History for Fantasy Writers: On Tree-Wrights and Others

Carpentry probably doesn’t sound like a subject with much potential for writing fantasy, and I’ll admit the scope is restricted. But sometimes authors want a modest touch for effect, to add depth to the great epic they’ve undertaken.

Five types of woodworking industries can be named, from the late Middle Ages: sawyers, carvers, turners, carpenters, and joiners. Sawyers converted raw logs into planks in their sawmills (powered by wind or water or even by animals) and stockpiled them in lumber yards. It was the sawyers who were the main importers of wood into a city. Carvers made a wide variety of objects, from wooden utensils to decorative work. Turners made whatever required lathe-work: chairs, tables, stools. Carpenters performed “roughing”; that is, framing, floors, foundations, walls. There’s not room here to cover all these, so I offer two: carpenters and joiners.


This word has an interesting background. The English comes from the French, carpentier, which really means someone who makes wagons and carts. Even our word “car” comes from the same root. The older English word for working with wood generically is “tree-wright” which is a great term I sort of wish was still used. But in the fine tradition of modern English, our word carpenter is also colored by Zimmerman. That German word carries the meaning we use, of someone who works with larger and heavier pieces of wood, specifically in constructing buildings. So, “carpenter” is something of a stew.

Carpenters were hired as contractors for a job. Typically, the contract was with a master carpenter, who would in turn hire a crew to do the project—very much like it is still done today. If there was a dispute, it would be brought before the city council, which had special committees to hear guild complaints. You can see how important it would be for a guild to have representation on the city council.

Image of woodworkers from the ceiling of Teruel Cathedral in Spain.

Out in the countryside, carpentry was rare. Peasants tended to construct their own buildings, often as a communal project (think barn raisings in 19th century America). Knowledge of how to build was preserved as traditional knowledge, which tended to make peasants resistant to change. If skilled craftsmen were brought in, it would usually be done by a local lord, who had connections and money.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that carpenters can be found in places you might not think of. They built castles–castles before about 1000AD were all made of wood, but even once stone castles dominated, wood made up important parts such as roofs and flooring. The same applies to other big buildings such as a guild hall or a cathedral.

Ships are another place you’d be likely to find a carpenter, not only in construction but on board as well.


A joiner is a woodworker who does not use nails. That is, he makes mortice and tenon, dovetail and other type of joints (hence the name) and also works with glue.

His specialty is making fine woodwork such as armoires, desks, cabinets, beds, windows, staircases, pews, chests, and even picture frames. His customers were the wealthy, and his work was admired for its beauty and craftsmanship. He did bespoke work, working on contract. Sometimes these contracts were with the city itself, or a bishop or monastery, or some nobleman.

A joiner worked in one of two places: either in his shop, or out on a construction site. For this latter, the joiner might find he needed to hire additional help for the duration of the job. The shop itself might have journeyman workers, but they might or might not be available to take on outside work.

Journeyman joiners traveled, but they had a special arrangement. Where other journeymen relied on references to move from one job to another, one place to another, in a larger city one could find a Herberg, which was a kind of hostel for journeymen. It might be a large private home belonging to one of the masters, or it might be an inn leased by the guild itself. Here journeymen could sleep and eat, but more importantly they came to the Herberg for work. The journeymen reported to the “placement master” (Zuschickmeister), who posted a list of openings each week. No journeyman was allowed to seek work, and no master was to seek a worker, except through the placement master. The Herberg thus provided a central labor pool to meet the fluctuating demands of the craft. This practice was common throughout the construction trades.

For those living in the Herberg, the master was his father and the master’s wife was his mother. Their children were his brothers and sisters, as were his fellow journeymen in the Herberg.

Socially a Joiner benefited from working for the upper classes. He was never himself upper class, but an appreciative patrician could see to it that the Joiner’s son received an education, for example, or apprenticeship with a merchant.

About Social Status and Crafts

These comments apply to all guilds, not just to wood workers.

A page from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, published in 1703.

Not all guilds had equal standing in a town. The social standing of any particular guild (and its members) depended on a variety of factors, but I can give you a couple of rules of thumb (not to be confused with the Rule of Thumbs).

One, there were trades that were simply not respectable. These had certain characteristics that prevented them from being accepted into the mainstream of society. One group was trades associated with death, such as gravediggers and executioners. A second group included vagrant or itinerant trades such as shepherds, peddlers, tinkers. “Dirty” groups were another: street sweepers, charcoal burners, rag collectors. In many towns, such occupations were not even allowed to form a guild.

