100th Tour de France – It’s a Medieval Affair

This year’s Tour de France, the 100th edition of this world famous race, starts Saturday June 29th 2013 in Porto Vecchio on Corsica — a first time for the event — and runs for 3,500 kms (2,200 miles) through 21 main stage towns to end in Paris on Sunday July 21st.

The Tour de France hits its 100th edition amid promises that the sweat and champagne will flow copiously.

Although the cycle race today –with 21 stages in this edition ranging from 25 to 242 kms in length, six mountain stretches and four summit finishes — is certainly the best-known Tour de France, the original idea goes back to medieval times.  For the first Tour de France was the pathway to a skilled craft trodden by thousands of French artisans or journeymen… and it is one that continues today.

These journeymen travelled the Compagnons routes, training initially for and with a closed shop of skilled cathedral building experts who jealously guarded the secrets of their crafts. They moved from cathedral to cathedral, learning their skills from local crafts and tradesmen on the sites of these monumental buildings as part of their apprenticeship. In the process master craftsmen passed on skills and local knowledge while sharing the companionship and pride which still today are the values underlying the revived Compagnons de la Tour de France tradition.

The Compagnons or journeymen of the first Tour de France

A living example of this tradition is currently under way at Guédelon in the département of the Yonne (89) where craftsmen and artisans are embarked on a 25-year project to construct a castle  using the techniques and tools of the time. The Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon is the first castle of its kind to be built since the 13th century and the first medieval castle built anywhere for 500 years.

Meanwhile frenetic preparations are underway for the official Tour de France cycle race where the skills required include levels of stamina and fitness never dreamed of by the earlier precursors of the route.  Ahead of the Tour riders across France are being invited to participate in the Fête du Tour: everyone on his bike on Saturday, June 15. This will take place in all 21 towns hosting the 2013 stages. Rides will be organised here for cyclists of all levels and abilities. The boldest will be able to ride the whole of a stage course but shorter rides, from 10 to 50 km will also be organised for those keen to experience firsthand what the professionals go through. There will be no competition or classification for  Fête du Tour events which are purely for enjoyment and pleasure say the organisers. They suggest  cyclists who participate can enjoy all the thrills of a leisurely Tour De France ride on their own bikes or make use of the Paris Vélibs type hire-bikes found in many towns and cities around the country.

Christian Prudhomme the director of the tour notes that the centenary ride will be used as a global showcase for French tourist attractions with massive publicity available via global TV coverage and special spin-off events. Download a pdf map of the complete route here. 

The Tour de France Map for 2013

But while the cycle race is today probably the best known Tour de France, the origins of the Tour go back to around the time of the founding of the Knights Templar (1118) — which as the town of Troyes in the Champagne region of France proudly proclaims is one of their contributions to Medieval French history. 

Troyes today describes itself as the cradle of international trade in the 12th and 13th centuries and says the famous medieval Champagne fairs attracted tradesmen from all over Europe and the Orient, providing a link to the medieval guilds and hence the compagnonnage tradition. This today is reflected by its ‘Maison des Compagnons‘ or Guild House which opened in 1966 with the aim of sustaining and developing French craft skills.

Troyes is also today the site of the first European Craft University and since 1989 in collaboration with the Compagnons du Devoir, Troyes has been home to an institute training craftsmen in traditions that stem directly from the first Tour de France.

Insignia of the Guilds of the Tour de France

Among the attractions of the Tour de France apprenticeship today — where the apprentice learns his skills from master craftsmen in their own fields and in the various regions of the country —  is the character-building, companionship and solidarity instilled in the participants. “The Tour de France is essential to the professional and personal development of the young ‘journeyman apprentice’ as he learns to become a Companion of the Tour de France. He follows ancient traditions and does so at his own pace, mentored and looked after by a network of guilds, and master craftsmen who by tradition are obliged to house and feed these apprentices as they undertake their tour, just as was done for them when they too started out on the physical trek of the apprenticeship route”, according to the Compagnons.Org website

The Compagnons Museum in Toulouse offers a visual history of the guilds in France and the modern revival of the tradition. As its website notes:  “Guild members regard this museum as a place that reflects the culture and traditions of an apprenticeship model that has a special place in the world of tomorrow’s technologies. Who are the Journeymen of the Tour de France? What is their ideal, what are their symbols? What did they bring to society? What do they do today? So many questions about a movement that is centuries old and still active today are answered here in our permanent exhibition”. The museum  open to visitors at no charge, can be found here:  Le Musée des Compagnons – 12/14, rue Tripière – 31000 TOULOUSE – Tél. 05 62 47 41 77

The Toulouse Museum of Compagnons is found in Tripemongers Street

There are three trade guild organisations today: Federated Guild of Building Trades – www.compagnons.org; European Training Institute for Journeymen on the Tour of France – www.institutdescompagnons.org and Workers’ Association of the Journeymen of Duty on the Tour of France  – www.compagnons-du-devoir.com. 

One of the websites describes the history of the Compagnons du Devoir as follows: “The first written indications of the existence of the Compagnons are found in the 12th century following the Council of Troyes. Manuscripts mention that the most skilled workers, including those working in the construction of cathedrals are “Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of the Holy Duty to God)”. The members of these guilds obtained franchises, that is to say, the right to move freely from site to site. They also learned about the Templar knowledge of descriptive geometry and graphic composition of forces, which allowed them to construct buildings. This science of Cathedral builders was kept absolutely secret, transmitted by word of mouth, from teacher to student as it was an introduction to a lucrative business and not to be disclosed to those who were unworthy. This explains the extraordinary quality of cathedrals constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries and rightly regarded as architectural gems of the country. The guilds then were the home of skilled crafts and tradesmen who built cathedrals — Stonecutters, Masons, Carpenters, Locksmiths, Joiners, Plasterers and Roofers. The economic slump that followed the end of the First French Empire encouraged these artisans to seek employment outside their home region. Thus the Tour de France of Cathedrals was replaced by the Tour de France of Employment where everyone could increase the amount of professional knowledge by learning multiple techniques and know-how, and in turn this became the peak period of the Compagnons de le Tour de France. By the end of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution had wrought great damage to the guilds and only a handful kept up the tradition between the two World Wars. But today they have been revived in the pursuit of a fresh ideal.

“The need to excel in developing capacity both in skills and knowledge is the core of the guilds today and offers a limitless field for practice and the teaching of fellowship. The values it highlights – brotherhood, fairness, love of effort for the common good – means the companionship meets the expectations of young people in love with an ideal. The rituals, symbols, customs, which are sometimes considered passé, are there to mark the continuity with those who have walked the same path in centuries past.”

One of the most recent examples of the success of the revived and modernised guilds system was the recent installation of a new set of hand-crafted bells to mark the 850th anniversary of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: “The 8 bells of the North Tower were cast by the CORNILLE-HAVARD Bell Foundry in Villedieu-les-Poêles (département de la Manche, France), while the great bell, Marie, was cast by the ROYAL EIJSBOUTS Bell Foundry in Asten (Netherlands)”.

A photo essay of the work involved can be found here (for an English version try Google translate) :  DES COMPAGNONS PEINTRES VITRIERS INTERVIENNENT SUR LES CLOCHES DE NOTRE DAME

The new bells of Notre Dame are displayed before being hoisted to the Belfries


Here is another version of the origins of the Tour de France, this one based on newspaper rivalry and the Dreyfus affair:


Story: Ken Pottinger


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