The Good Life France

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The Musee de Compagnonnage Tours, Loire Valley

Terrace and rooftop with several richly decorated towers at the Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley

I stood on a balcony at the Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley. My eyes travelled over thousands of thin, black slate tiles that cascaded down spires in stark contrast to sculpted contours of ivory coloured stone. There were endless details that drew my eye from one piece of artistry to the next. I admired the chateau for hours in humble awe, I felt as if I was in the presence of something almost divine on earth. It may me wonder about how France refined its artisan skills to define its style. A visit to the Musee de Compagnonnage in Tours will illustrate how France has long nurtured its craftsmen. And, how that has affected French culture and style.

Arts, crafts and hard work shaped France’s cultural landscape

Model of a French Cathedral built to scale with enormous detail included

Many people daydream of visiting la belle France. They may imagine taking a quiet stroll in well-behaved chateau gardens or a walk within ivory stone halls where French royalty once roamed. Others see themselves sitting at a café in Paris or Marseille on a cobblestone street.  Sipping rich coffee, savouring a flaky bite of buttery pain aux raisins and watching the world walk by. Basking in France’s cultural landscape seems magical, dreamlike even. But the reality is that this mastery was not random, but carefully cultivated over centuries by the unseen hands of French artisans and workmen.

For the millions of visitors lucky enough to see France’s chateaux and cathedrals, and for those who dream of it, the desire to experience French artistry is not only a testament to the decadence of wealthy French royals, but a reminder that skilled hands crafted art from raw material.

The chateaux and cathedrals of France are the artistry of stone cutters, glaziers, and carpenters. The craftsman and their legacy remain long after the king’s reign ended. In the same way, the humble yet unforgettable French pastry is a testament to centuries of work to perfect that sinful bite. The silent dedication to craft speaks volumes.

But how did the French become so good at what they do?

The Brotherhood That Crafted France

Wooden models created by french craftsmen to demonstrate their skill at carpentry

France’s reputation for mastery happened by design, rather than by divinity or accident. In the mid-14th century, it is believed the modest roots of the compagnonnage – the companionship – began with the creation of the stone-cutters guild. This apprenticeship system not only trained new workers in stone-cutting skills, but also cultivated a sense of morality. The early compagnons created codes of duty, “de devoir”. Stringent apprenticeship training ensured tradesmen had the same credibility as formally educated lawyers, architects, accountants and engineers.

The practices of compagnonnage eventually spread to other trades. By the 18th century, in addition to stonework, it included wood, metal, leather and tapestry and food. To this day compagnons complete apprenticeships within different organizations and in multiple sub-disciplines. Originally, work was performed primarily by men, but the Compagnons de Devoir has actively recruited women over the past 30 years.

Musée de Compagnonnage

Highly ornamental carved wooden clogs created by French craftsmen on display at a museum in Tours, Loire Valley

You can discover the origin and history of the French Guilds on a visit to the Musée de Compagnonnage in Tours, where there is a display of hundreds of intricate handicrafts.  A compagnon undertakes training from apprentice to journeyman. They are then able to complete a “master piece”, a work that certifies a crafts-person’s rank of master, a final demonstration of their skills and knowledge.

This modest but rich museum, which can be toured within an hour or two, is a captivating introduction to the Compagnonnage and its history. Miniature masterpieces transport one through centuries of France’s history. It’s a fascinating glimpse in to the hearts and minds of craftsmen, of brotherhood, of legacies and knowledge, handed from one generation to the next.

Hidden in the details of artisan craftsmanship are centuries of duty and imagination within the companionship. It’s a silent testament to France’s passion and dedication to craft.

Lindsay Munroe lives, writes, paints, and daydreams in New Westminster, Canada.  At 52 she quit the office to find her spirit and follow her dreams. That was in the summer of 2017. She’s still looking…