Two, and this is related to the first point, the status of a craft was very much associated with the status of the customer. So, for example, goldsmiths and silversmiths were of high status not merely because of the skill involved or the value of the merchandise, but because they dealt with the upper crust of society. This is one reason why joiners were usually of higher standing than were carpenters, even though they both worked with wood.

What Do You Think?

I can see a joiner being used in a magical capacity. He could be able to create magic boxes, puzzle boxes, and especially subtle wooden locks. He could work with magical woods and glues. I do make use of this, somewhat. In my world, gnomes are especially gifted at joinery. They make cabinets, chests, and so on, of wonderful design. A few of them can make things that ordinary humans would regard as magical, though I’m leaving the true status ambiguous. In your world, you might even make “joining” be something more than just joining together pieces of wood.

The Herberg offers possibilities, as well, and not only for joiners. Such a place could serve as a clearing house for all kinds of small-scale magical jobs, almost like the role played by the traditional D&D tavern. Gossip would concentrate here, news from elsewhere, simmering rivalries, and so on.

Disputes concerning construction that also involved magical construction could provide some interesting color to city life.

What about you? Do you see potential in this somewhat obscure trade?

I know a bit about joiners because they were part of my dissertation research. But because it was a dissertation, I know a lot about a little; namely, the joiners of the city of Augsburg around the year 1600. So anything you can add, from France or Italy or wherever, is much appreciated!


Medieval carpentry fascinates historians and re-creationists alike, so pictures are plentiful. These resources show only a tiny selection.

E.L. Skip Knox
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25 days ago

You're absolutely right about magic being used for both nefarious and defensive purposes. There are two primary forms of Mages who do have combat related jobs: Battle Mages, who are spell-slingers on the battlefield, and Combat Mages, who combine martial disciplines with spellcasting. So, instead of using a staff to cast spells, they use a sword, axe, polearm, etc., or, in the case of Gun Mages, with a firearm. Most Battle Mages and Combat Mage work for militaries, mercenary companies, or as Adventurers who help to hunt down and slay Monsters, Abominations, Fiends, and Undead. The thing about combative magic, however, is that it is very dangerous. Not only are you casting spells that are destructive, you're having to do it under very stressful (and distracting) conditions, so a minor miscalculation can have deadly consequences. This is why only Mages who are able to work well under pressure become Battle Mages or Combat Mages. Either type can make quite a lot of money, but the high risks of the jobs they take tend to be more than a lot of Mages are willing to endure. Casting spells in a less stressful environment, where you have more time to make sure you're doing things correctly and can avoid mishaps, is preferable.

Magical bombs are indeed a thing that exist in my setting (in fact, my protagonist uses them occasionally,) but such weapons can be countered by magical fields that negate their use. Likewise, spells that enable teleportation and moving between Planes of the Multiverse can also be jammed. Practically every military stronghold, palace, government building, and bank will have a variety of magical systems built into them, called Arcane Matrices, that protect them against magical forms of intrusion. Similar systems can be used to prevent bombs (mundane and magical) from working within the area of effect generated by an Arcane Matrix. Magical barriers can also be put up (usually only when needed) to protect against projectiles fired from enemy cannons. In the event of a fire, some facilities have an Arcane Matrix that can be activated which stops all forms of combustion. (This means any flame-based light sources, stoves, and fireplaces will also be extinguished, but that's a minor inconvenience compared to having the whole place burn to the ground, isn't it?)

In regard to your second inquiry, my Dwarves actually don't have as much in the way of rural communities. A period known as the Divine War (in which the gods directly fought each other and made a mess of things) cause large portions of the Dwarven homeworld (which I need to name at some point) to be turned into deserts. This forced the Dwarves to move into underground cities (which had already been started due to their mining operations.) In order to produce enough food to sustain their population, the Dwarves started developing magical forms of hydroponic gardens. Most of their underground cities are actually very well lit, well ventilated, and are filled with plant life. I'm getting a lot of ideas for their underground cities from stuff like this:

What regions of their planet had not been turned into deserts had to be very carefully managed, obviously, so there are very few areas that can actually be considered "rural." Farmland that isn't part of an underground facility is strictly controlled, meaning that rural areas actually have a ton of oversight to make sure that new deserts are not unintentionally created. Most farms are owned by a guild of some kind and any craftsmen supporting the farmers are hired out to those areas by guilds within the major cities (of which I'm thinking there are actually only a few dozen at most.)

