McCartney's Journeys

Cordwainer Guilds

While the masters hired others to actually make the shoes, they also set up a system of training. A young person would apprentice to a master to learn the trade. Even in the earliest times apprentices were found working for the individual shoemakers. After the apprentice period, usually seven years, had ended, the apprentice would become a journeyman. This didn't mean they traveled, although some of them probably did. It meant that journeymen worked for various masters. It was at this time that guilds began to form.

The guilds set standards for the trade. They also determined who would become masters. Of course, the masters had the most control in the operation of the guilds. In this way, they could protect their portion of the market by preventing the creation of new masters. (3)

The following quote is from the Twin Groves Jr. High School District 96, Illinois, website. Unfortunately, while the web site still exists, its scope has changed and the article is no longer presented.

"As time went on however, there was a natural inclination on the part of the masters who were the members of the guild to keep their numbers down, have more workmen under them, and thus increase their profits and keep the competition down. This resulted in apprentices having to work for a certain number of years past their initial training period as a journeyman or hire day laborer. This allowed the masters to have fairly large shops in which apprentices and journeymen worked for them. The masters preferred to take on more apprentices rather than promote journeymen into master status in order to keep their numbers down and therefore secure their share of the available market. Eventually it became almost impossible to become a master unless you were the son of a master or married a master's daughter. This left the majority of men working in the craft without hope of rising beyond journeyman status.

"Unfortunately, the journeymen were almost completely at the mercy of the masters who ran the guild. The guild did guarantee every journeyman work. In Paris the journeymen of a guild gathered each morning at a certain place where the masters came and chose the men they wanted. If any journeymen were left over, the guild officers assigned them to masters. Through the guild, the masters set the journeyman's wages and regulated the hours and conditions of his work. In some towns, those journeymen brave enough, tried to form organizations of their own in order to fight the masters' rule. However the masters always had the support of the town government and the journeymen were rarely successful."

Although this has to do with a much earlier period than when my ancestors practiced the trade, guild practices probably hadn't changed much by the 19th century. What strikes us about this is that "journeyman" didn't necessarily mean that men traveled extensively - it meant that they were employed in various places, by various Master craftsmen. They could have remained in the same general area, and still have been "journeymen".

Given the description of guilds and their members noted above and since both Henry and James gave their status as "journeymen" means that they probably were not in a guild - and that they needed a Master to get work. We haven't come up with much on Shoemakers' (or Cordwainers, as they were called) Guilds in Northern Ireland yet. It will be necessary to know where James and Henry began their careers to find out what masters and therefore what Guild they might have been associated with.

My son did find an interesting image, however, of the coat of arms for the Shoemakers' Guild in Angus, Scotland: Arms of the Montrose Shoemakers Guild. It's rather impressive, and suggests that the old Cordwainers were very well thought of, and pretty important too. It is a painting by Scottish artist Robert Munro. Unfortunately, the site that displayed the painting is no longer available.

Sts. Crispin and Crispinian

Of course, every profession has its patron saints. The medical profession has Maimonides. The cordwainers have St. Crispin and St. Crispinian.

These brothers are said to have been sons of a minor Roman official. They converted to Christianity, left their ancestral home and began to preach and convert others. They settled in Gaul, present day France, in a town called Soissons. To support themselves they apprenticed to a shoemaker and soon became experts at the trade. They would preach during the day and make shoes for the poor at night. This was during the reign of Emperor Maximian.

The brothers were brought before a local Roman official, Rictiovarus, who tried to get them to forsake Christianity and return to worshipping the Roman gods. Failing to re-convert them by torture, Rictiovarus committed suicide because he could not kill them. At this point Maximian had them beheaded. (1) Their deaths supposedly occurred on October 25th in the year 286 or 287.

Crispin and Crispinian became the patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers and tanners. The anniversary of their martyrdom, St. Crispin's Day, was an important day in history. The battle of Agincourt, where the outnumbered English army defeated the French, occurred on St. Crispin's Day. This battle was immortalized by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. (2)


With thanks to the following websites for filling in some of the details:
(1) Catholic On-Line - Saints and Angels
(2) St. Crispen's Day Speech - Shakespeare's HENRY V 1599

Information was also gained from the following site which is no longer available on the web.
(3) Guild Hall - Renaissance Guilds

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