German traditions: the journeyman and his wander years

German traditions: the journeyman and his wander years

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

A lone figure dressed in antiquated clothing and carrying a bundle on a stick trudges purposefully through the streets of a small German town. Might a festival or historical reenactment be underway?

That’s always possible, but the more probable answer is that a very special type of junior craftsman has been hired to carry out a job nearby.

With a brimmed hat, white shirt and vest, suitcoat and wide bellbottom pants of black corduroy adorned with oversized buttons, this mysterious traveler, referred to as a journeyman, looks every bit a relic from the distant past. And in many ways, he or she is just that.

The journeyman tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, and although less common than it once was, hundreds of young men and a handful of women continue to hone their burgeoning professional skills in this manner so steeped in tradition.

The journeyman, known as a “Wandergeselle” in German, is a young person below the age of 30, unmarried, childless and with no debts, who has completed formal training in a trade such as carpentry, roofing, plumbing, joinery or similar field. He or she sets off from the family home for a period of not less than three years and a day, and during this time he or she is not to venture within a 50-kilometer radius of his or her native town.

During this person’s time “auf der Walz” (on the road), he or she receives no form of regular salary per se but is allowed to accept payouts for work performed. He or she is not to spend any money on room and board, but rather to receive it as a form of payment-in-kind for services rendered. The purpose of the journeyman’s time on the road is to gain experience, both in one’s chosen trade and the world at large.

During one’s first year on the road, he or she will spend time working in one of the German-speaking lands, most often in the company of a fellow journeyman who can show him or her the ropes. From that point on, journeymen are free to travel abroad, and many choose to do so, not only within Europe but around the world.

Journeymen give a whole new meaning to the expression “traveling light.” They leave home with just the clothes on their backs and one extra identical outfit, undergarments, sleeping bag, a few tools of their trade and a small booklet that identifies them as members of a guild, a society of workers within a given trade. They carry no mobile phones or electronics. They have no cars, traveling instead by foot, hitching rides or less frequently on public transportation. Tradition dictates they should set off with five euros in their pocket and return with that same amount.

Upon arrival in a new place, they go to the town hall to register and get their documents stamped. If they don’t have any work lined up, they’ll make inquiries and hope that word of mouth leads them to someone who can benefit from their labor and put a roof above their heads. When times are hard, they may find themselves sleeping out in the elements.

Journeymen must abide by a code of honor, and despite their humble state, are always expected to be turned out neatly and to behave themselves respectfully. Between them there exists a brotherhood with all the requisite signs and signals of privileged communication. Journeymen sometimes make their temporary homes with families whose own sons and daughters are currently on the road.

Those fortunate enough to cross paths with journeymen will often treat them to a drink and a bite to eat, and sometimes even go so far as to invite them to spend a night or two at their homes. With a bit of luck, one might bump into a journeyman willing to share stories of life on the road over a cold beer or two. It’s an opportunity to support an ancient rite of passage, and the chances are good that the journeyman will have some interesting tales to tell.


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