Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn




III. French Workmen's Unions

365. Organisation of Workmen's Unions.—The origin of corporations of artisans dates from the day in which the oppressed workers and neglected burghers wished to resist feudal rapine, assure to themselves the fruit of their own labour, increase their trade, enlarge their profits, and establish friendly relations. But whilst these ancient corporations rose up against the aristocracy of blood and wealth, they did not steer clear of the oligarchic spirit. In the first centuries of the Middle Ages the journeyman did not separate from his master; he lived and worked with him. There did not then exist that distinction which afterwards displayed itself so openly—in fact, even now, in many German towns the journeymen eat at the master's table. Then the journeyman was to the master what the squire was to the knight; and as the squire could be received into the ranks of knighthood, so the apprentice at the end of his term could establish himself as master. But by-and-by it did not suffice to possess property or skill to become a master; it became necessary after the apprenticeship to travel for two or three years, the object of which was, and still is, to acquire greater skill, and a knowledge of the various modes of working in different towns, adopted in the particular trade to which the journeyman belonged. On his return, he had to make his masterpiece; if approved by a committee of masters, he was received among them; if not, he was rejected, and was not allowed to work on his own account. Thus the masters had in their turn transformed themselves into an aristocracy hostile to the majority, speculating on, rather than administering to, the common labour, their interests being opposed to those of the workmen. The ostracism which thus pursued the great army of labourers, and the segregation to which they were condemned, necessarily produced a reaction, which, unable to have recourse to open revolt, assumed the form of a secret sodality, with rights and customs peculiar to itself.

The workman, moreover, unlike the master, was not tied to any city or country, but could wander from place to place—a life which, in fact, he must prefer to staying forever in one workshop or factory, where the experience needed for the mastership could not be attained. Hence arose the ancient custom of the "Tour of France" and the multiform compagnonnage, which, whilst a source of pleasure to the workmen settled in a town, became a necessity for the travelling, the persecuted journeyman; who thus withdrew himself from under the regular legislation, which only protected the manufacturer, and joined, as it were, a subterranean association to protect himself and his affiliates from the unpunished injuries inflicted on them by burghers and masters.

366. Connection with Freemasonry.—Freemasonry was early mixed up with the compagnonnage, and the construction of the Temple, which is constantly met with in the former, also plays a great part in the latter—a myth undefined, chronologically irreconcilable, a poetic fiction, like all the events called historical that surround the starting-points of various sects; for sects, existing, as it were, beyond the pale of official history, create a history of their own, exclusive of, and opposed to, the world of facts. The Solomon of the legend, so different from that of the Bible, is one of the patriarchs of the compagnonnage; and, like the masonic ceremonies, the rites of these journeyman associations continually allude to that moral architecture, that proposes to erect prisons for vice, and temples to virtue. Further, and in the same way, the embraces and kisses of the craftsmen remind us of the symbolic grips of the Freemasons, and the brotherly kiss of ancient knighthood.

367. Decrees against Workmen's Unions.—We are often obliged to seek for information concerning secret societies in clerical invectives and judicial prosecutions; these are lamps shedding a sinister light on associations whose existence was scarcely suspected; Thus compagnonnage existed before Francis I.; for this king, though he protected the Carbonari, and actually introduced the Carbonari term of "cousin" into the language of Courts, issued an edict against the former, forbidding journeymen to bind themselves with oaths; to elect a chief; to assemble in greater numbers than five in front of the workshops, on pain of being imprisoned or banished; to wear swords or sticks in the houses of their masters or the streets of the city; to attempt any seditious movement; or to hold any banquet at the beginning or the end of an apprenticeship. A subsequent regulation, A.D. 1723, prohibits any community, confraternity, assembly, or oabala of workmen; and a parliamentary decree of 1778 renews the prohibition, and enjoins on tavern-keepers not to receive into their houses assemblies of more than four craftsmen, nor in any way to favour the practices of the pretended devoir (duty). The language of the clergy is equally energetic. A deliberation of the Parisian clergy of 1655 says:

"This pretended devoir consists in three precepts—to honour God, protect the property of the master, and succour the companions. But these companions dishonour God, profane the mysteries of our religion, ruin the masters, withdrawing the workmen from the workshop, when some of those inscribed in the 'cabala' complain of having been injured. The impieties and sacrileges they commit vary according to the different trades; but they have this in common, that before being received into the association, every member is bound to swear on the Gospel that he will not reveal either to father or mother, wife or son, either to cleric or layman, what he is about to do or will see done; and for this purpose they choose an inn, which they call the mother, wherein they have two rooms, in one of which they perform their abominable rites, whilst in the other they hold their feasts."

Even before 1645 the clergy had denounced the tailors and shoemakers to the authorities of Paris for dishonest and heterodox practices; and the faculty of theology had prohibited the pernicious meetings of workmen, under pain of the greater excommunication; so that the companions, to escape ecclesiastical persecution, held their meetings in those purlieus of the Temple which enjoyed the right of sanctuary. Even thence they were removed, however, by the decree of the 11th September 1651.

