Transmission of useful knowledge in texts written by craftsmen. Two case studies from the Holy Roman Empire
Julia Bruch, University of Cologne
For mastering a craft successfully, not only talent and suitability of skills were required but also a solid education.1 The knowledge required for the practice of a craft was passed on in workshops (Reith 2005, 356–58). According to Mokyr, the practical and technical knowledge conveyed in workshops can be defined as useful knowledge in the meaning of «prescriptive knowledge» (Mokyr 2011, 4). Prescriptive knowledge of craftsmanship has to be transmitted from one individual to another and is mostly embodied and tacit knowledge, which is difficult, forbidden, or even impossible to write down. Craftsmen were forced to learn, depending on the degree of difficulty, through countless repetitions of the concrete activity. Instructed and, if necessary, corrected by a master of the profession directly in the workshop. Complex crafts such as gemstone cutting or the plating of harnesses entailed comparatively many years of apprenticeship but also a later field of activity that could be very lucrative.4 Nevertheless, craftsmen usually went through the city schools and learned to read and write in the vernacular and to do calculus. Some also learned Latin (Bernoulli 1890). It can be seen that guilds used written documents for legal and organizational regulations. In guild books kept by masters since the 15th century we can find rules, statutes, lists of members, accounts, and so on. The written form was therefore directly related to the guild’s organization and administration; concrete craft knowledge about how the respective products were manufactured was not recorded. Merely in the margins, in the guilds’ pragmatic literature, and in the legal writing of the city council, knowledge about the craft activity was at times revealed. For example, if a certain type of craftsmanship was to be used or not used, a certain product was to be made or not made. For instance, the Venetian gem cutters were not allowed to produce glass, the textile producers were required to use a certain number of threads, and the Augsburg harness makers had to produce in Augsburg (Brugger-Koch 1985, 4–6; Gamber-Becher 1980, 44 f.).
Nevertheless, the focus was not on the transmission of craft knowledge but on the product’s quality assurance. However, it is evident that writing was widely used in the workshops as well (Rösler 2010). Chronical writings display that craftsmen were able to acquire a complex written form in order to compose intricate writings beyond pragmatic administrative action and bookkeeping. Last but not least, the late medieval and early modern Meistersingers show that literary writing was even encouraged among craftsmen (Bruch 2019; Hölscher 1903; Dehnert 2017). Thus, knowledge was transmitted orally and practically and it was argued that this oral transmission, flanked by legal regulations, led to a stagnation of innovation. Because useful knowledge was always passed on within a workshop, it was assumed that it proceeded very statically and that innovations only came about slowly through testing and reinventing evolutionarily in each individual workshop. The craftsmen only learned what their master knew. However, this was countered by the fact that the guilds had found their own way out of the dilemma. The problem was not solved through writing but through craftsmen who had completed their training. They would work for other masters in foreign workshops and thus travel through the area. This constant exchange between cities and regions helped to spread innovations and even encouraged new developments. Thus, useful knowledge and skills were transported via individuals5 and the exchange of knowledge took place beyond the individual workshops. Moreover, a lively social and professional exchange due to the great geographical mobility of the journeymen, who moved from town to town and worked in other people’s workshops, can be proven (likewise through voluntary and involuntary long-term migration). However, there were also efforts to protect economic advantages that certain techniques brought with them from exchange. In Nuremberg, for instance, the exchange of staff with the outside world was prohibited (Stahlschmidt 1971, 161–63). In the long run, this strategy proved to be less efficient as external impulses were less intense than in cities that promoted exchange (Reith 2008, 141).
In sum, the skills that craftsmen would have needed to record their knowledge were given since the late middle ages. Why didn’t craftsmen write about it? The first answer is simple: it was not necessary as the knowledge was transmitted to the apprentice by the master. It was practical knowledge, which did not provide any benefits when put into writing. However, this narrative is contrasted by countless surviving craftsmen’s manuals mainly for building, fireworks, war machines, painting, and barbering. These books convey knowledge about craftsmanship and were printed early, at the latest in the 16th century. Furthermore, these written and printed recipes and technical books became accessible beyond the own craft. If these books were apparently not needed for knowledge exchange within a craft, why were they written? And vice versa: did the knowledge conveyed play any role for the transfer of useful knowledge and spread of innovation within the craft community and beyond? These questions are related to actual debates about artisan writing and the transfer of craftmanship knowledge.
The sources have so far been rather neglected for economic-historical questions while interesting results have already been delivered by studies in art and architectural history, costume history, military history, history of technology, history of medicine, and history of knowledge (Leng 2002a; Smith 2010; Holzer 2021; Lindgren 2000; Oltrogge 2013; Schütte 2019, 1313).10 I would like to apply this cultural-historical research on handicrafts and writing to questions of economic history. In this article, I would like to approach the answer to the raised questions with the help of two micro-studies on manuscripts written by craftsmen from the 16th century: a manuscript containing information about plate harnesses written by an etcher from Augsburg and a book about casting techniques written by a bell founder from Munich. For the analysis I will use the historical-critical method combined with the manuscripts’ analysis. For a better understanding of the manuscripts’ variability, I rely on two detailed studies. I have chosen two manuscripts which come directly from the workshops of the craftsmen who wrote them and can be directly linked to their products. This direct link between product and writing is not always verifiable. Moreover, both crafts belong to those metal crafts that specialized in the production of expensive luxury objects.