How much quality handwork was produced by medieval craftsmen and peasants?

Nov 2014
3
San Vicente Del Alcantara
#1
Hi. I’ve been reading a lot of William Morris recently, who wrote about how much beauty came from the hands of ordinary medieval weavers, woodworkers, stone-smiths, artists and other artisans. How true was his assessment that massive quantities of extremely high quality (beyond anything feasible nowadays, or even in the past two hundred years, outside specialist bourgeois ateliers) carpentry, tapestry, stonework, embroidery and the like poured out of practically every town in Europe?

I gather he was referring to the ‘high middle-ages’, after the (to Morris) dark ages and before the 'calamitous' fourteenth century. I would be interested to know, from anyone who knows about the period, how much freedom and skill ordinary people had to make the everyday artefacts of daily life, indeed how beautiful, from an artisanal point of view, was the ordinary home, how lovely, useful and well-crafted the average working man’s table, etc. I do not know much about the guild systems or about how manufacture worked at this time or about the ‘artistic quality’ of the everyday home during this time, so any recommendations for further reading gratefully received.

On a related note, but outside of the medieval period, can anyone recommend any good guides to this same theme for other parts of the world either in this period or before? I am very interested in work, freedom to work, and artistic skill, in the technical sense, of ordinary people throughout history, but its a subject that is rarely treated in much detail in the books I read. How much skill, time and even love did the ordinary twelfth century Vietnamese peasant put into making tables, how much quality workmanship and beauty could be found around the common inca hearth and so on? I suppose this would come under the rubric of ‘social aesthetic history’ or somesuch. I am groping in the dark – any thoughts most welcome.
 
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Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,588
#2
I am not aware of any universal guides or comparisons between eras though that would be very interesting. Majority of what I've read is more commentary on the style of particular products for use in dating or placing them into a timeline. Much less research has gone into how people actually crafted items though the nearer modern times you get the more knowledge has remained. Prior to 18th century there are many empty parts to be filled in about crafting process. There does seem to be growing interest in this area but there were SO many medieval crafts... the more popular crafts are somewhat documented and understood but that is a relative handful out of hundreds. Before medieval era the records are even more spotty as some things we simply have no sure idea how ancient peoples created them. This includes everything from massive projects like the pyramids to small things like hand mirrors that are nearly as good as a modern mirror.

Vast majority of items from Europe to Asia were produced via guilds. This system allowed several important things- some guarantee of quality, an organizational memory to a point so that less knowledge was lost, training and support for members of guilds, some price controls, taxation and representation for guild members even in a society where individual guildsmen were low status the guild itself was important and importantly facilitation of long distance trade. A single craftsmen would find it difficult to order materials from even a few towns away but a guild can place larger orders and also take responsibility for payment if any individual guild member has problems paying for whatever reason as well a guild would offer larger orders and incentives for other merchants to specialize in a particular guilds materials and products as the volume of business was high. Most guilds were organized by town or sometimes by region and could be fiercely competitive with all the towns around but still cooperate on some matters where their interests align. Many guilds also attempted to get a monopoly from regional rulers and some succeeded increasing their profits and power.

The Medieval Craftsmen Series covers some crafts in relatively good depth overview but some of the books are now out of date and never meant to be much more than a good overview rather than in detail information about how items were made.

As for the idea that the average crafter was more skilled in crafts I'd certainly agree with that as their livelihood depended upon it and they had 1000s of hours of experience by their late teens. The major difference would be quality of tools and secondary materials compared to modern person crafting basically as a hobby but the amount and specificity and capability of tools is astonishing though almost always more labor intensive the results are often better than modern methods. The quality of work varied tremendously both with the skill and experience of the crafter but also the time spent and the desired end result of the work. Tables and interior decorations of a guildman's house would be fairly nice with a few extremely nice items but a guildman with his own house up until 18th century would be fairly prosperous and a master at his craft with likely over two decades of experience minimum.

For example a weaver was often paid on a sort of commission and would this put out the work asked for at a given quality- however when that weaver made something for their own family or to sell to a local merchant the quality would be much higher as it represents themselves and their skill. Having a quality weaving on display at a local merchants would be like advertising. Most likely though at that weavers own house the items of other craftsmen would be more likely to be the bulk stuff produced for resale and while not terrible neither would it have fancy details that take extra time unless the weaver particularly fancied something. Over time nicer items might accumulate within a family but just as often the numbers of children and relatively frequent fires or other issues would mean only prosperous family dwellings are likely to have more than a few high quality items.

Another example- many of the medieval weapons crafts are more well researched so something like a longbow which was a relatively simple item could still involve 4 to 5 individual crafters. The woodsman choosing and cutting the bow stave, the actual bow maker who shaped and set the stave, the string maker, the fletcher, and the arrowhead maker. Sometimes a fletcher would make the arrow and set the shaft but often even those tasks would be separated. It might take 1 person 2 weeks to make a single bow doing all the tasks themselves but dividing up the work a bow complete with brace of arrows and spare string could be done in a day. Add in a leatherworker for a quiver though poorer men rarely carried quivers and more often just clutched a handful of arrows or used a rough sacks or wrap and 1 set of hunting gear might involve the work of over a dozen craftsmen.
 
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Nov 2014
3
San Vicente Del Alcantara
#3
That is the most extraordinarily detailed response. Thank you so much. I wish I could offer the same time and thoughtfulness in my reply, but all I have is more questions!

Let me restrict it to one then: was the guild system throughout Europe and throughout the medieval period?
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,588
#4
That is the most extraordinarily detailed response. Thank you so much. I wish I could offer the same time and thoughtfulness in my reply, but all I have is more questions!

Let me restrict it to one then: was the guild system throughout Europe and throughout the medieval period?
There were guilds everywhere but not all functioned the same and some guilds were more independent than others. Often monasteries produced significant amount of products as well as beer and agriculture produce. Other places might have guilds which bought up products from individual contractors and thus had more power to set prices. Also some religious or ethnic minorities specialized in a certain type of production and acted as informal guilds.

China and much of Muslim Asia had production guilds while Hindu India seemed more that guilds were formed by middlemen who contracted individually with producers and thus kept control of the market despite fierce competition for a very long time. Japan had some guilds but often production was regionalized and controlled by local ruler with the formation of larger urban areas allowing more individual proprietors to establish themselves independently but also made them more vulnerable to foreign imports and thus many local producers favored Shogunate policy of restricting imports to specific ports and nations.