368. Traditions.—The members of the compagnonnage are divided into two great parties, the compagnons du devoir, the Fellows of Duty, and the compagnons de liberti, the Fellows of Liberty. The former are followers of James and of Soubise, the latter of Solomon. The former assert that they call themselves the Fellows of Duty because they are descended from the workmen who remained dutiful at the time of Hiram's murder, whilst the latter claim that their compagnonnage was instituted by Solomon himself. Their traditions are strangely confused. Solomon, we are told, built the Temple. James was said to be the son of a famous architect, Joachim, born at St. Romily. James, having gone to Greece, heard the summons of Solomon, and went to him; and having received from Hiram the order to erect two columns, he acquitted himself with such zeal and skill that he was at once made a master and the companion of Hiram. The Temple being finished, he returned again to Gaul with master Soubise, who had been his inseparable companion at Jerusalem. However, the pupils of master Soubise, jealous of James, attempted to assassinate him, and the latter threw himself into a marsh, where the reeds supported and concealed him, saving his life; but eventually he was discovered by the pupils of Soubise, who was unaware of their nefarious design, and slain. Soubise long mourned James; and when his end approached, he taught the companions their "duties," and the mode of life they ought to pursue. Among the rites he placed the kiss of brotherly affection and the custody of a reed—the acacia of the Freemasons—in memory of James. A variation of this legend represents Soubise as an accomplice of the murder, and a suicide from desperation. The reader will at once see that this is the story of Hiram, nay, of Osiris, and all the great deities of antiquity, over again. In the Legend of the Temple, Solomon also is an accomplice in the murder of his architect.

369. Names and Degrees.—The sons of Solomon assumed different denominations, such as "wolves" and Gavots, which latter designation they retained, because coming from Judaea to France they landed on the coast of Provence, whose inhabitants are still called Gavots. The wolves, stonemasons, have two degrees, fellow-crafts and youths. The Gavots, carpenters and ironsmiths, are divided into three: accepted fellow-crafts, advanced fellow-crafts, and initiated fellow-crafts. They all commemorate the death of master Hiram.

The sons of master James called themselves by various names, such as Compagnons Passants, Devorants, etc. The sons of father Soubise were known as "Jovials, or Companions of the Foxes," or as Drilles, an ancient French word signifying "merry companions," and by that scarcely desirable one of "dogs," in commemoration, it is said, of the dog who discovered the body of Hiram. It is more probable, however, that this denomination had the same origin as that of "wolves," for which dogs may easily be mistaken; or that it refers to the star Sirius, in which case the name Soubise might be a corruption of the epithet Sabazius, given to Bacchus (70). With the second of these branches of companionship, comprising at first the three trades of stonemason, locksmith, and joiner, and with the third, composed entirely of carpenters, were afterwards affiliated other trades, such as those of turners, glaziers, weavers, shoemakers, smiths, nailmakers, hatters, bakers, tanners, plasterers, and others. With these the probability and number of schisms increased; and the families of the "Eebels," "Independents," "Foxes of Liberty," and others arose almost as a natural consequence.

370. General Customs.—The square and compasses were the symbols of the compagnonnage; the members called each other by the name of their country, because every one carried his country with him in himself, and found hospitality and assistance among the brethren to whom he addressed himself. And the woman that entertained them in their tour or wanderings through France was called by the endearing name of mother—and truly the association was to them a mother, that succoured them when they wanted bread, and enabled them to refuse working for wages below the custom of the trade; that recompensed the industrious and punished the worthless, so that throughout France they were denounced and met with no friendly reception.

The aspirant for initiation was obliged to have finished his apprenticeship; he was instructed in the word, signs, and grips, and attached a ribbon of a particular colour to his cap and button-hole, received a stick of a certain length, earrings that represented the square and compasses, and a mark on the arm and chest. Strange customs prevailed, and still do prevail, in many parts of the Continent, as the writer knows from personal observation, at the setting out of a member for his wanderings. He was accompanied beyond the town by his friends, one of them carrying his knapsack, and another singing the parting song, in the chorus of which all joined. They also carried bottles of beer and cups. Arrived at a certain distance from the town, the beer was drunk and the bottles and cups were thrown into the neighbouring fields. In some trades they hung a bottle to a tree, to symbolise the death of Saint Stephen, all throwing stones at the innocent bottle except he who was about to set out, and who took leave of his companions, saying: "Friends, I take leave of you as the apostles took leave of Christ when they set out to preach the Gospel."

