Apprenticeship, Journeymen, and Guilds in the Merchant World

How do you learn a skilled trade that’s not farming, basic spinning and weaving, or other everyday things that all people learn? If it is a non-guild family tradition, you learn from parents and older relatives. If you show magical gifts, you are apprenticed to the appropriate mage guild. Otherwise, you apprentice to a trade of some kind, provided your parents have the funds to pay the fees. (If you are an orphan, things are a little different, in some places, depending on the situation.)

The role of the confraternities and guilds is to ensure quality of products, train (and tame) young men in the crafts, and to protect the interests of the trade. Certain things are guild secrets and are not discussed outside of closed meetings, even with spouses or senior journeymen. Part of passing on the trade and training men is the apprenticeship system. Apprentices usually start at age seven or so, perhaps older in the case of a trade that requires physical strength or is especially dangerous (stone cutting, salt making). Apprentices are chosen for basic moral character, intelligence, good health, and a willingness to take orders. A master can refuse to take an apprentice, and he can release an apprentice if the young man behaves too badly or refuses to learn. The parents or appropriate temple (if an orphan) sign a contract binding the apprentice to serve for X number of years or until he is passed to journeyman. The apprentice agrees to certain duties. The master also agrees to certain duties, including feeding, housing, training, providing medical care if needed, and moral instruction. The master and his lady are, in effect, the parents of the boy from the point the contract is signed until he sets out on his journey year, or he is kicked out for bad behavior.

Apprentices do the basic work of cleaning, sorting (once they know enough), washing, fetching and carrying, and working the bellows or winches. They also study reading and writing, basic math, business and trade law and custom. This is when the boys start to see how to sort wood for quality, how to sharpen tools and why each tool is used for a certain purpose, why some metals are quenched in oil and others in water, the best caulk for a ship, and so on. As they mature and show signs of learning, they shift over to more delicate, or demanding, or precise skills. An herbalist’s apprentice might compound basic tinctures and washes. If he messes up, no one will die, and he gains the needed skills. A cloth trader’s apprentice will sort fabrics into general types, confirm tax tags (but NOT remove them!), and assign goods to different types of storage.

Journeymen go a step farther. Some run shops during quiet times. Others make basic barrels, or pots and dishes, or coarse breads and leb-breads. At some point, all the masters in the city or region will meet and agree that an apprentice has shown enough skill and responsibility to be worthy of promotion. The young man undergoes testing and a ceremony, and becomes a journeyman. He has more responsibility as well as privileges. If he fails badly enough, or behaves badly enough, the masters may break him back to apprentice, as has happened twice in the Merchant series. Commit a serious offense and he will lost all privileges and rights and be expelled from the city or town permanently. He may not practice his skills, either.

Ideally, most journeymen continue on, do well, and eventually qualify for a journey year. The young man goes to a different master to learn more about the trade, or to study a different aspect of it. It also allows other masters to confirm that indeed, the candidate is worthy of elevation and should, in due time, be admitted to their ranks if he proves himself.

Apprenticeship is usually age seven or so to age fourteen, then journeyman to age twenty one or until the young man passes the mastery tests. There are a LOT of young master mages at the time of the book in progress, because so many died from the southerners’ poison. Mages are still scarce. This worries a lot of the surviving mages, because they don’t want untrained but well-meaning people getting into trouble and causing a bad reputation for all magic workers. Also, a lot of guild knowledge was lost.

Some towns and villages don’t have enough craft masters for a confraternity. In those cases, or if all the healers happen to be priests for example, the clergy will take on the role of guild masters and will train apprentices, then send them elsewhere for their journeyman training. That’s not ideal, but everyone agrees that it is better to have a talented child identified and trained in the basics by a priest of Korval than to lose that potential master carpenter. Other guild masters will still have to confirm his skills and readiness to advance to master, or to confirm his journeyman rank.


6 thoughts on “Apprenticeship, Journeymen, and Guilds in the Merchant World

  1. Not everyone who wants to write historical fiction can hold a PhD in history. But I think most who want to write historical fiction would benefit from reading your books, and your blog.

    Yes, I love learning, especially when I don’t have to master another kind of math. (“Why do you ask?”)

    “To write good history is the noblest act of man.” —John Dickson Carr

  2. Your entire emphasis on guilds and the progression through them in your books sure helps create a believable world.

    • Thank you. Agriculture was much more important for survival, but trade and the crafts created a lot of fascinating economic and political developments.

  3. Excellent addition to the ‘backstory’ of the series, and dead on for the ‘steps’ from apprentice to master. That still holds true today, in those areas where apprenticeships are used.

  4. The guilds and the temples add considerable texture. Their interactions, even if filled by mental shorthand, add depth and breadth to the vision. Reading about the salt makers and woodcutters working with the three temples and their clergy takes a not about rising waters to a considerable flood and catastrophes, unless all fill in their part.

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