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April 23, 2020

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, at least from the middle ages of the Middle Ages, all workers in the craft sector constituted not only the numerically largest social structure of urban realities but above all a reality of fundamental technological and economic importance.

 

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the cities of northern Italy acted as poles for the movement of skilled artisans, a powerful impulse toward the propagation of technical knowledge. The mobility of a skilled workforce was not caused in this case, in contrast to others, by religious persecution or institutionalized forms of itinerant work, but by competition between city economies, on the one hand, and the institutions that regulated urban manufacture, on the other.

Carlo Belfanti
“Guilds, Patents, and the Circulation of Technical Knowledge: Northern Italy during the Early Modern Age”

Technology and Culture, Volume 45, Number 3, July 2004, pp. 569-589 (Article)
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
This content has been declared free to read by the pubisher during the COVID-19 pandemic.
https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2004.0111

The guilds had elaborated, consolidated, and transmitted the stores of knowledge that had allowed many cities and towns to become specialized manufacturing centers.

In the history of technology the early modern period is often described as a kind of gray area wedged between the technical conquests of the Middle Ages and the “miracle” of the Industrial Revolution, a time during which, despite extraordinary scientific progress, there were no technological innovations comparable to those that went before or came after. This picture distorts our understanding of an era marked by an important phenomenon in the history of technology: the spread of technical knowledge through the movement of people. Technical knowledge of the time was essentially practical gained from direct personal experience, jealously guarded by the individual craftsman. Consequently, the diffusion of technical knowledge depended first and foremost on the migration of those in possession of it, rather than on the proliferation of technical treatises.

This article is concerned with northern Italy between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. That region saw neither relevant in-migrations of craftsmen fleeing religious persecution nor institutionalized forms of tramping for journeymen. Instead, the mobility of the skilled workforce was regulated by the actions of two institutions dedicated to opposing objectives (or at least appearing to be so): the urban craft guilds and the patent laws. On the one hand, the states of northern Italy were among the first to encourage the spread of technical knowledge by conceding privileges and monopolies to those who introduced new processes and products. On the other, they were also home to strong, deep-rooted guild organizations, which traditional scholarship has characterized as rigidly conservative obstacles to technological progress in the Italian economy during this period.

 

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