare one haulfe did noughtis els but playe. If they had trulye done that in them laye By so long space as they weare tryfelynge At his fall had been lyttle to dooynge.

    — the last line meaning that had work gone on as it should, the buildings would have been completed instead of being far from finished at the time of Wolsey's fall.

    Sources: William Forrest's History of Grisild the Second: A Narrative, in Verse, of the Divorce of Queen Katharine of Arragon London: Whittingham and Wilkins, 1875; Christopher Wren, Sir; William Douglas Caro?e; H H Turner; Arthur William Steuart Cochrane, 'Tom tower' Christ church, Oxford. Some letters of Sr Christopher Wren to John Fell, bishop of Oxford, hitherto unpublished, New York: Oxford University Press, 1923.

    Nonetheless, from the 12th-century, but especially from the middle of the 14th-century, ultimately all attempts to regulate wages, hours, and guilds do not succeed.

    Guilds are, by their nature, jealous of anyone who attempts to perform the functions of a trade who is not a fully qualified member, bound by oaths to keep the secrets of the craft — an oath strictly observed in the medieval era, and which survives even today in articles of apprenticeship, oaths which require apprentices to keep their master's secrets, to refrain from card-playing, fornication, etc., all conditions which are no longer enforceable.

    The laws of guilds are strictly enforced in the medieval era. Any breaches of them renders the offender liable to expulsion, meaning loss of livelihood. For example, in the York Fabric Rolls, 16th-century, we find:

    Noe mason make moulds nor noe square nor no rule to any rough lyers within the Lodge nor without to hew nor mould stones of his own making.

    And in the 17th-century:

    You shall not make any mould, square or rule to mould stone withal but such as is allowed by the fraternity.

    Sources: Francis B. Andrews, The Medieval Builder and His Methods New York: Oxford University Press, 1925, page 41; Howard Colvin [Great Britain. Ministry of Public Building and Works.] The History of the King's Works London : H.M. Stationery Office, 1963-1982.; E E Lewis, Masterworks of Technology: The Story of Creative Engineering, Architecture and Design New York: Prometheus Books, 2004, pages 59-63

    What do we know of the builders -- master-carpenters and master-masons -- who define medieval architecture?

    And, in this analogy, to be fair, we have to include those of the highest calling, that is, those master-carpenters and master-masons who direct the design and construction of the mighty medieval cathedrals? Much less than we would like, says E E Lewis (page 59), "for knowledge of their tools and methods has not survived nearly as well as the stone monuments they created". Through the historical records and artifactual evidence, however, some of the characteristics of these medieval architect-engineers can be understood. (I am drawing on Lewis' account of the master-mason, but also assuming that because master-carpenters work side-by-side with master-masons, their "secrets" are shared.)

    They are not called engineers or architects, but master-masons and master-carpenters. Remember -- unlike today -- in the medieval era -- no distinction between designer and builder exists. The concept of the architect is yet to be invented. In that day, the master-mason, the master-carpenter, come up through the ranks from apprentice to journeyman to master, learning all of the details, from the ground up. But much more was required to become a master builder.

    The "Tracing House"

    Once a particularly talented master-carpenter gains extensive practical knowledge, at some stage in his career he leaves the physical aspects of building -- dimensioning the timber, cutting the parts, fashioning the joints -- to enter the "tracing house". And in the tracing-house, he expands his knowledge of geometry and other subjects and learns to produce the plans from which buildings are constructed. We learn this from the historian, Howard Colvin (volume 1, page 216):

    At Westminster, and no doubt elsewhere, the master carpenter had his own tracing-house... and cut his own moulds. ... [Example:] For thirty years Master Hugh Herland had the use of a small building at Westminster in which to keep his tools "and make forms and moulds for his carpentry works.

    In defining "tracing house", the Oxford English Dictionary takes a fairly straight-forward tact:

    For the OED, "tracing-house", "a house in which the plans of a building are traced", and the evidence the OED draws on is

    1374–5 in George Oliver Exeter Cathedral (1861) 385 Custus nove domus in Calendarhay vocate ‘Trasyng hous’.
    1581–2 in James Raine, ed., Fabric Rolls York Minster 358 Tracinge-hous, the place or room used by the draughtsman.

    Located at the building site, the tracing house is where the design of the building takes shape. There the master builder employs his trade's primary tools:

    the "compass" for constructing circular arcs
    the "graduated ruler" for measuring distances
    the "square" for drawing right angles

    Whether master-mason or master-carpenter, with these tools he creates the building's intricate geometrical patterns and then conveys them to the journeymen masons and carpenters, the workers who bring the building into existence.

    Our evidence suggests that, as work proceeds, section by section, drawings are produced. Evidently some are on parchment, which is expensive, so expensive that when these particular drawings are no longer needed, the drawings often are erased and the parchment reused. Interestingly, the reuse of parchment has generated a special word, "palimpsest", that is,

    A parchment or other writing surface on which the original writing has been effaced and something else has been written, anciently common practice owing to the shortage of material. As the writing was not always entirely effaced, many works, otherwise lost, have been recovered. Thus Cicero's De Republica was restored, though partially erased to make way for a commentary of St. Augustine on the Psalms.

    Says Lewis,

    Not many plans survive, but one such drawing for the cathedral in Cologne that does remain is drawn in ink and fills al sheet of parchment ten feet long and three feet wide.

    The master creates the floor plans, the building's individual sections, and the details for laying of the floor boards, the wall paneling, the ceilings. Using a compass and rule, he sets out each working drawing to scale. And, claims Lewis, "Not a single unnecessary line appeared".

    The mason used centerlines and other abstractions to reduce the effort required. He would lay out the full-sized drawing for each block of stone masonry on the tracing house floor. Assistants would create templates by tracing the master's outlines onto wood and cutting it to shape, and the templates in turn guided quarry masons in cutting the stone.

    Master-Carpenters Need Organizational Skills

    Before he graduates from the tracing house to take full responsibility for constructing a large building -- say a hall or a cathedral -- the master-carpenter has to demonstrate a high level of organizational skill. Such skill is essential to assure that he could properly implement the design. At any time time he can direct the work of several hundred artisans. As we see in the construtction of Westminster Hall's timber roof, supervision can be complicated. Why? The master-carpenter is responsible for estimating the quantities of material and amount of labor required to accomplish all tasks involved in construction. For some projects he directs the financial administration as well. He has to find forests where suitable timber is available, timber that both works and weathers well. Some work carpenters work at the construction site in London while others are located remotely whre the timber is logged, dimensioned, and finally cut and assembled into the arches which are fitted into place on the tops of the masonary wall of Westminster Hall in London, thirty miles away. Then, as now, the sequencing of construction work is very important, and -- think of it -- in the medieval era, slow communications and the great difficulty in transporting the numerous wood sections further complicates these tasks.

    Evidence from contemporary sources, for example, shows us that, in certain instances, especially when associated with larger projects, together the master-mason and master-carpenter can take sole responsibility for the design and conduct of building. And as we see here, these same master craftsmen can also act as contractors, and supply materials at agreed upon rates. Moreover -- as our example of master carpenter Hugh Herland shows -- often these same men enjoy high reputations beyond mere craftsmanship. As trusted master craftsmen, for example, records show that sometimes they can be given instructions that a roof should be "after the manner of" one existing in a building perhaps in a distant county, or indications are furnished as to the employer's general requirements and a contract made in which the dimensions of the building, of walls, or apartments are named, together with positions of rooms, doorways, fireplaces, etc., with stipulations regarding quality of materials and workmanship.

    That drawings are prepared by the master-carpenter or master-mason for the guidance of workers is certain, including of course for the purpose of setting them out on the job. Moreover, evidence also exists that, in some instances, models are prepared. Also, There are, in addition, instances of examples of references to such things "wainscot and boards" -- provided for patterns and molds -- and more than once, says Lloyd,

    to a "tracing house" on the job, which is probably the same building as that elsewhere styled the "loge".

    Unfortunately, evidently actual examples of these so-called “models” do not survive.

    For example, records of the re-roofing of Westminster Hall (completed c. 1397) list the names of people in charge of various works and show how responsibility is divided. They are collected in the Blue Book reporting the condition of the roof timbers, following survey by H.M. Office of Works. This book gives detailed references to the documents from which the information is derived. It states:

    " In 1394 John Godmeston, Clerk, was appointed to cause the Great Hall in the Palace of Westminster to be repaired, taking the necessary masons, carpenters and labourers, wherever found, except in the fee of the Church, with power to arrest and imprison contrariants until further order, and also to take stone, timber, tiles and other materials and carriage for the same at the King's charges and to sell branches, bark and other remnants of trees ... accounting for the monies as received and receiving in that office wages and fees at the discretion of the Treasurer of England.

