Apprenticeship assured an acceptable quality of work passed on by practical education and the initiation of the next generation into the ‘mysteries’ of the craft. ‘Mystery’ has a double meaning, one simply meaning mastery in an art or craft, and a second implying secret knowledge. This knowledge is mysterious only in the fact that the average person is unaware of it and that much of it involves actual physical practice, which can only be learned by doing, not by studying in books.
The apprentice was often not the son of the master but was expected to respect the elder carpenter as he would a parent. Apprentices would live with the master’s family. Through the social bonds of apprenticeship and marriage, craft families were connected in important ways. Obedience and labour were expected from the apprentice in exchange for training, food, lodging, and clothing. The training was more than technical, also involving moral education and a work ethic. The average apprenticeship lasted for seven years. Most formal apprentices were sons of middle-class freeman and had received some primary education in reading, writing, and arithmetic, usually at the parish church school. Apprenticeship contracts were written up in detail by notaries and priests. Literacy and numeracy expanded exponentially during the Middle Ages, so much so, that Sir Thomas More was able to claim, in 1533, that readers in England formed half the population. This was aided by the invention of the printing press and the translation of Latin books (especially the Holy Bible) into the common language.
The strict obedience expected of the adolescent apprentice often created a toxic relationship with the craft master. Verbal and physical abuse was common, leading to many runaway apprentices. Authorities and guilds frowned upon cruelty in the treatment of apprentices, but laws were also enforced for bailiffs and sheriffs to return truants to their masters. Furthermore, according to R.A. Leeson, guild regulations required that “no craft master was supposed to accept anyone without a clear explanation of why he left his last company”. There were few places for runaways to hide because everyone in the Middle Ages belonged to some guild, estate, or abbey. Escape was sometimes afforded by joining the army, becoming a monk, or in extreme circumstances, taking up with one of the bands of outlaws which existed in those parts of Europe devastated by years of famine, pestilence, and war.