The Canuts Profession in The Engineering Corps | World Anvil

The Canuts

Table of Contents

The canuts are the heart of Lyon. The prosperity of the whole city depends on them, and yet we repay them terribly...
— Sergeant
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  The canuts are the people working in the fabrique, the silk industry, in Lyon. Their job has been greatly affected by the ongoing technological revolution. This is causing important social upheaval, and those who were previously highly qualified workers are now having difficulties surviving out of their activity.  

Working conditions

The canuts' work has changed a lot in recent years, thanks to the invention in 1804 of the new Jacquard machine by Joseph Marie Jacquard, a master weaver and merchant in Lyon. His work was based on earlier inventions by the Lyonnais, Basile Bouchon (1725), Jean Baptiste Falcon (1728), and Jacques Vaucanson (1740). The machine is a loom controlled by a chain of punched cards laced together, with one card corresponding to one row of the desired cloth pattern. When the cards go through the machine, the holes make the arm of the machine move up or down and so make it create different patterns while weaving the fibres, thus automating the process and earning an enormous amount of time.   Most canuts were very reluctant to adopt this new machine, fearing that it would devaluate their work. However, it was too advantageous a machine, and the canuts had no choice but to use it to stay competitive.  
Notice how many great inventors and engineers we have had in Lyon? Yet all those Parisians continue to look down on us! But don't worry, we're certainly going to show them what we're worth... The Colonel has Plans.
— Sergeant
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Jacquard loom by Wikimedia Commons
This new machine forced the canuts to move to new buildings with ceilings high enough to welcome them. They went to the Croix-Rousse hill in Lyon. There, religious buildings had been nationalised during the revolution before being razed to make space for new buildings specifically adapted to the canuts' needs: on the ground floor the workshop with high ceiling (4 m height) with large oak beams to attach the loom and high windows to let the light in. On the side opposite the windows, a mezzanine is installed with the kitchen on the gound floor and the bedroom above it. Another advantage of those new buildings is that their location on a hill protects them from the regular flooding of the Saône and Rhône rivers.   The silk industry is a small scale familial industry. Canuts are "masters" if they possess their own looms or "journeymen" if they do not. The master and their whole family all work on the pieces of silk, and they hire journeymen to help with what they cannot do. Journeymen are housed and fed in the workshop with the cost deducted from their wages. During the 1835 census, there were 8,000 masters in Lyon, with half living in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, and 30,000 journeymen. Apprentices are not included in those numbers.   The masters own 2 to 6 looms per workshop. They are paid by the piece and work by orders from the "grande fabrique". This is the 400 merchant-bankers called the "fabriquants" or "soyeux" who fund the production of the silk and market it to customers.   Canuts are very proud of themselves and of their work, and silk is treated with reverence. Despite working in their home, family life should never be brought inside the workshop, which should always be completely silent so as to let everyone stay calm and focus on creation and their work. This hushed, ceremonial setting is difficult to support for some, and many apprentices cannot become journeymen because of this. To compensate, once outside the workshop canuts form a very close solidarity network with each other.

Be careful if you go to the Croix-Rousse, those canuts go crazy when they have to protect their silk! If you make any dust in the street or bring anything with a strong smell close to the, they are going to sue you for damaging their precious cloth! Last time, they complained that the fishermen's passage caused a smell so foul that it risked changing the colour of the silk!
— Sergeant
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The canuts' life is difficult. Their wages dependent on the price of silk on international markets, as the merchants who buy their silk refuse to give them a constant price for it and insist on reflecting the market fluctuation. In addition, they are in competition with each other to obtain orders from the merchants, thus keeping the wages low. By 1830, those wages were half of what they were just 20 years earlier.   Canuts are supposed to get 2 days off every week, however the rest of the week their workday lasts between 14 to 18 hours, more if they need to finish an order on time. In addition, there is sometimes no work at all and so no money to be had. Those difficult conditions have led the canuts to revolt several times already.
A canut's workshop by WIkimedia Commons
If you are ever brought to do policing work, never bother looking for a canut in the Croix-Rousse. All of them will be immediately aware of your presence and will have completely hidden your target from you. They're all united together and hate the government—for just cause...
— Sergeant
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Social developments


Despite the censure, the canuts have their own newspapers, such as L’Écho de la Fabrique, in which they discuss their problem and the current social crisis as well as potential solutions. This has led them to become more aware of belonging to the same social group and of their position in the organisation of society.   They also debate extremely fiercely—even right in the middle of their revolts—which philosophical, social and political movement they should follow:  
  • Republicanism: they want to replace the current constitutional elective monarchy with a republic as they think that complete equality between individuals is necessary to thrive and gain happiness.
  • Fourier and the Fourierism: rather than model individuals so that they are adapted to societal, political and economic life as education is attempting to do, it is political and economic life that should be adapted to individuals and their inherent passions. Thus, to change a disagreeable situation, people should aim to use their job and economic power to gain independence, rather than attempt to do so through politics.
  • Saint-Simonianism, Proudhon and the mutuelism: economical relationships need to be as equal and reciprocal as possible, with prices based on the amount of work done to create the product. The canuts have formed mutuelism societies, and in return for a monthly contribution they receive assistance in the event of illness, unemployment or old age.
The newspaper l'Echo de la Fabrique, published by canuts in Lyon by Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, cote BML_01PER0030214393
Don't even bother looking at those newspapers. Even those that have not been forbidden yet are not very appreciated by the government, and you wouldn't to be seen with one...
— Sergeant
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Social troubles


Despite being highly qualified workers and essential for the prosperity of the city, the new social and technological changes are reducing the canut to a mere labour force. In addition, the local and national government do not take the canuts' troubles seriously and refuse to help them. This has led to two important revolts up to this point.   The first revolt started in 1831. Representatives of the canuts went to see the prefect of the department to ask help in fixing a minimum price for their silk pieces. The prefect agreed, however by doing so he went against the law Le Chapelier of 1791 which forbids worker associations (the aim was to prevent guilds and their monopoles). After the protests of the merchants, the government in Paris disowned the prefect's action.   Yet the canuts refused to abandon the idea, inspired by the main political revolution in France that chased Charles X from the throne and lead to the election of Lucien Esselin as king. The canuts gathered and walked in the streets, but the National Guard, mainly made of merchants, fired in the crowd and killed several workers.   Of course, then the canuts revolted completely and started making barricades. After a bloody battle (100 deaths and 263 injured for the Guards, 69 deaths and 140 injured civilians), the canuts took control of Lyon. However, they did not know what to do with this power and, thinking that they had now obtained the minimal fee they wanted, they all just went back to work.   Upon hearing the news, the government was dismayed and immediately sent the army, which entered the city without troubles and occupied it. They fired the prefect and revoked the minimal fee, thus putting an end to the rebellion. Both the left and the right deputies of the National Assembly approved of those actions. Yet there is a big problem with all of this: the king was away leading the war against the European coalition. Thus, the canuts considered that the repression is due to the government and not him.
— Those imbecile canuts do not understand the economic situation! How can they ask for fixed wages when the price of silk is so low right now? And now they want to use the change of kings to create their own revolution and blackmail us into conceding to their demands?

— Don't worry, even if His Majesty is busy with the war the government is using its authority to send troops to shoot at that rabble!
— Two silk merchants from Lyon
The second revolt was in 1834. Contrary to the previous revolt, the economic situation was good at the time. However, the merchants considered that this had led to an excessive increase in the canuts' wages and wanted to impose a reduction. The canuts went on strikes but their leaders were arrested. There were even talk in the National Assembly of outlawing all workers' associations, including the canuts' mutuels. Of course, this started a second revolt, and the army yet again fired on the unharmed crowd, leading once again to the formation of barricades. The fights went on for 6 days before the canuts were beaten.   There were officially 131 deaths and 192 injured among the military, and 190 deaths and 122 injured among the civilians, although the number of injured civilians are probably a lot higher than that. Many of the dead civilians were even unarmed bystanders. In addition, more than 10,000 civilians were imprisoned and judged in Paris in gigantic trials. All of them received heavy prison sentences or were deportated. And once again, all the decisions were taken by the government while the king was away at war.

Canuts revolt in Lyon in 1834 by Wikimedia Commons
Left or right, all politicians are always united by profit...
— Sergeant
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His Majesty's real opinion about both revolts uncertain. By now, he cannot ignore what happened twice in Lyon and he could have taken measures to address this or condemn his government for their actions. Yet he has chosen not to do so. However, many canuts are pointing out that as a newly elected king, Lucien's support was precarious in 1831 and he could not have afforded to make waves. Alienating all the powerful silk merchants of Lyon just a few months into his reign would have been a death penalty. Similarly in 1834, his support was rather low due to the ongoing war with the European coalition making people wonder if it was really worth it to keep him on the throne for such a high price.   This is why there has been no revolt since then. The canuts have been observing the situation and biding their time until the best moment comes to corner the king and force him to take a side in their conflicts with the merchants.   Rumours are that a new revolt is rumbling, threatening to break at any instant...

Canuts revolt in Lyon in 1834 by Wikimedia Commons

Cover image: Canuts revolt in Lyon in 1834 by Wikimedia Commons


Author's Notes

The canut's plights has inspired many social thinkers of the 19th century, including the Saint-Simonists, Fourier, Proudhon, and later Karl Marx. It was also the begining of workers' social movements in France and Europe, with the emergence of a sense of shared interests in workers' communities.

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Jul 20, 2021 20:34

What happens if a normal citizen is caught reading their newspaper?

Want to check out more read my bard article
Jul 20, 2021 22:14 by Amélie I. S. Debruyne

Nothing too bad since the newspapers are actually legal (once they become illegal the canuts stopped publication and instead created a new newspaper). It's just that if people around you see that you're reading something that expressed extremist politics, they'd become at best warry of you.

To see what I am up to: World Ember 2023 list of articles.
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