    John Godmeston had been Vicar of Brampton, Prebend of Moreton Parva in Hereford Cathedral, had a third portion of the church of Bromyard in 1387, was Prebend of Wydyngton Parva in Hereford Cathedral in 1389. In 1387 he was granted the chancellorship of St. Paul's Cathedral, and in 1398 the Church of Ross in Hereford diocese. In 1399 the reversion of the first vacant prebend in the college of St. Stephen, Westminster, was a Prebend of Chichester, who was made Chamberlain of the Exchequer. [It is evident that he was appointed as a good man of business and to control expenditure.] " At the same time Hugh Herland, Carpenter, was appointed Controller to John Godmeston in respect of this work.

    "Hugh Herland was one of the King's master carpenters, 'verging on old age.' He advised on the repairs of Winchester Castle 1390. In 1396 as Keeper of the King's Carpentry Works he was granted a little house in the Palace at Westminster for keeping his tools and for making his models (forma, formula) and moulds for his carpentry work... . In 1397 he is called King's Esquire, Chief Carpenter, Controller and Surveyor of the Works."

    The works, being chiefly carpenter's works, are placed in charge of the carpenter who designed the new roof.

    Various persons are appointed to collect lead and other materials, to arrest carts, carters and horses and ships for transport.

    In 1395 a contract with two masons, Richard Washbourn and John Swallow, is signed which entails building the Westminster Hall side walls two feet higher and forming tables thereon "to a pattern and mould made by the advice of Master Henry Yeveley". Note: The original walls are those built by William II.

    Source: Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders, Westminster Hall London: M. Joseph, 1951, page 80

    We should note that, for such large works as Westminster Hall, more than likely a clerk is responsible for obtaining and paying for labor and materials, and that details are executed according to the rules and patterns of the lodges. Today, to what extent freedom for medieval and renaissance craftsmen themselves to design details is difficult to determine. It is known, though, that carvers in wood and stone are allowed some freedom.

    The fact that much of the evidence respecting master masons, master carpenters, etc., derives from the accounts of such large works as Westminster Hall -- where workers wages are in the record -- can obscure the likelihood that these craftsmen are themselves small contractors. Although capitalists, their capital is limited and inadequate for them to undertake contracts for the larger enterprises: hence they worked and superintended on a wage basis.

    Source: Adapted from chapter 1 of Nathaniel Lloyd's 1931 A History of the English House London: Architectural Press, 1975

    Contemporary Accounts of Work by Carpenters and Joiners in 16th-Century: Selections From Harrison's 1577 "Of the Manner of Building and Furniture of Our Houses"

    16th-Century House With Half-Timbered Construction


    Interior Timber Roof Framing Typical of Medieval and Later Building


    The greatest part of our building in the cities and good towns of England consisteth only of timber. ...

    The ancient manors and houses of our gentlemen are yet and for the most part of strong timber, in framing whereof our carpenters have been and are worthily preferred before those of like science among all other nations. ...

    William Harrison

    The furniture of our houses also exceedeth, and is grown in manner even to passing delicacy: and herein I do not speak of the nobility and gentry only, but likewise of the lowest sort in most places of our south country that have anything at all to take to. Certes in noblemen's houses it is not rare to see abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, silver vessels, and so much other plate as may furnish sundry cupboards to the sum oftentimes of a thousand or two thousand pounds at the least, whereby the value of this and the rest of their stuff doth grow to be almost inestimable. Likewise in the houses of knights, gentlemen, merchantmen, and some other wealthy citizens, it is not geson to behold generally their great provision of tapestry, Turkey work, pewter, brass, fine linen, and thereto costly cupboards of plate, worth five or six hundred or a thousand pounds to be deemed by estimation. But, as herein all these sorts do far exceed their elders and predecessors, and in neatness and curiosity the merchant all other, so in times past the costly furniture stayed there, whereas now it is descended yet lower even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers, who, by virtue of their old and not of their new leases, have, for the most part, learned also to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with tapestry and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine napery, whereby the wealth of our country (God be praised therefore, and give us grace to employ it well) doth infinitely appear. Neither do I speak this in reproach of any man, God is my judge, but to shew that I do rejoice rather to see how God hath blessed us with his good gifts; and whilst, I behold how (in a time wherein all things are grown to most excessive prices, and what commodity so ever is to be had is daily plucked from the communalty by such as look into every trade) we do yet find the means to obtain and achieve such furniture as heretofore hath been impossible.

