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Your Genealogy Tour de France

Was Your Ancestor a Compagnon du Tour de France?



We have a really beautiful shell of an old house that we have been trying to flog for years.  It is in a village of historic preservation, so its exterior charm, as with that of every other building in the village, cannot be altered without permission from the bureau that protects the nation's architectural heritage (though one can do whatever one likes with the interior). It cannot be altered but it must be maintained. Recently, a hail storm of impressive force assaulted the village and every single roof, including ours, suffered some damage. Roofers have waiting lists of two years. For our village, not just any roofer will do; it must be one who has the skills of the old days and knows the safety standards of the new. Ideally, he would be a Compagnon de France

The Compagnons du Tour de France began to develop in the fifteenth century as an organization with  a singular structure. At that time, money was scare and life very insecure. Many masters had to let their apprentices and workers go; and many workers chose to abandon their contracts and leave their masters. Some, beginning with saddlers and cobblers, began to travel from town to town, seeking work, for years at a time. That, in itself was not so unusual, but this group created a system of aiding one another and building trust in their skills. 

They created a network of inns where they lived and met to invest new Compagnons into the club. They aided members who could not work because of injury or illness; they had a sort of unemployment insurance amongst themselves. As a group they were able to insist on a decent wage for all, and they fought for decent working conditions. Getting carried away, as such groups do, they had rules, they had ceremonies and rituals, they had secret handshakes or the equivalent in order to recognize members, and they welcomed one another as fellow travellers. By the nineteenth century, they wore fancy ribbons and carried a distinctive cane.

They also tried to force masters of the trades to hire only Compagnons and even to chose which member to send to which master's workshop. In return, they guaranteed the masters that the Compagnons they employed would be honest and well-qualified. As can be imagined, they were not legal, often not tolerated and had trouble with the police.

The key element of the Compagnons du Tour de France that gave it an air of romance and differentiated it from other groups of workers was its Tour de France, the travelling from place to place, which they called their "Devoir" ("duty" or, in modern parlance, "homework"). The purpose was to work with different masters and to learn one's skill or métier very well. The travel was not done only on foot, but more often by riverboat; later it was done by train and now, obviously, by car or probably truck. The stages of the travel were roughly from thirty to forty kilometers apart. The cities that became centres for the Compagnons are Orléans, Blois, Tours, Angers, Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Nîmes, Toulouse, Agen, Avignon, Marseilles, Lyon, Troyes and of course, Paris. Each profession in each city had a set of skills that had to be learned, tested and proved. The more one travelled, the better one's qualifications. 

Examples of types of skills in the Compagnons du Tour de France, in addition to the saddlers and cobblers mentioned above are:

  • nail makers
  • blacksmiths
  • stonemasons
  • tanners
  • weavers
  • plasterers
  • roofers
  • coopers
  • printers
  • locksmiths
  • carpenters

Finding an ancestor who was a Compagnon de France would depend on your good luck in discovering a cane in the attic and your ancestor having been in one of the professions above, or one very similar, as well as having lived in some of the cities mentioned. The Musée de Compagnonnage, in Tours, has a genealogy section on its website. The Centre de la mémoire des Compagnons du Devoir may answer certain queries. Court records of the early nineteenth century may reveal your ancestor via one of the many disputes between them at that time. Archives concerning police surveillance may also tell of your Compagnon ancestor, though, again, you would need also to know where he went on his travels.

The director of the Musée de Compagnonnage, Laurent Bastard, says, however, that the best source of information will be in your family's old documents, so check them very, very carefully. If you find you are descended from such a one, be proud, for it was and still is a qualification that commands enormous respect.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy