Wednesday, June 19, 2013


In the post on Chuck Knoblauch I tossed out a phrase that has become commonplace:  "a journeyman ballplayer".  And as I typed the words I realized that I now understood the saying.  It started out with something I missed entirely.

We were driving in Nuremberg Germany when our host said: "Did you see the Zimmermann?".

I was looking elsewhere at the time, and in any case what exactly should one be looking for when someone says that?

As it turns out, a "Zimmermann" is one variety of modern day wandering tradesmen, a tradition from the late Middle Ages that implausibly persists to the modern day.  Zimmermann in German means carpenter, or if you want to be precise, a carpenter who does interiors.  A Zimmer is a room.

In the European labor system those seeking to learn a trade become an apprentice.  They work under the supervision of a Master.  When they have become proficient in their skills they have by tradition gone off on a long journey, one of several years.  They wear traditional garb, called in German Kluft.  In fact they are required to wear it at all times. While I missed seeing the young man in an old fashioned frock coat and top hat, I did later in the day find in a museum gift shop a couple of such outfits that were for sale!

The color of the suit varies, with carpenters wearing black, stone masons wearing beige or grey.  Here is a group of such "Journeymen":

I found this photo on a rather comprehensive page put up by the German Embassy.  It makes an interesting  read.

I found it fascinating.  They are only supposed to walk, and are not allowed to interrupt their journey for any reason. They travel for three years and one day, keeping track of their journey in a special  Wanderbuch.  When they arrive in a town they apparently can just show up at the home of a Master and move right in.  But they are not allowed to travel or work within 50 kilometers of where they did their apprenticeship.  When out of the country they will turn up at the German Embassy or Consulate, read a formal statement of their status and receive a small amount of spending money.

It seems that there are not a large number of these Fremder, or strangers, on the road at any given time.  A few hundred from Germany, smaller numbers from France and Switzerland.  In retrospect I had heard a faint report of this practice when I posted on  Masonic graffiti at the Pont du Gard. The practice of wandering journeymen goes back a long ways, obviously with interruptions for wars and so forth.  Perhaps all the Masonic graffiti I saw there was the equivalent of journeymen chiseling "Kilroy was here".

If you want to be very fussy about it, etymologically journeyman is also related to the French term jour, for day.  The implication being that after apprenticeship a tradesman had a right to demand to be paid for a day's work.  But this is an instance where several threads of meaning wind together.  And as it happens, most modern day journeymen work for room and board.

I found it a charming notion, this little sliver of medieval guild tradition still hanging on in the 21st century.  In recent times they have started allowing women to undertake the journey as well.  Who knows, perhaps the common European practice of a "gap year" of travel before starting University is another faint echo of the journeyman idea?

1 comment:

Joanna K. Dane said...

Fascinating stuff. There's a book there. Thanks for sharing.