    William Harrison

    Use of Pattern Books

    For inspiration on why and how to embellish such interior elements as panels, cornices, and chimneypieces, British designers and artisans of the period rely on pattern books from Italy, the Lowlands, France, or Germany. In this sense, rather than outright copying, details in British interiors are adaptations of classical Renaissance designs, based either on pattern books or designs originally executed by foreign craftsmen.For much more on the role pattern play in the Renaissnace era (and later) see glossary_pattern_books.htm

    Sources: Buie Harwood, et al, Architecture and Interior Design Through the 18th Century: An Integrated History Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2002, page 236

    Benno Forman's article on the origins of the "joined chest",

    Benno Forman's intro to moxon's mechanick exercises

    Cescinsky's chapter III, and

    ralph edwards article on "chests of drawers"

    Geoffrey Beard,"The Classical Revival: Europe's Renaissance", In The History Of Furniture 1976, [see yellow-highlighted sections]

    r a brown and h m colvin, "the king's craftsman", 1963.

    Furniture Typical of the 15th-Century


    The Fraternity of Carpenters-- The Company of Joiners

    The carpenter was originally one who made the "carpent" (from the Latin "Carpentum"), or heavy covered carriage or cart, of which the old type of carrier's cart, still to be seen lumbering in to the market from some far off wold village, is the best modern exponent. From this the transition was easy to the meaning of a craftsman who wrought in all kinds of woodwork. The name, however, was early used to denote especially the worker in the heavier kinds of woodwork, such as that required in the timbers of houses and roofs. To the joiner belonged the doors and the smaller kinds of work. Although to an outsider the distinction between the two trades does not seem very definite, possibly the very narrow lint of division was itself the cause of the strictness with Which it was maintained. Carperiters, joiners, and shipwrights were thus early differentiated, and the line of demarcation was jealously safeguarded. To the present day the jealousy of these several trades is such that the Trades' Union Congress in this year (1890) has thought it necessary to pass a special resolution with a view to its allayment.

    With much work by carpenters in large scale settings -- barns, homes, churches, halls (as exhibited by Hugh Herland) they are men capable of skillful achievements. According to William Pain -- author of the 1769 The Practical Builder; or, Workman's General Assistant; shewing the most approved and easy methods for drawing and working the whole or separate part of any building; as, the use of the tramel for groins, angle brackets, niches, etc., ... Ruled of carpentry, to find the length and backing of hips strait or curved; trusses for roofs, domes, etc.,. ... The proportion of the five orders in their general and particular parts ... With plans and elevations of gentlemen's and farm-houses, barns, &c. joiners too are common in British society, most frequently in the larger towns, where their work can involve wainscoting, panelling, doors, windows, dressers, chairs, tables, and sideboards.

    Not surprisingly, often the line between a carpenter and a joiner often becomes an area of dispute. According to Joseph Malet Lambert's 1891 Two thousand years of Gild Life ... From the 14th to the 18th-Century pages 255 and 260 [check], for example, at Hull, the 1598 ordinances for the separate gilds of joiners and carpenters specifies that

    no carpenter, housewright, or other wright within this town, shall make any joiner work whatsoever


    that no joiner or shipwright was to do any work appertaining properly to the carpenter

    As expressed below in the parts enclosed by quotes, in contrast with the "rough" carpenters, the work joiners of the medieval period and into the renaissance is much closer to what, today, we call the "finish carpenter".

    "Cubbord bedsteads" and tables are common articles of manufacture, and "Rayles, sealinge boards, wainscott clappboards, and bedd tymber" their raw materials. The monopoly exercised by the Company, as in other trades, is suspended during fair-time, shewing that the old fairs extended to the more substantial as well as the lighter articles of sale, and this explains in great measures the importance of these fairs and their natural decadence in the times when freedom of trade is established. All the "stuffe" and workmanship of manufactured articles is viewed and tried by the Searchers, and defaulters fined in due measure.

