“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
Welcome to the School of the Renaissance Artisan. A place where we’re going to celebrate the craftsmanship that (literally) built the renaissance. For the record: you are not the students at this school, I am. Or maybe you’re fellow students… I leave that up to you.
This project is at least in part the product of a mid-sentence epiphany that arrived earlier this year as I was re-reading Anthony Bordain’s memoir. In the middle of the quote above, I dropped out of the narrative and my brain made a noise.
I sat back in the chair and took a long sip of my coffee. I turned to my wife, Kristin, who was sitting next to me on the sofa knitting something horrifyingly complicated with yarn the size of sewing thread, and with portentous understatement, I said: “I want to learn all the crafts of the renaissance.”
Kris didn’t drop a stitch or even really look up. After knowing me for twenty years, she’s used to this sort of thing.
“Because I think that the artisans that actually built the renaissance are lost in the glitz of the Shakespeares and the Davincis. Someone needs to speak for the working stiffs that showed up day in and day out, the real craftsmen that were stuck executing the grandiose dreams of the artists and nobles that get all the press! It is time to show the world just how hard it was to live and thrive in that time period! To celebrate the skills and traditions that set the craftsmen apart from the serf and allowed them to build the independence and wealth to educate themselves and their children, giving rise to the middle class that would one day break the backs of the monarchies!”
…is what I wish I’d said.
What I really said was “Because it would be cool.”
“And I could write a book about it.”
“Would anyone read it?”
(Silence while I examine the cat’s teeth and ears as though I’d developed a sudden interest in veterinary science and pretend not to have heard.)
“Well, I guess you read that book about the guy that read the Encyclopedia Britannica.” She shared her favorite There’s No Accounting for Taste look. “All of the crafts of the renaissance?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Knitting? Weaving? Cooking? Brewing? Bookbinding? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?”
“And how long do you expect this to take?”
She had me there. I hazarded a guess. I remembered the Encyclopedia Britannica guy.
“I dunno, a year?”
“A year,” she repeated. She gave me that artfully raised eyebrow that she has perfected over the decades and said something to the effect of “I think you probably need to narrow the scope of your project a bit.”
She was right.
She’s an engineer, so she’s paid to be right about things like this.
When I first envisioned this project it was to explore and examine all the arts and crafts of the renaissance. To learn how to do everything. It was a neat idea. It would be fun to write about. I could do a blog and even a book from something like that. Learning and failing and picking yourself up and carrying on at a breakneck pace is inherently good writing material. Farce scattered with moments of epiphany.
All the same, she was right — if I ever expected to finish this project of mine in a defined period, I would need a plan.
I hate plans. I prefer to just set a goal and run until I reach it.
Screw plans. What I really needed was a framework to hang this thing from, a goal to strive toward that would have inherent boundaries. A goal that in and of itself would limit how far afield I could run.
You know… a plan.
So I went online and poked around. I checked some books out of the library. I walked around the project and kicked the tires to see if the whole thing would collapse. I putzed around and set up a blog. Designed a website. Created a YouTube account (because why not?). A Facebook page. Sketched out some of the projects I wanted to get out of this. Did all the things writers do when they want to feel productive without actually producing anything.
In the end, a month had passed and I still didn’t have any idea how I was going to do this in a way that would give a definite finish line. All the crafts of the renaissance? How would I measure that? What am I going to do, build a cathedral?
That’s about the time I picked up my friend Maggie Secara’s book and read the chapters about Elizabethan tradecrafts. It turns out that during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), there were around 54 trade guilds (“Livery Companies” as they are called) in operation.
Coincidentally, there are 52 weeks in a year.
Coincidentally, there are 52 weeks in a year.
That’s the kind of math even I can do. Enough of those guilds overlap that I can knock some of them out two at a time! A ready-made framework if ever there was one!
So that’s what we’re going to do. For one year, I’m going to delve into each of the trade guilds of 16th century England. I’m going to bring you along as I learn some new skills and hopefully we’re all going to learn something. As I go I will share with you the resources I’m using, building a sort of virtual library of 16th century source material and related sundry for anyone else who wants to acquire these skills.
If nothing else, I invite you to watch me fail in a spectacular and possibly amusing manner.
A few of these projects will overlap or build one upon the other. Some I already know how to do. Some might be a bit hard to manage. There’s a grocer’s guild; not sure how that’s going to work. And a goldsmith’s company, a voice that sounds suspiciously like The Engineer’s whispers in my head. Have you seen the price of gold lately?
I’ll figure it out. I know people. I know people with skills that deserve to be appreciated and trumpeted, people keeping alive crafts and skills that would die out completely were it not for them.
So I invite you to please join me here as I take you with me back to school in a possibly impossible attempt to become a real renaissance man. Not a Davinci or a Michelangelo, but a ‘Bill, the man who fixes the roof when it rains’. Because as I said, I think we forget that the renaissance wasn’t just artists and soldiers and kings and popes, but a groundswell of normal, ordinary people advancing their lot generation by generation, building themselves up through the sweat of their own brows and the callouses of their own hands and, for better or worse, creating the modern world.
Between now and January, this blog will track my preparations for the project and on January 2nd (give me a day to sleep in, won’t you?) school will be in session.
I'm sharing this around!
Thanks, Maggie! The more the merrier!
Goldsmiths did not work just with gold you know; some worked in other metals, some worked stone, some enameled. This is going to be fun to follow along, and I may have a few skills that could help. Call on me if I can help. Louise Pass
Let me help! I am not particularly skilled in any applicable craft aside from cookery, but I am an excellent historical researcher, am well placed geographically and have helpful friends working as archivists in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
Each of the livery companies almost certainly has a website. I know the goldsmith's company does because I spent some time there for Dragon Ring. Always worth a look as a starting point, at least.
They certainly do. I have a spreadsheet on my computer that's compiling contact information for each of the guilds.
[…] you might recall, this project began with a mid-sentence epiphany when I read the following paragraph in Anthony Bourdain’s […]