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Compagnonage

This is the name which is given in France to certain mystical associations formed between workmen of the same or an analogous handicraft, whose object is to afford mutual assistance to the members. It was at one time considered among handicraftsmen as the Second Degree of the novitiate, before arriving at the maitrise, or mastership, the first being, of course, that of apprentice; and workmen were admitted into it only after five years of apprenticeship, and on the production of a skillfully constructed piece of work, which was called their chef-d'oeuvre (the French for masterpiece).

Tradition gives to Compage a Hebraic origin, which to some extent assimilates it to the traditional history of Freemasonry as springing out of the Solomonic Temple. It is, however, certain that it arose, in the twelfth century, out of a part of the corporation of workmen. These, who prosecuted the labors of their Craft from province to province, could not shut their eyes to the narrow policy of the gilds or corporations, which the masters were constantly seeking to make more exclusive.

Thence they perceived the necessity of forming for themselves associations or confratemities, whose protection should accompany them in all their laborious wanderings, and secure to them employment and fraternal intercourse when arriving in strange towns.

The Compagnons du Tour, which has been the title assumed by those who are the members of the brotherhoods of Compagnonage, have legends, which have been traditionally transmitted from age to age, by which, like the Freemasons, they trace the origin of their association to the Temple of King Solomon.

These legends are three in number, for the different societies of Compagnonage recognize three different founders, and hence made three different associations , which are: 1. The Children of Solomon. 2. The Children of Matre Jacques, 3. The Children of Pre Soubise.

These three societies or classes of the Compagnons are irreconcilable enemies and reproach each other with the imaginary contests of their supposed founders.

The Children of Solomon pretend that King Salomon gave them their devoir, or gild, as a reward for their labors at the Temple, and that he had there limited them into a brotherhood. The Children of Matre Jacques (the French name for Master James), say that their founder, who was the son of a celebrated architect named Jacquain, or Jacques, was one of the chief Masters of Solomon, and a colleague of Hiram. He was born in a small city of Gaul named Carte, and now St. Romille, but which we should in vain look for on the maps.

From the age of fifteen he was employed in stone cutting. He traveled in Greece, where he learned sculpture and architecture; afterward went to Egypt, and thence to Jerusalem, where he constructed two pillars with so much skill that he was immediately received as a Master of the Craft. Matre Jacques and his colleague Pre Soubise, after the labors of the Temple were completed, resolved to go together to Gaul, swearing that they would never separate; but the union did not last very long in consequence of the jealousy excited in Pre Soubise by the ascendency of Matre Jacques over their disciples. They parted, and the former landed at Bordeaux, and the latter at Marseilles. One day, Matre Jacques, being far away from his disciples, was attacked by ten of those of Pre Soubise. To save himself, he fled into- a marsh, where he sustained himself from sinking by holding on to the reeds, and was eventually rescued by his disciples. He -then retired to St. Baume, but being soon after betrayed by a disciple, named, according to some, Jeron, and according to others, Jamais, he was assassinated by five blows of a dagger, in the forty-seventh year of his age, four years and nine days after his departure from Jerusalem. On his robe was subsequently found a reed which he wore in memory of his having been saved in the marsh, and thenceforth his disciples adopted the reed as the emblem of their Order.

Pre Soubise is not generally accused of having taken any part in the assassination. The tears which he shed over the tomb of his colleague removed in part the suspicions which had at first rested on him. The traitor who committed the crime, subsequently, in a moment of deep contrition, cast himself into a well, which the disciples of Matre Jacques filled up with stones. The relics of the martyr were long preserved in a sacred chest, and, when his disciples afterward separated into different crafts, his hat was given to the hatters, his tunic to the stone-cutters, his sandals to the locksmiths, his mantle to the joiners, his girdle to the carpenters, and his staff to the cartwrights.

According to another tradition, Matre Jacques was no other than Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars, who had collected under his banner some of the Children of Solomon that had separated from the parent society, and who, about 1268 A.D., conferred upon them a new devoir or gild .

Pre Soubise is said, in the same legend, to have been a Benedictine monk, who gave to the carpenters some special statutes. This second legend is generally recognized as more truthful than the first. From this it follows that the division of the society of Compagnonage into three classes dates from the thirteenth century, and that the Children of Matre Jacques and of Pre Soubise are more modern than the Children of Solomon, from whom they were a dismemberment.

The organization of these associations of Compagnonage reminds one very strongly of the somewhat similar organization of the Stonemasons of Germany and of other countries in the Middle Ages. To one of these classes every handicraftsman in France was expected to attach himself. There was an initiation, and a system of Degrees which were four in number: the Accepted Companion, the Finished Companion, the Initiated Companion, and, lastly, the Affiliated Companion. There were also signs and words as modes of recognition, and decorations, which varied in the several devoirs ; but to all, the square and compasses was a common symbol.

As soon as a Craftsman had passed through his apprenticeship, he joined one of these gilds, and commenced his journey over France, which was called the tour de France, in the course of which he visited the principal cities, towns, and villages, stopping for a time wherever he could secure employment. In almost every town there was a house of call, presided over always by a woman, who was affectionately called la Mre, or the Mother, and the same name was given to the house itself. There the Compagnons held their meetings and annually elected their officers, and traveling workmen repaired there to obtain food and lodging, and the necessary information which might lead to employment. When two Companions met on the road, one of them addressed the other with the topage, or challenge, being a formula of words, the conventional reply to which would indicate that the other was a member of the same devoir. If such was the case, friendly greetings ensued. But if the reply was not satisfactory, and it appeared that they belonged to different associations, a war of words, and even of blows, was the result. Such was formerly the custom, but through the evangelic labors of Agricol Perdiquier, a journeyman joiner of Avignon, who traveled through France inculcating lessons of brotherly love, a better spirit later on existed.

In each locality the association has a chief, who is annually elected by ballot at the General Assembly of the Craft. He is called the First Compagnon of Dignity. He presides over the meetings, which ordinarily take place on the first Sunday of every month, and represents the society in its intercourse with other Bodies, -with the Masters, or with the municipal authorities.

Compagnonage has been exposed, at various periods, to the persecutions of the Church and the State, as well as to the opposition of the Corporations of Masters, to which, of course, its designs were antagonistic, because it opposed their monopoly. Unlike them, and particularly the Corporation of Freemasons, it was not under the protection of the Church. The practice of its mystical receptions was condemned by the Faculty of Theology at Paris, in 1655 A.D., as impious. But a hundred years before, in 1541, a decree of Francis I had interdicted the Compagnons du Tour from binding themselves by an oath, from wearing swords or canes, from assembling in a greater number than five outside of their Masters' houses, or from having banquets on any occasion. During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the parliaments were continually interposing their power against the associations of Compagnonage, as well as against other fraternities. The effects of these persecutions, although embarrassing, were not absolutely disastrous. In spite of them, Compagnonage was never entirely dissolved, although a few of the trades abandoned their devoirs ; some of which, however---such as that of the shoemakers-were subsequently removed.

And at more recent times the gilds of the workmen existed in France having lost, it is true, much of their original code of religious dogmas and symbols, and, although not recognized by the law, always tolerated by the municipal authorities and undisturbed by the police.

To the Masonic scholar, the history of these devoirs or gilds is peculiarly interesting. In nearly all of them the Temple of Solomon prevails as a predominant symbol, while the square and compass, their favorite and constant device, would seem, in some way, to identify them with Freemasonry so far as respects the probability of a common origin.

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