    Apprentices serve seven years, and no master is allowed more than two, being born or remaining in the town, and hired men, whose number apparently is not limited, though 8d. each is paid to the Company's stock on their employment. No carpenters, housewrights, or other wrights, might do joiners' work, on pain of forfeiting for each transgression, 10s. These are the men whose oak bedsteads, chairs, and cupboards remain still firm and solid, while generations of showy and veneered suites have their brief day and subsequently fallen to pieces.

    Source: Adapted from Joseph Malet Lambert, Thousand Years of Gild Life pages 250-259.


    Evidently no attempt to precisely define the different spheres is ever made, but, as noted by the University of Hull historian, Donald Woodward, records for the Chester, Newcastle, and York County guilds frequently show that -- about their overlapping crafts -- disputes often exist between the carpenters and the joiners. At Chester, says Woodward (page 18)

    following complaints about outsiders 'intermeddling with their trade', the joiners and carvers were separated from the carpenters in 1576, and they were joined by the turners.

    This did not solve the problem and from time to time the joiners' gild is obliged to seek redress against those who infringe its monopoly of making joined work: as late as July 1724 the carpenters suggest that a joint committee, comprising six members elected from each gild, meet "for setting out and distinguishing what work belongs to the carpenters", and what therefore to the joiners. However, says Woodward, "Nothing further was heard of this peace conference". [Among Woodward's primary sources are Chester Courts: Typescript Calendar of the Chester Crownmote and Quarter Sessions Files [CCRO], 1488-1566, Joiners' miscellaneous papers, no. 1; Rupert H. Morris, 1893. Chester in the Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, Chester, England: Printed for the author, 1893, page 404 (see image of Morris's title page on the right); CCRO, Mayors' Company Papers/2/12-19. ]

    19th-century_logo.jpg 19th-century_logo.jpg

    Sources: Joseph Malet Lambert, ed., Two Thousand Years of Gild Life; Or, An Outline of the History and Development of the Gild System From Early Times, With Special Reference to Its Application to Trade and Industry; Together With a Full Account of the Gilds and Trading Companies of Kingston-upon-Hull, from the 14th to the 18th Century. 1891? pages ?; Donald Woodward, Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450-1750 New York: Cambridege Univestity Press, 1995 page 18; Buie Harwood, et al, Architecture and Interior Design Through the 18th Century: An Integrated History Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2002, pages 225-250.

    Apprenticeships in Artisan/Craft Fields Are Considered a Birthright

    Source:Adapted from Steve Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London, pages 291-323; similar conclusions can be drawn from arguments and evidence in the Smith-Bretano English Gilds, Lambert's Two Thousand Years of Gild Life, and Woodward's Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450-1750:

    Rappaport, for example claims that understanding the nature of apprenticeship as an institution for training boys for a career in the crafts -- and other issues that factor into guild operations -- is crucial to an understanding of male careers in 16th-century London and of the society in which they live. Apprenticeship is one of the most important events in the life of a man.

    Freedom of the City

    An understanding of the nature and extent of citizenship is necessary if you want to appreciate the importance to newly created journeymen of the many rights, privileges, and responsibilities conveyed by that status. Mostly occurring in London, the main center of the guilds, the apprentice's ultimate goal is to acquire "Freedom of the City”. The term derives from deliberations of the craft guilds.

    For several years before appearing before the court which grants Freedom of the City, as we note above, a young apprentice trains under his guild master, and is primarily concerned with proving his proficiency in his chosen craft. If he passes the Court's requirements, the apprentice is “made free” of the guild, and can practice his trade. In addition, he has to be made “free of the city” in order to work there.

    When a man finishes his apprenticeship he next becomes a member of the company associated with his new craft or trade, swearing an oath of a carpenter or joiner before the master and wardens, the company's governors, in a simple ceremony. In most cases a man is admitted at the rank of journey­man. However, instead, some men prefer to set up their own shops immediately after completing their training, a move which means that they never work as wage laborers. Shortly after his admission, the new journeyman and his late master and one of the wardens of his company walk to the Guildhall where he is sworn as a citizen or "freeman" of London. As Steve Rappaport -- Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London chapter 2 -- notes, while other ways exist for journeymen to become citizens, by and large, apprenticeship, is the route through which nine of every ten men in London become "citizens and companymen in the 16th-century"

    Using quantification methodology, the findings of recent scholarship, such as studies conducted by New York University historian Steve Rapport, shows some surprising truths:

    If three-quarters of London's men are citizens and nine-tenths of them obtain that status through service as apprentices, then two-thirds of all men in 16th-century London are journeymen through the process of apprenticeship. ...