The point is that the Dwarven homeworld is actually largely empty deserts with the interiors of mountains being hollowed out for heavily regulated and centrally planned metropolises. I'm thinking that, previously, there were lots of different guilds in different areas, but, over the centuries, the guilds started merging together until there would be only one Cobblers Guild for the entire population of a Dwarven continent. And these guilds would not just punish you if you try to give away their secrets. They would wipe out your entire family and possibly your entire clan, just to send a message about what happened to anyone who threatened their power. And, as the guilds became voting blocs, their influence over the largely democratic governments made them de facto rulers of many Dwarven societies.

And their influence reached into the societies of other races as well. After all, the nation that has interchangeable screws in its military equipment is going to have a serious edge over its enemies, and having someone else produce those screws in bulk frees up your work force to focus on building other things. Simultaneously, the guilds were careful not to price gouge, since the goods they were obtaining by trading their products were often food and other vital resources that the Dwarven homeworld could not produce in the quantities they needed. If they set the prices too high, then their clients would seek alternative sources for their goods out of sheer necessity, which would be a big problem for the Dwarves as a whole. Thus, for a long time, nobody was that keen on challenging the Dwarven guilds' monopolies and the Dwarven guilds were very careful to maintain positive trade relations.

However, as the guilds became more powerful and corrupting became more widespread, that all started to change. But it wasn't just corruption that started the beginning of the end for these guilds. Another factor was simply an increase in demand for their products which they were unable to meet. As machines became more commonplace, the demand for things like screws, nuts and bolts, and other components skyrocketed, but the methods the Dwarven guilds were using, though efficient, could not keep up with the demand. In the Human world, a period of conflict known as the Spice Wars accelerated this problem. As different Human nations fought over control of colonies that were producing certain goods (including the spices for which this period is named,) an arms race quickly began. Cranking out flintlock weapons in higher quantities was imperative, and those need screws to hold them together. Interchangeable screws are ideal because you can then take parts from multiple damaged firearms and use them to assemble working weapons But waiting for your order of interchangeable screws to arrive from another world costs you time and that means your enemies may be able to assemble their new weapons before you've even started on yours.

So, it wasn't just that people wanted to break the Dwarven monopolies. It was also that they just needed stuff sooner than later. The Dwarven guilds actually made a critical error during the Spice Wars by assassinating people simply trying to find ways to make up for the shortage in supplies. It's one thing to protect your monopoly during times of peace, but during an arms race? That's quite another. That could lead to an existential crisis for a nation. Naturally, a lot of Human nations took issue with their inventors (and the families and friends of those inventors) getting murdered by Dwarven assassins. The response was, of course, not positive.

And this stuff all happened before my protagonist was even born. However, the breaking of certain Dwarven monopolies and the aftermath of the Spice Wars are still affecting a lot of things around her even as she's in her twenties. I'm considering how the fall of the Dwarven guilds is affecting the Dwarven homeworld itself. With trade relations somewhat soured, finding alternative food sources is becoming a more pressing issue. Having other things to trade in place of the goods the guilds produced is another major pursuit for a lot of Dwarven societies. The one thing I do know is that the guilds are starting to implode and lose their control of Dwarven nations. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, since the imbalances are affecting certain environmental situations on their planet even as they liberate regular Dwarves from what had become a rather oppressive system. I'm thinking that there have been some mass exoduses as some metropolises simply lost the ability to consistently sustain their populations. So, my protagonist is going to be running into Dwarves who have left their world behind, both to escape the guilds' desperate (and largely futile) efforts to retain their power and because they want to live someplace with a more reliable food supply.

25 days ago

In my flintlock fantasy setting, the majority of Mages are not people who go into battle shooting off fireballs and lightning bolts. Instead, they're men and women who purify water supplies, freeze water into ice to use in ice rooms or to be used in cooking or in beverages, use transmutation to reinforce structures or repair road surfaces, light and extinguish magical street lamps, and do a myriad of other things which have a more utilitarian function. In other words, most Mages are more "blue collar" types who live rather simple (but productive) lives. Even with magic and technology become more intertwined and Mages no longer being as necessary for certain tasks (like purifying water, which is increasingly done by enchanted machines,) utilitarian Mages are still important because these machines need to be maintained and overseen. However, the term applied to them is shifting away from "Mage" and more toward "Arcane Engineer," which is actually what my protagonist, Perdita Nightshade, happens to be (among other things.)

