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With Notre Dame’s reparation in the headlines, this secretive brotherhood has a rare opportunity to become national heroes in France . . .
The Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty in English) is a secretive brotherhood of craftsmen set up in the early Middle Ages.
Based in France, the Compagnons du Devoir (the full name is Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France) are among the world’s best craftspeople, trained over the years in a long process with rituals, secretive practices, and devotion to their trades. Their initiations are held behind closed doors, and inevitably, a connection with freemasonry springs to mind.
The trades usually fall into five groups depending on their principal material: wood, stone, textiles & leather, metal, and food.
The compagnonnage is since 2010 recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, as a network for transmitting knowledge and identities through trades.
The Tour de France is one of the key pillars of the Compagnons du Devoir’s training. In a direct link back to the early days of journeymen masons and carpenters – the cathedral-builders of the past – the apprentices aged between 16 and 25 still go on a Tour de France. Over several years they travel the country, living as a community, to pick up new techniques and perfect their skills under a new master. And after six months or a year in one place, each apprentice will pack up and move to another place to learn new skills.
The Process to Become Compagnons du Devoir
The student starts his training as an apprentice for 1 to 3 years. After a ceremony, he becomes ‘Aspirant,’ and he starts the Tour de France.
After an official ceremony known as ‘Reception,’ the Aspirant becomes a ‘Traveling Companion.’ For one or two years more, he continues his journey under the same conditions as the Aspirant, and he coaches his youngest colleagues. Finally, the ‘Traveling Companion’ sets up roots somewhere, and he becomes a ‘Sedentary Companion.’
In 1984, the Compagnons du Devoir gave the Statue of Liberty a new torch. In 1990, they helped to fix the majestic hurricane-damaged mansions of Charleston, South Carolina.
And now, all the eyes are on them to rebuild the roof’s magnificent frame in Notre Dame de Paris, nicknamed ‘the forest’ (a structure made entirely of oak). Will they accept this ultimate challenge?
In 2020, about fifty apprentices worked for 400 hours in the association’s workshops in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine) to reproduce a model of a segment of this frame. Now, the ‘construction site of the century’ is waiting for them in 2021.
Where to Find the Compagnons du Devoir in Paris
If you are interested in this topic, there are some places in Paris where you can find Compagnons du Devoir:
Maison du Compagnonnage /Regional Headquarters (1 place Saint Gervais, Paris 4).
This historical house (a former inn) is located in the heart of medieval Paris, close to the former Place de Grève (current Parvis de l’Hotel de Ville). In the Middle Ages, Place de Grève hosted the weekly masons market, where the companions, and masons in general, found work.
Librairie du Compagnonnage (2 rue de Brosse, Paris 4)
Just in front of the Maison du Compagnonnage, there’s the Companions’ bookshop, with numerous books on techniques, trades, and companionship.
Restaurant Aux Arts et Sciences Réunis (161 avenue Jean Jaurès, Paris 19)
Located in the 19th arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Cité des Sciences, this restaurant is affiliated with the carpenter Compagnons du Devoir. The restaurant serves as a canteen for apprentice carpenters and welcomes anyone who wants to eat fresh and well, for lunch and dinner.