    Apprenticeship, then, plays an important role in shaping a man's life, for as an apprentices, a young man learns more than just the skills of a craft or trade. Living in the household of his master, his apprenticeship is a means by which he -- as a young man in his late 'teens and early twenties -- is socialized.

    Role models to which his is exposed during those years teach him what it means to be a citizen of the city, a "companyman", a father, the head of a household. In this sense, his aprenticeship facilitates a young man's assimilation into the urban society of London -- or another British provincial city -- by, upon his arrival, providing him with such essentials as a roof over his head, food on the table for him to eat, clothes for him to wear. But even more important, the apprentice has a "family", a household with routines and social structures, the material and the immaterial customs which can ease his transition into a society that is much different for a young man raised in a rural setting where his parents are of much lower social standing.

    Of course, a city such as London benefits as well, for, as a system, for apprenticeship is a funnel through which so many of its male immigrants pass, in effect regulating that migration, giving the city relief from some of the problems very high rates of unregulated immigration produce. For example, from June 1572 through April 1594 the Carpenters' court minutes record the ages at which 1317 men begin their terms, and their average age during the 22-year period is nineteen and one-half years. (For more destails, see Rappaport's discussion on pages 295-296 of his Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London.)

    An Educational Revolution Occurs in Britain During the Two Decades Between 1560-1580 [Cressy, (1980: 168-169)]

    Rhetorically, Rappaport asks, "Why did men not begin their apprenticeship terms before they were nearly twenty years old?"

    The majority of London's apprentices, like most of England's people, came from families that tilled the land: nearly two-thirds of 771 immigrants who became freemen in 1551-3 were sons of husbandmen and yeomen. It is possible that some of these young men, especially husbandmen's sons who accounted for two-fifths of all immigrants, were required to stay at home for many years to help the family work the farm. Sending a youth off to London to serve an apprenticeship meant the permanent loss of the son's labour to the family and doubtless there were many types of familial obligations, both in rural and in urban areas, which required the postponement of steps such as apprenticeship.19

    Cressy argues that between 1560 and 1580 an "educational revolution" takes place in Britain (1975: pages ? Literacy was a formal requirement for men who sought apprenticeships in some companies. In general master expect some degree of functional literacy in ther apprentices, especially trades associated with the city's retail, wholesale, and overseas operations. (In a master's absence, an apprentice often ran the shop.) Many young men -- either in their late teens or early twenties -- who arrive in London come with at least a modicum of learning to read and write, but often this level of education is not enough. Still some quite astonishing accounts of literacy exist. For example, from Rappaport we learn that

    Over a period of seven decades a total of 823 oaths were enrolled by Ironmongers and the rate of literacy among their apprentices was very high indeed. From the 1520s through the 1540s, 72 per cent of 294 apprentices were able to write the entire 58-word oath, 19 per cent signed their names and probably wrote the oath as well, and only 25 (9 per cent) of the apprentices subscribed their oaths with marks. During the following decades the proportion of written oaths increased substantially, reflecting an increase in the rate of literacy among England's people during the first two decades of Elizabeth's reign: as many as 98 per cent of 529 apprentices could write the entire oath and only 10 were unable even to sign their names.

    Rappaport's sources sources include Rosemary O'Day, Education and Society 1500-1800: the Social Foundations of Education in Early Modern Britain London : Longman, 1982., pages 17-20 [on order bookfinder 1/5/14]; David Cressy, Education in Tudor and Stuart England London: Hoddrer and Stoughton, 1975, ? pages 142-78; D M Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England Under the Later Tudors, 1547-1603 London : Longman, 1994, pages 356-60.

    Since it is true that many an apprentice who completes his training becomes a householder after a few years, and -- either as an owner or a journeyman -- if he is in charge of operating a shop, he needs rudimentary skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Therefore it is not surprising that the evidence shows how majority of London's men are able at least to sign their names. For example, Cressy argues from his evidence that approximately two-thirds of London's "tradesmen and craftsmen" can write.

    Another truth, says Rappaport (pages 311-313), is that between 1490 through 1600 the majority of London's apprentices — approximately three-fifths — never finish their terms. His evidence shows that slightly more than forty percent of almost 50,000 apprentices complete apprenticeship. Here's the evidence on carpenters. Marginal notes opposite apprenticeship enrolments in the carpenters' record accounts describe the fates of almost 2000 men who apprenticed in the carpenters' company over five decades, from 1540 through to 1590. During this half century, only forty percent of the apprentices finish their terms.In adddition, fifteen percent die while in service -- remember age expectancy is much lower then -- some marry and are forced to abandon training, and -- surprisingly or not -- are a large proportion, i.e., forty-four percent -- are recorded for having "gone" or "run away" before apprenticeship is complete.

    "Where did they go?", we may ask. Because no evidence exists of large numbers of masterless men roaming London's streets in the last half of the 16th-century, we must conclude that the young men who never finish their apprenticeships obviously go somewhere. Speculatively, a "carpenter", even with limited training -- say three years, rather than the customary seven -- must have gone home or elsewhere. Claims, Rappaport,

    Indeed, London served England as a vocational training centre in the early modern period, at any one time teaching thousands of men from all parts of the realm the skills of carpentry, cloth finishing, tanning, brewing, and other crafts and trades, receiving in return their labour for several years. Most men, however, apprenticed in London but chose not to remain, leaving the city after one or more years of training. ... .

    Rappaport gives us some reasons for the widespread failure of completion:

    Most men who chose not to finish their terms [because] ... the system of apprenticeship encouraged men not to complete their training. The first half of a term was worth more to the apprentice than to his master. An apprentice had a great deal to learn then but he was not yet skilled enough to do much more than menial tasks, and thus his master paid the bulk of the costs of his education during those years by providing him with room, board, and time spent training him. After several years, however, the scale began to tip in the other direction, for as an apprentice's skills developed his labour became increasingly valuable to his master. Consequently it was during the later years of the term that a master received the greatest compensation for teaching his apprentice a craft or trade.

    As a writer in the 1570s puts it,

    Both master and apprentice benefited from a long apprenticeship: "The master for that he should have the longer service of his prentice which must needs turn to his great profit, for one year's service at the latter end is more worth than four at the beginning." This differential benefit was reflected in the level of payment for their work, higher rates being paid for older apprentices. At Durham in the late fifteenth century, John Bell, the chief mason at the cathedral, was authorised to train an apprentice for whom he was to receive four marks a year for the first three years, six marks during the next three years, and seven marks in the final year. The same was true for James Galen, the Hull carpenter, who received different rates of pay for his two apprentices. Occasionally it is possible to glimpse a young man moving up the pay scale. Thus Ebenezer Emerson worked alongside a group of Hull carpenters in the summer of 1678 at 4d a day, but he advanced to 6d at the end of April 1679, and to 8d in July.

    Donald Woodward, Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England, 1450-1750 New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 61.

    At the time, then, it is in the master's interest to extend an apprenticeship up to its seven-year requirement. Naturally, apprentices have a different vision of what is appropriate. One, because he is barred from accepting wages for his semi-skilled labor, he may simply prefer to exchange his work for pay, rather than simply refining his skills. Indeed, at about halfway through his seven-year term, he may consider himself skilled enough to earn his living as a journeyman or even to set up his own shop. But regardless, to act in either of these two ways, he first must leave London, for in the city he could do neither until he completed his term and became a freeman. Completing his apprenticeship provided a man with additional skills and citizenship, but clearly many men chose instead to leave London and begin careers for which they had been substantially trained elsewhere. Indeed, the 1563 Statute of Artificers madkes a minimum apprenticeship of seven years mandatory throughout England, because,

    the apprentice that is bound for less than seven years does not commonly prove to be an expert artificer.

    The quote is from Statutes of the Realm, 11 vols., 1810-28, IV, pt 1, 419, as cited by Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2002, page 317

    Additional Sources: Margaret Gay Davies, The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship: A Study in Applied Mercantilism, 1563-1642 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1956, pages 84-89; Phyllis Deane, "The Implications of Early National Income Estimates for the Measurement of Long-term Economic Growth in the United Kingdom," Economic Development and Cultural Change 4 (1955), 3-38; Phyllis Deane and W.A. Cole, British Economic Growth, 1688-1959: Trends and Structure 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969; K D M Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution New York; Cambridge University Press, 2010; Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis, "Rules and Reality: Quantifying the Practice of Apprenticeship in Early Modern England", Economic History Review 65, 2 (2012), pp. 556–579;

    Peter Earle, The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 1660-1730 London: Methuen London, 1989. ordered bookfinder 1/29/14