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Apprenticeship, training and guilds in pre-industrial Europe

Patrick Wallis ()

No 5064, Working Papers from Economic History Society

Abstract: "The relationship between apprenticeship and the acquisition of craft skills in preindustrial Europe has recently attracted interest after a long period of neglect. The most ambitious claim, proposed by Larry Epstein, is that the regulation of apprenticeship contracts was the primary reason for the emergence of guilds. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those, such as James Farr, who have argued that apprenticeship was as much about acquiring cultural as technical skills. In this paper, I re-examine the problem of allocating the costs of training supplied through apprenticeship in preindustrial Europe, and their relationship to broader patterns of labour organisation. It has frequently been suggested that apprenticeship contracts structure the distribution of training costs so that masters reclaim the costs they incurred in training and paying apprentices during their early years by giving them below market wages in their later years of service. In such a situation, guilds might be of significant use in enforcing these contracts and preventing opportunism by apprentices and masters. Here I argue that such a situation would be unsustainable given what we know of apprentice’s opportunism and the characteristics of acquiring craft skills. Very high rates of non-completion, often extending beyond 50% of apprentices, can be identified in most places for which we have data; there is little indication that apprentice contracts were successfully enforced. Given this, I argue that the allocation of the costs of training was, indeed must be, successfully dealt with during apprenticeship through a short term accumulation and distribution of costs and benefits between master and apprentice that reduced as far as possible the costs of opportunism by either party at any point in the term of service. This can, I suggest, be related both to the nature of learning tacit skills, and to the imbalance of incentives on masters to teach and on apprentices to learn. The nature of training in apprenticeship was such that it minimised the costs of masters and put the burden of learning on apprentices; evidence from anthropological studies of contemporary apprenticeship can be used to indicate possible interpretations of the very fragmentary data that survives on the actual content of preindustrial apprenticeship. Finally, the reason for guilds to become involved in the control of apprenticeship are discussed. In this regard, I show that although apprenticeship did potentially present a major problem of opportunism, it was not largely dealt with through guild enforcement. There is little evidence of guilds successfully carrying out this role, and little reason to expect them to have been effective at it."

JEL-codes: N00 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2005-04
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