In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Artisans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Wages and Labor Markets
  • Technical Knowledge
  • Political Studies
  • Intellectual Studies
  • Journeymen

Renaissance and Reformation Artisans
James Farr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0067


The historiography of artisans and, to a lesser extent, apprentices in early modern Europe has experienced a renaissance of its own since the mid-1980s. Although a great deal of this literature has focused on the 18th century and therefore lies beyond the chronological scope of this article, a substantial body of important scholarship exists during the Renaissance and the Reformation. Within this literature a handful of classic studies written before the 1980s still prove useful, but the overwhelming number of articles and books to appear since then has completely transformed the field. Conflicted analyses of the craft economy and especially of the role of the institution of the guild within it have led the way, largely because of the “revisionist” debate that continues to engage historians’ energies. Traditionally, historians viewed guilds, because of their regulatory and monopolistc powers, as impediments to economic growth, but revisionist historians have challenged that position. They have found from archival research that the craft economy experienced significant economic growth during the early modern era, that guilds had little to do with it, and that the regulatory and monopolistic practices of guilds were relatively ineffective. This position has in turn been challenged by archival findings that guilds did in fact contribute to growth through innovative economic practices. Many entries in this article address these varying positions, but social, cultural, and gendered approaches to the artisanal experience are also well represented. Geographically, the historiography disproportionately centers on the British Isles, France, Italy, Germany, and more recently the Low Countries. Studies on Spanish artisans are sparse, and their eastern European and Scandinavian counterparts are only slightly better represented in the literature. A global, comparative perspective appears faintly on the horizon and likely will inform more artisanal studies in the future. Judging from the flurry of studies that emerged in the first decade of the 21st century, the historical interest in early modern artisans is vibrant and promises to be so for the foreseeable future.

General Overviews

Overviews of the history of European artisans are surprisingly scarce, with Farr 2000 the only example since the early years of the 20th century. Swanson 1989 offers an important general view on medieval English artisans, and the classic studies Hauser 2010 and Franklin 2004 (originally published in 1909 and 1906, respectively) are still useful. More recently, works such as Ehmer and Lis 2009 and Farr 2008 have begun to readdress the meaning of work and the place of the artisan within that intellectual framework, providing valuable entry points to the study of artisans.

  • Ehmer, Josef, and Catharina Lis, eds. The Idea of Work in Europe from Antiquity to Modern Times. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    This volume is an important contribution to a neglected topic. The contributors examine work from a variety of perspectives expressed in literature, art, and economic theory. Especially important here are the contributions on artisans, both their place within the socioeconomic system and their sense of the meaning of work and its importance to their identity.

  • Farr, James R. Artisans in Europe, 1300–1914. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    This book is an introduction to the history of work in general and of artisans in particular in Europe from 1300 to 1914. It focuses on many aspects of artisan culture, including economic and guild life, and discusses social, rebellious, ceremonial, and leisure experience as well. Women, masters, journeymen, apprentices, and nonguild workers all receive substantial treatment.

  • Farr, James R. The Work of France: Labor and Culture in Early Modern Times, 1350–1800. Critical Issues in History: World and International History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

    This book offers a synthesis of the ways men and women worked in early modern France and of what their labor meant to them and to society. The text demonstrates how the shifting and often contradictory forces of an emerging market economy immersed in a hierarchical society shaped the experience and the meanings of work.

  • Franklin, Alfred. Dictionnaire historique des arts, métiers, et professions exercés dans Paris depuis le treizième siècle. Edited by Jean-Cyrille Godefroy. New York: Burt Franklin, 2004.

    Originally published in 1906. Organized in dictionary format, this book’s entries contain useful and often anecdotal information. The focus is France— essentially Paris—but it remains a valuable reference work.

  • Hauser, Henri. Ouvriers du temps passé. Paris: Nabu, 2010.

    Originally published in 1909. This book is a classic, pioneering work on artisans and wage earners in preindustrial France by one of the earliest and most distinguished historians of labor in the 20th century.

  • Swanson, Heather. Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

    Covering the late 13th to the early 16th centuries, this book examines the organization of work; patterns of production and consumption; and political relations between artisans, merchants, and municipal rulers. The author finds that artisans responded to increased demand and consumption by increasing and diversifying production and engaging in entrepreneurial activities that challenged guild strictures of the time.

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