Regarding guilds, I do know that in Dwarven societies especially, they hold MASSIVE influence. My Dwarves are largely democratic societies, but the guilds serve as voting blocs. It's a bit like how unions can affect a democratic society in modern times in that regard. Any Dwarf who is running for office needs to grease the palms of the guilds in order to get their vote, so corruption is rampant. In fact, the guild systems in Dwarven cultures have become so corrupt that a percentage of the population is abandoning the Dwarven world to move to the Human world or other worlds in order to escape the system. Of course, the guilds are not eager to let trade secrets be revealed, which is where the Shadow Guild (an organization of assassins) comes into the picture. Dwarves who try to leave run the risk of the guild they abandon turning to the Shadow Guild to silence them so they can maintain their monopolies on certain trades. However, as innovation has begun to accelerate, the ability of Dwarven guilds to eliminate competition has diminished.

The best example of a Dwarven guild's monopoly being broken is the downfall of the Screw-Makers Guild, which had, for centuries, been the sole producer of standardized screws and bolts. I'm still working out the details, but an inventor came up with a precision lathe that could make screws in large numbers but, rather than provoke the Screw-Makers Guild by trying to patent his technique, released the designs to the public, making it essentially open source. Anyone with a copy of the schematic and the resources could make the machine, which made it impossible for the Screw-Makers Guild to eliminate all the competition fast enough to maintain their monopoly. As they lost clients to the competition, they lost money, which meant they couldn't pay the Shadow Guild assassins, which caused the number of competitors to rise even faster. A remnant of the Screw-Makers Guild is still around, but it's barely a shadow of its former self. With that very powerful voting block eliminated, some pretty big changes happened in several major Dwarven societies.

So, yeah, that's part of what I'm doing with guilds in my story setting. The Dwarves have the largest and most powerful guilds, but other races feature them as well. While, historically, "dirty" jobs didn't get to have guilds, in my setting, there are, in essence, "religious guilds" that exist to manage certain tasks, like keeping streets clean. (Roads in most communities are paved, not dirt, thanks to Mages being able to make the paving process more efficient, so keeping the pavement clean is important.) One of the gods, presently named Pox, has a religious order that dedicates itself to sanitation work. His followers are "soldiers" in the "war" against filth and disease. Keeping roadways clean, removing garbage, and purifying water sources are some of the tasks they do, and they're extremely organized in most cases. I'm thinking that, in many regards, they're structured like a guild, but there's a very strong religious component to things as well. Usually, a community will hire the order to manage sanitation, using a local tax to pay for their services. The order also provides employment (and a certain degree of respectability) to those who lack the skills to become part of a more prestigious trade, so it also functions as a bit of a safety net for those on hard times.

Anyway, that's what I'm doing in my project.

Jill Culiner
1 month ago

I loved this article. Thanks for the information. I would also like to mention the “scieurs de long” or long sawyers who were once to be found here in France. These highly specialised men, often foreign, were itinerant, moving across the country on foot, taking all the back lanes, and looking for work. Their talent — sawing trees lengthwise for beams — was incredibly difficult. These sawyers slept in barns or fields, and were sometimes confused with the “chemineaux” who were also itinerants, were considered vagabonds and theives (and they sometimes did steal what they could) but some also worked as scieurs de long. Despite the difficulty of the work and the skill needed, the scieurs de long were looked sown upon because they were itinerant, returning home for only a few months of the year. If you would like to see some old photos of these people, take a look here: http://fransylva-paca.fr/wp/le-scieur-de-long/

1 month ago

The Herberg concept will be particularly useful, I think. A good amount of the background conflict in my next book will evolve from the birth of a guild-like system. Basically, merchants and govt's have been running the show but there's a growing coalition of skilled labor (focusing on herbalist healers) who are forming groups (future guilds) to capture market power for themselves, and then throw in the illicit drug trade to boost tension. I will kick in some tree-wrights as well, heh heh. I'm with you Skip, I wish we used that term more often.

Insolent Lad
1 month ago

The protagonist of my two Sajam Saga books is a carpenter, from a family of carpenters, off to make his fortune in the 'colonies.' Having second sight, it must be admitted, helped him as a businessman. I just had to add some details of squaring up foundations and such, coming from a family of carpenters and builders myself.

Eleanor Konik
Eleanor Konik
1 month ago

Several protagonists in L. E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluse were carpenters, including the main character in the first book, Lerris — so there’s definitely potential! The magic system in the Saga of Recluse was based around physics concepts of entropy and there were basically three types of mages, “order,” “chaos,” and “balanced.” The “balance” mages were very rare. Chaos mages can make fire bolts and age things and destroy pretty directly, whereas order mages mostly acted via strengthening natural materials like wood or iron.

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