Sunday, June 8, 2008

G is for Griffarins


The first press in Lyon printed pages in 1473, establishing an industry that by the mid-1500's was critical to the city's economy. Over sixty printing shops were in operation around 1550; many of them--including those of Sébastien Gryphe, Jean de Tournes, and Barthélemy Honorat--were famous throughout France and all of Europe for the quality of the scholarship and craftsmanship that went into their editions. As Natalie Zemon Davis explains in her essay "Strikes and Salvation at Lyon" (see reference below; the factual content of this post is drawn heavily from Davis), the printing industry employed over 600 men of all social classes, from the great merchant-publishers, to the independent publisher-printers, to master craftsmen and printers' journeymen. All of these men were doing something different from their fathers, in a trade that was relatively new and without traditions.

The journeymen were those men who worked for wages as press operators, typesetters (compositors) and proofreaders. They came from all over France and even foreign countries, often traveling a circuit that allowed them to gain experience by working for several months or years in different cities. Pressmen on the whole were a cocky lot, proud their skills--two-thirds of them could read and write--and convinced that they labored in a trade that held great value for Christian society. Though they might be laborers, they considered themselves far above the city's tanners and masons and dockhands.

Life in a printing shop was a communal one. Three to four men worked a press, in conjunction with a typesetter and proofreader. The master was required by law to provide meals which they all ate together. Unmarried workers usually shared living quarters and often spent their scant free time together, drinking at taverns and roaming the streets. But this new industry had no guild to provide a cultural and monetary support structure for its workers. To compensate for this, and to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the publishers and master printers, who, in their eyes, conspired to ruin and destroy them with long hours, meager wages and inadequate food, the printers' journeymen formed a secular brotherhood called the Company of Griffarins.

The Griffarins was a secretive society with its own initiation rites and ceremonies. The name derives from the old French term for "glutton," an insult the master printers often threw at them, modified to include the word "griffe," or "claw," in order to emphasize the group's economic power. Though they were among the highest paid workers in Lyon, the pressmen banded together to pressure the publishers and master printers for better working conditions and higher pay. They organized strikes, work stoppages, and demonstrations, beat up apprentices whom masters put on their jobs, and made life miserable for pressmen who refused to join the company. Since they were valuable to the publishers for their skills and successful in intimidating the competition, the Griffarins were usually able to force their superiors to meet their demands.

By and large, the pressmen at mid-century were strong supporters of the reformed faith rapidly spreading throughout the city. There were, however, publishers and pressmen who remained faithful Catholics; for reasons Natalie Davis enumerates and which I will relate in a later post, the Griffarins eventually shied away from the strictures and oversight of the Protestant Consistories and returned to the Catholic fold. In my novel, I strive to depict the close companionship between the pressmen at the Sign of the Fountain and their distrust of the new compositor who suddenly appears in their midst. The Fountain's pressmen have no complaints against the shop's master, a devout Catholic, but they are readily suspected of supporting heresy by the city guard.

(Natalie Zemon Davis, "Strikes and Salvation at Lyon," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford UP 1975), 1-16.)

2 comments:

Catherine Delors said...

Strikes, work stoppages, demonstrations... This sounds just like modern-day labor relations in France, religious issues apart, of course.
Very informative post, Julianne, and what a great setting for a novel!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Catherine! The Griffarins did in many ways resemble a modern trade union. They often were able to pressure the master printers to accede to their demands for better working conditions. The journeymen worked long, grueling days, from six in the morning until eight at night. During the Renaissance, workers did get numerous saints' and holy days off, but even so, working conditions were appalling compared to today's.