Some mediaeval traditions are artificially maintained as quaint customs, picturesque but totally irrelevant to modern life apart from their attraction – in this commercialised age – as tourist bait. Others survive barely noticed in remote regions. One that flouts both of these general rules is the custom, still very much alive in German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland and parts of Belgium and France), of travelling journeymen, “auf der Walz”.
For hundreds of years since the Middle Ages in Europe, young men who have completed their apprenticeships have taken off on their travels as journeymen, working by the day for various masters (the term journeyman comes from the French journée = day), seeing the world and gaining experience in their trade. A kind of extended gap year. These are mostly carpenters, but some are masons, roofers, plumbers or other old building trades.
My first encounter with a young fellow “auf der Walz” was in the early sixties, in the restaurant of a village inn in Bavaria. He strolled in, carefully laid his rolled-up pack on the floor and his knobbly stick against a chair, cleared his throat very loudly and proclaimed to the assembled diners that he was in need of a meal and a bed for the night. A collection ensued, everyone contributing very willingly towards his dinner, and someone took him off home. I was amazed at this, but it was explained to me that everyone knew by his appearance that he was genuine, and that there was absolutely no risk in offering him hospitality since these “Wandergesellen” (wandering companions or journeymen) live by a very strict code of honour. This is enforced by the guild or brotherhood to which the travelling tradesman must belong, and any infringement of these rules will result in expulsion from the guild.
Over the last fifty years, I have seen these black-clad young men (and nowadays, sometimes women) on many occasions and they are the only people for whom I would break my self-imposed rule of not picking up hitchhikers, knowing that they are not allowed to use public transport. Walking and hitchhiking are the only modes of travel open to them, so they take only a small pack with their tools and a few personal belongings rolled up in a coarse cloth.
So who exactly are these people, and how come this ancient tradition has survived for so long and is still flourishing? In fact, it is flourishing more now than it was before WWII.
Three years and a day is the period prescribed for the Walz (the word means roll or turn, as in the dance “waltz”, and these young fellows are “rolling around” or “doing a tour”. The swagman with his waltzing matilda is an Australian variant). During this time the journeyman must stay at least 50 km away from his hometown, otherwise he is branded a Speckjäger (literally “bacon hunter” or freeloader) and dishonourably expelled from the guild.
He (or she) must be under 30, single with no children, free of debt and with no previous convictions. He sets out with 5 euros and is expected to return with the same amount, the aim of the Walz being to accumulate experience, rather than possessions or wealth. He must keep himself clean and tidy, behave in a respectable, friendly manner and dress in a particular manner to avoid all risk of him being mistaken for a tramp or vagabond. Each one has a Wanderbuch (travel book), which he presents to be stamped at the local town hall in lieu of residence registration. It also serves as a record of his travels and is signed by each of the masters he works for. In the old days, a journeyman would work for his board and lodging, but nowadays he is paid at the going rate.
Among themselves, the journeymen have a number of secret signs and special handshakes, varying from guild to guild, but intended to ensure that the person is genuine and not an impostor. In earlier times, it was a punishable offence to teach these to anyone who was not a member of the brotherhood.
They also recognise one another by their guild necktie, known as their Ehrbarkeit (respectability), and sometimes by their golden earring, which in some cases reveals the wearer’s affiliation. The earring, and a golden bracelet, were important to a journeyman in earlier times, as they could be exchanged for money if necessary or used to pay the gravedigger if the journeyman died during his travels.
When I lived in the Appenzeller land, where timber is an important commodity and there are many wooden houses, I would often see a young carpenter sitting astride the rafters of a roof under construction, sometimes singing and yodelling as he worked. It wasn’t always the same young man, of course, but his clothing marked him out as a Wandergeselle: black bell-bottomed corduroy trousers, jacket and waistcoat with a white shirt and a broad-brimmed black hat or sometimes a top hat, plus a very swanky curly walking stick, the Stenz, an example of his own skill in carving. The jacket has six silver buttons, representing a 6-day working week, and the waistcoat eight, symbolising an 8-hour working day. The hat is a sign that the wearer is a free man, able to make his own decisions, and is doffed only to those for whom he feels genuine respect.
The carpenter’s Kluft or costume is the most frequently seen, but other trades and guilds have variations in colour and cut of the cloth, as worn here by these young women:
Although the Walz is no longer obligatory, and the tradition followed by only a minority, it shows no sign of dying out, in spite of the economic downturn – or perhaps even because of it.
Young journeymen are inducted into their Wanderjahre (wandering years) by an older, more experienced colleague, and then it’s up to the individual to decide where he goes and what he does. A great adventure, resulting in a wealth of experience, resilience and maturity that stand the journeyman in good stead when the three years and a day are up. Not to mention the physical fitness and stamina that these years bring.
A longer and more informative account can be found here.
This is an interview with a young carpenter auf der Walz (in German), and finally 2 short films in English, one about 4 young carpenters whose Walz took them to Ireland … and another fellow in Australia. Maybe you should keep an eye open – there may be a Wandergeselle auf der Walz near you!