Arts and Mysteries: The “Mystery” Revealed

I have always enjoyed the “Arts and Mysteries” column (and associated blog) in Popular Woodworking, but until now I never gave much thought to the title.  “Arts” makes sense for a column on period woodworking techniques, but why “mysteries”?  What’s so mysterious about period woodworking with 18th-century hand tools?

Recently I stumbled across these archaic definitions of the word “mystery” in the Oxford English Dictionary:

n2a: Craft, art; a trade, profession, calling

n2c: art and mystery n. (also science and mystery and variants) the art and craft of a trade. Formerly used as a formula in apprentices’ indentures.

So the phrase “arts and mysteries” is an old way of referring to skilled labor of all kinds.  Here I thought it was just the editors at Popular Woodworking being clever.

That still leaves the question: why refer to crafts as “mysteries” at all?  The OED offers a brief explanation.  This use of the word derives from a confusion between the Latin words misterium (meaning “mystery” in the conventional sense) and ministerium (meaning ministry, office, or vocation).  It would be an easy mistake to make, especially for tradesmen who were not often well versed in Latin.  Yet, why did the confusion of terms persist?  One tradesman making the mistake is understandable; a hundred persisting in the mistake without being corrected is suspicious.

I have a hypothesis. I’m not convinced that the conflation of misterium and ministerium was really a mistake.  Or, if it was a mistake, it was a surprisingly fortuitous one.  Skilled labor in Europe was overseen by the guilds, who often guarded trade secrets with a zeal that would surprise a modern reader.  Skills and techniques were passed down gradually from master to apprentice, but they were not disseminated outside the workshops.  That’s not so different from the properly religious definition of “mystery”: secret knowledge or experience accessible only to initiates of a religion or cult.  Similarly, the master craftsman would pass on information, techniques, and skills to an apprentice as the later demonstrated his aptitude for and commitment to the craft.  We have few written records concerning the techniques of 18th-century craftsmen, and nearly no such records from before the 17th century, I suspect partly because guild members did not want trade secrets made public.  Their reluctance to keep written records of their techniques ensured that each craft maintained its heritage and integrity, but ironically, it also means that much of that knowledge has now been lost to us.

Historians, conservators, and craftspeople are now trying to recover many of those mysteries because, as it turns out, period woodworking really is pretty mysterious.  Whether you want to know how old backsaws were sharpened to when sandpaper came into common use, the ancient arts and crafts truly are mysteries.


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4 Responses to Arts and Mysteries: The “Mystery” Revealed

  1. bawrytr says:

    I think you have this right. The mysterious “tricks of the trade”

  2. Yup, “Arts and Mysteries” has been referenced in apprenticeship contracts for a long, long time. Not just for woodworkers either.

    I really don’t believe the use of “mysteries” is a mistake. The intent was to convey a sense that the apprentice would be learning secret information that wouldn’t be known to anyone else. How else could they be convinced to work for seven years with little pay, hard work and spartan living arrangements? The phrasing had to be good. Consider it salesmanship.

  3. James says:

    Surely the use of “mystery” in this sense is derived from the ancient Greek usage, mysterion (usually in pl. mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated.” This jibes well with your thoughts on guilds. Not sure why OED would take such a convoluted (and hypothetical) route

    • I’m not sure either. They’re probably right that the English usage was picked up from Latin, which in turn derived it from Greek. There’s an older French cognate, too, so English is probably getting the word from multiple directions, some of which are difficult to trace with certainty.

      Etymology is itself something of a mystery.

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