Failure or Flexibility?: Apprenticeship Training in Premodern Europe
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Failure or Flexibility?
Apprenticeship Training in Premodern Europe

Pre-industrial apprenticeship is often considered more stable than its nineteenth- and twentieth-century counterparts, apparently because of the more durable relationships between masters and apprentices. Nevertheless, recent studies have suggested that many of those who started apprenticeships did not finish them. New evidence about more than 7,000 contracts across several cities in three countries finds that, for a number of reasons, a substantial minority of youths entering apprenticeship contracts failed to complete them. By allowing premature exits, cities and guilds sustained labor markets by lowering the risks of entering long training contracts. Training flexibility was a pragmatic response to labor-market tensions.

In the late nineteenth century, France, the United Kingdom, and many other Western countries faced a “crisis in apprenticeship” that many believed to have been caused by the “greed” of apprentices quitting their contracts to earn wages and by the venality of masters who exploited rather than trained youths. Today, even in Switzerland, Germany, and Australia—countries where apprenticeship remains important—researchers and politicians worry about high levels of premature terminations. Quitting affects 20 to 25 percent of contracts, rising to 40 percent in some industries. Relative outsiders, such as the children of poor families or immigrants, face bleaker prospects than youths with connections, but to many commentators, youths in general face too great a risk that their apprenticeship will end in failure.1 [End Page 131]

Those commenting on the challenges that beset contemporary apprenticeship sometimes draw an explicit comparison between its instability and an early modern “golden age” when apprenticeship was a stronger, if not necessarily more socially inclusive, institution. In their textbook on the economics of apprenticeship, for example, Smits and Stromback summarize a clear picture of pre-industrial apprenticeship, with fixed duration, restrictions on unilateral termination, and strong incentives to enforce those provisions—incentives primarily provided by guilds and the legal system. These ideas have influenced political debates about how to support apprenticeship. In 2010, Michael Hayes, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Skills, even called for a rebirth of guilds to help restore the status of apprenticeship. Slightly more than a century earlier, Denman, another member of Parliament, lamented that the “collapse of the gilds” destroyed an “efficient system of technical training” in which the “conditions of employment were . . . minutely regulated.”2

The image of early modern apprenticeship in these discussions is rooted in the scholarly literature. Many economic historians emphasized the sturdiness of early modern apprenticeships. Social historians analyzing how the young were socialized through apprenticeship similarly imagined them as embedded in durable relationships with their masters, maintaining that breakdowns often implied a household crisis. Denman’s comments accompanied the first serious academic [End Page 132] book about English apprenticeship. However, few studies provided a longitudinal view of early modern apprenticeship that would allow a proper evaluation of how frequently quitting occurred or how likely apprentices were to attain mastership directly. Several of the handful of longitudinal studies that have recently appeared have found surprisingly elevated levels of early termination. Studies identifying the large shortfall between the number of new masters and the number of new apprentices also give us cause to suspect that apprenticeship may not always have been durable, although they usually cannot tell us why youths did not become masters, or when they strayed from the path toward mastership.3

This article examines the trajectories that youths followed from the beginning of apprenticeship to mastership in four early modern cities—Lyon, Amsterdam, Leiden, and Shrewsbury—with diverse economic contexts and institutional settings. It focuses on two key stages—the completion of apprenticeship contracts and entry to mastership—taking account of how many youths left apprenticeship early, and (for some) when they left. What traits did those who stayed have in common and to what extent did social capital influence the outcomes of training? Finally, how many, and which, youths eventually achieved full membership in their guild by becoming a master?

These questions about apprenticeship connect to two wider debates in economic and social history. First, they offer us another way to assess the openness of premodern...