371. Customs among Charcoal-burners and Hewers.—St. Theobald is the patron of the charcoal-burners, one of the oldest trade corporations. There were three degrees—aspirant, master, and hewer. The aspirant was called guepier. A white tablecloth was spread on the ground, and a salt-cellar, a cup of water, a lighted taper, and a cracifix placed on it. The kneeling aspirant swore on the salt and water faithfully to keep the secrets of the association. He was then taught the words by which he could know, and make himself known to, his brethren in the forest, as well as the symbolic meaning of the objects before him: the tablecloth signified the winding-sheet in which every man shall be wrapped up; the taper, the lights burning round the deathbed; the cross, man's redemption; the salt, the theological virtues. This ritual was austere and sad, like the existence of the poor charcoal-burners, whose joys are numbered, but whose griefs and privations are endless: it prevailed in the Jura, the Alps, and the Black Forest. The catechism of the hewers contains passages of pathetic simplicity. Segregated in the immense forest, they fix their eyes on the heaven above and the earth beneath; their religion bears a resemblance to that of the pilots of Homer; earth and heaven, nature and God, such is their worship, whence arises a moral of tender and passionate fraternity.

"Q. Whence come ye, cousin of the oak?
A. From the forest.
Q. Where is your father?
A. Raise your eyes to heaven.
Q. Where is your mother?
A. Oast your eyes on the earth.
Q. What worship do you pay to your father?
A. Homage and respect.
Q. What things do you bestow on your mother?
A. My care during life, and my body afterwards.
Q. If I want help, what will you give me?
A. I will share with you half my day's earnings and my bread of sorrow; you shall rest in my hut and warm yourself at my fire."

How much resignation in this brief dialogue, how much warm affection! Another society of hewers, called the society of the "Prodigal Son," had a still more dismal ritual. Over three doors of a symbolic tower was written: "The past deceives me; the present tortures me; the future terrifies me." A triangle with the letters S.J.P. reminded them of the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the repentance of the Prodigal Son. On the white apron was represented a heart surrounded with black, over which rolled a red tear, a tear of blood and despair. The pangs and wretchedness of life depressed the imagination of these poor woodmen; still they had faith in Time as the repairer of all, and on one of their symbolic objects they wrote, Le temps vient a bout de tout. Another society, of which very little is known, called itself Moins diable que noir; as if to indicate that the blackness of their outside did not prevent goodness of heart.

372. Customs in various other Trades.—The saddlers and shoemakers had their own initiatory practices. In the room where the initiation took place there arose a rough altar, on which were placed a crucifix, tapers, a missal, and whatever is necessary for the celebration of divine service. This was performed, many peculiar phrases being intermingled therewith; after which the neophyte was made acquainted with the rites of the devoir, the signs and passwords, and the symbolic meaning of the forms and jewels. The reception of the hatters in its purifications and funereal myth approached still nearer to the ancient initiations. A stage or dais was erected in a large hall; on the stage were placed a cross, a crown of thorns, a palm branch, and all the instruments of the Passion of Christ. Close by stood a large basin of water. The aspirant represented Christ, and passed through the various episodes of the Passion of the Redeemer; and finally knelt down before the basin, when the water, the baptism of regeneration, was poured on his head.

No doubt the original institutors of this rite had honest and elevated views; but in course of time the whole degenerated into a farce a la Ran-Tan Club. In the reception of the tailors the candidate was led into a room, in the centre of which stood a table covered with a white cloth, whereon were placed a loaf of bread, a salt-cellar overturned, three sugar loaves, and three needles. He also passed through the various stages of the Passion of Christ. He was then conducted to a second room, where a banquet was prepared, and, as it is asserted, pictures were exhibited of the vie galante of three journeymen tailors, pleasing to the senses; which may remind us of the peculiar worship entering into all the ancient mysteries.

These initiations gave a certain importance to the various trade-unions and their members; it was their common patrimony that kept up the esprit de corps, though it was not free from the arrogance and exclusiveness which multiplied rites, intolerance, jealousies, and enmities, that periodically ended in sanguinary struggles—the tragic episodes of a drama, now barbaric, now heroic.

Disturbances at Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux, disgraced the compagnonnage. In the middle of the last century the rivalry between the two sections of the stonemasons of Lyons ended in the expulsion of one of them from that city. and their attempt to return led to the most terrible scenes of violence and bloodshed. Even at the present day these disputes not only between rival trades, but even between members of the same trade, continue. But a few years ago the carpenters of Paris at last settled their quarrel by arranging that the Fellows of Duty shall work only on the right, and the Fellows of Liberty only on the left bank of the Seine, and no member of one society dares to trespass on the ground of the other. Those also newly received into either are badly treated, and called by opprobrious names; for instance, as among German students, renards, foxes. Once these latter would no longer submit to this injustice they seceded and formed a society of their own, calling themselves Compagmym Reriards de la liberte, though they did not think it wrong to treat their aspirants in the same cruel manner in which they had been treated themselves!

How. intense was the hatred once between the Duty and the Liberty workmen may be inferred from a stanza of a song once current among the former:—

"Tons ces Gavots infames

Iront dans les enfers,

Bruler dedans les flammes

Comme des Lucifers."


(These infamous Gavots will go to hell,

Burn in the flames, Like Lucifers).