Thursday, 29 July 2010

German Journeyman

Meet Dietrich a German Journeyman.
 His odd costume tells those in the know that he is a fully trained craftsman traveling and looking for work to broaden his experience. In Germany folk instantly recognise this and so it makes life easy to get lifts when hitchiking or folk will simply offer him food and lodgings in exchange for some work. His pack was made by another journeyman and has a steam bent wooden frame with leather straps. He has been traveling for nearly 3 years with just his belongings in this pack.

This is his journeybook a rather wonderful handmade, leather bound book in which the various people he works for make notes. He is not allowed to write in it himself and when in Germany each day he will get it stamped at the local post office to prove where he has been and that he has not gone back to the two areas he is not allowed (his home and the area he did his apprenticeship)

In medieval times crafts across Europe were governed by guilds. The guilds had many functions, they acted as a brotherhood and looked after their members in times of hardship but most importantly they acted as the protector of quality. They managed the schemes whereby folks made the progression from raw apprentice to journeyman to master and they also controlled who could practice and who could sell their products. It was rather draconian with searchers employed by the guilds checking for people selling goods, if they were not guild members the goods could be confiscated, bought at rock bottom rate or if substandard broken up. Apprentices would pay a master to teach them their skills over a 5 or 7 year period then when they became a journeyman they would travel and work in many different master workshops broadening their skills before perhaps taking the tests to become a master themselves.

By the 19th century in Germany like England the guild system was on it's last legs and from around 1850-1870 there were no journeymen. Then the system was revived and ran with small numbers until the 1980s when typically there would be a few dozen journeymen on the road at any one time. Over the last 15 years there has been a tremendous expansion in interest from people who want to really immerse themselves in craft for many years and today there are around 800 journeymen on the road.

It is a very serious undertaking, first there is the three to five year apprenticeship with one master in timber framing, cabinetmaking, blacksmithing or whatever, then you join the journeyman organisation and set out for a minimum of 3 years but often up to 5. Along the way they stay in many countries, meeting and living with the local people, working in exchange for food and taking on occasional paying work to refill the coffers. The main purpose though is exchanging skills, so it was that Dietrich came to me. We carved spoons, turned bowls worked a couple of days on a bridge project and the last day he was here we built a small timber framed gateway together.

And then it was time for Dietrich to pack his bags and head on his way. Next stop Bristol to buy some tools, then briefly to Germany and then some time in Sweden where he is hoping to learn birch bark work. A rather wonderful life for a young man, it is travel but with a purpose and giving as well as taking wherever he goes. He makes me look very small, I am not really Dietrich is very tall. If you see him or anyone else dressed like this on their travels do offer them a bed for the night and a meal.

More about journeymen here and here and here


  1. Excellent. We had two of these journeymen here in Armidale, New England NSW Australia recently.