Proposal preview

The skilled workforce in the pre-modern world

One of the questions underlying the Great Divergence debate, is the significance of industrial skills. Claims have been made about industrial products in various parts of the world, but systematic comparisons are still underdeveloped. Why, for a long time, was porcelain only produced in Asia, and did it prove very difficult to imitate? Why was the quality of Indian cotton textiles superior to European products? Why, indeed, were Europeans keen to import Asian industrial goods, and not the other way around? Did this have anything to do with ‘quality’, and if so, was skill a factor in this?
In recent years, much work has been done on the acquisition of skills through both formal and informal training. During the last ten years we have acquired much new knowledge about apprentices. Research on guilds has also brought to light much new evidence about the masters. In this panel we want to move the discussion to the ‘men in the middle’, the journeymen who are currently largely neglected by the historiography, despite forming the great majority of the skilled workforce and arguably providing one of the key mechanisms for the dissemination of innovations.
The panel draws together a group of experts to reconsider the contribution and status of the journeymen and the organization of journeywork across pre-modern Europe. Papers may explore a range of questions: the structure of skilled wages; the formal and informal definition of the status of journeyman; their quantitative importance in urban industries; the social profile and origins of journeymen; geographical and social mobility by journeymen; or the relationship between journeywork and family formation. They may also test the existing hypotheses about journeymen: did journeywork move from a stage in a life-cycle to a permanent status over the 17th or 18th centuries as opportunities for mobility to mastership declined? Was journeymen’s mobility as high across Europe as suggested by earlier studies? To what extent were journeymen across Europe able to rely on their membership of organizations such as compagnonnages to sustain mobility and police access to labour markets? Did corporate bodies such as guilds increasingly marginalize journeymen over this period?


  • Maarten Prak, Universiteit Utrecht,, Netherlands
  • Patrick H. Wallis, London School of Economics,, UK

Session members

  • Anna Bellavitis, Université de Rouen,
  • Mans Jansson, Uppsala Universitet,
  • Corine Maitte, Université Paris-Est, Marne-la-Vallée,
  • José Nieto Sanchez, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid,
  • Juanjo Romero, Universitat de Barcelona,
  • Leonard N. Rosenband, Utah State University,
  • Ruben Schalk, Universiteit Utrecht,
  • Judy Stephenson, University of Oxford,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Maarten Prak, Utrecht University,
  • Patrick H. Wallis, London School of Economics,