Auf Der Walz.
December 14, 2006 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Since the Middle Ages, German craftsmen have gone 'auf der Walz' (taken to the road) as part of a kind of working-pilgrimage that artisans make after completing an apprenticeship with a master craftsman. These travels are meant to teach them about work and life and takes precisely three years and one day; they are not allowed to return home before this time. The trip can take these young craftsmen and women (all must be under the age of 30) halfway around the world (and often does) and they are allowed only a small rucksack. Other than that, they can bring along their uniform (a simple black and white affair that almost defies description), their tools, undergarments, a sleeping bag, a book and their trademark walking stick.

Although today this is a dying tradition, and is often more traditionally known as being a Journeyman today, it still exists and has inspired some to write about the strage travellers they see on the road. Indeed, perhaps the most famous work this tradition inspired is Australian poet Banjo Patterson, whose work Walzing Matilda is believed to have been inspired by this fascinating yet waning custom.
posted by Effigy2000 (28 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa. Definitely never heard of that before. What an interesting phenomenon. Did I miss an explanation somewhere of the uniform? Doesn't seem particularly middle ageish to me. When did that come into the scene? Thanks for the post!
posted by mosessis at 6:20 PM on December 14, 2006

In the US, "journeyman" is used in some trades, like printers, as the status attained after serving an apprenticeship. I've been familiar with this and have negotiated labor contracts using the term, wondering , but never knowing where it came from. Now I know -- thanks for the post.
posted by beagle at 6:21 PM on December 14, 2006

Cool post.

Scene: November 2004, me and co-worker on business trip to Wiesbaden, sitting in Abbey-sponsored brewpub. In walk two guys dressed in traditional German costumes who proceed to do this loud speech/schtick in German, banging their sticks on the wooden floor.

We're clueless, but people clap and most begin to give them money as they literaly pass the hat. When they get to our table we go 'Sprechen sie English?' and they tell us the story in English. We of course give them money, they were a long way from home like us.
posted by fixedgear at 6:36 PM on December 14, 2006

Great post. Seems like an excellent and rewarding way to learn a trade, though the pictures make me think of Mariachis with too-small hats.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:48 PM on December 14, 2006

You still see people like this in some German towns. When I lived in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt there'd occasionally be some passing through. It's true though that their ranks are declining, and it's kind of sad too.
posted by Aanidaani at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2006

This is a bit off-topic, but I had to look it up: Off The Wall: The phrase off the wall, meaning wild, crazy, or eccentric is first attested to in 1953. The originating metaphor is unknown, but it likely refers to some sport, a racquet-sport like squash or perhaps baseball, where a ball may literally be played off the wall. Not related to auf der Walz at all, apparently.
posted by SPrintF at 7:27 PM on December 14, 2006

I met two of these guys here in Auckland, earlier this year. They were carpenters and had been donating their labour and skills to needy causes as they travelled.

Their top hats and tight-fitting bellbottom trousers seemed to have a positive effect on young women, I might add.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:45 PM on December 14, 2006

So this past summer we were in Hope BC, on our way to Kelowna for the weekend. We stopped in a small diner for breakfast. In walked this strange character dressed as pictured. He ate a clubhouse sandwich at nine AM, which seemed as odd as his clothes. We were flabergasted as to what his point was, I wish I knew then what I know now, I bet he had some great stories.

The poor guy then paid, got up and left, started hoofing it up the highway in his suede suit on the literally hottest day of the year.

Thanks for the great post.
posted by Keith Talent at 7:48 PM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

In the middle ages the terms of "master craftsmen", "masterpiece" and "journeyman" had specific meanings related to the Guild system, a non-competitive (non-capitalists) economic system. A journeyman was a dead-end job, a "McJob", with no hope of advancement. They journeyed from job to job sweeping floors, digging ditches, etc.. To become a master craftsman you had to 1) buy or inherit the title from the guild (assuming any were available since titles were limited and strictly controlled) and 2) produce a "master piece", to prove you could do the job according to specs. Considering how anti-capitalistic the guild system was, it's fairly subversive in these times, although they probably don't take it that far.
posted by stbalbach at 8:04 PM on December 14, 2006

Such a very lovely post. Thank you!
posted by vetiver at 8:05 PM on December 14, 2006

Very interesting post, thanks Effigy2000. There is a contradiction with the Matilda story and the 'remaining chaste' in your first link.
posted by tellurian at 8:14 PM on December 14, 2006

I remember seeing these guys during my junior year abroad in Germany; there were a couple at an Ani DiFranco concert I saw in Köln, for example. Even more impressively, my little brother ran into a couple of German journeymen in traditional Kluft while doing his junior year abroad--in the Dominican Republic. They were just traveling around, building houses. Pretty cool.
posted by sy at 9:13 PM on December 14, 2006

I snapped these guys in Dublin a few years back. I thought they were on a stag night.
posted by prolific at 10:04 PM on December 14, 2006

One of my ancestors did this before he could raise the money to emigrate. I had no idea it still existed.

Maybe if they allowed the uniform to be updated?
posted by dhartung at 10:48 PM on December 14, 2006

They are also more commonly known in German as "Zimmermänner". When they travel between gigs and stop in a restaurant, they bang their large walking sticks on the ground to get everyone's attention and then recite a traditional poem about who they are and what they are doing. Because they earn such little money on their journey, they will do this in exchange for food or a bed for the night. but also for haircuts or shaves. If you ever see this, buy them a beer or a sandwich or something and ask them about their journey. They have lots of interesting stories about living on the road.

I have spoken to a few on their journey through Lüneburg. According to them, they are not allowed to take off their hats unless they are eating, sleeping or in church. I'm not sure how strictly they adhere to that though. Like one article says, they are expected to behave themselves and adhere to a code of ethics, but once they have few beers, it's party time.

I also met a journeywoman at a party once. She was learning traditional wooden ship-building. Cool. It was funny/surreal to watch her dance while wearing here traditional outfit.
posted by chillmost at 12:33 AM on December 15, 2006

Programmers should do this.
posted by mr. strange at 2:45 AM on December 15, 2006 [4 favorites]

In Denmark they're known as "Navers" and they built quite a few of the houses in Christiania, as well as fixing up a lot of the infrastructure (they rebuilt the bridge, for instance) . They even have their own communal house which they built there called the "Banana House".
posted by silence at 3:18 AM on December 15, 2006

God damn, can I favorite this post again?
posted by dreamsign at 3:49 AM on December 15, 2006

This is really cool; although they seem to become rarer and rarer, I've met quite a few over the years. Ask them if you can see their watch chain, if you get the chance - traditionally they add the town emblem of each town they worked in to it.
What's also interesting is that most of the equipment has either very practical or almost spiritual properties: the wide trouser legs keep sawdust from falling into the shoes, the wide-brimmed head likewise protects the head and shirt. The corduroy cloth is chosen for its ability to repel sawdust. The eight buttons on the vest stand for "eight hours of work a day" and the six buttons on the jacket for "work six days a week". Traditionally a golden earring is worn in the left ear, showing the guild emblem and a six-pointed star (referring back to the First Mason who supposedly was a disciple of king Solomon). The earring also paid for the funeral of the journeyman, should he die in strange lands without money.
And if he was for some reason expelled from his guild, the ring was torn out of the journeyman's ear, leaving a wound and later a scar that gave rise to a German word for "scoundrel": "Schlitzohr" (lit. "slit-ear").
posted by PontifexPrimus at 6:23 AM on December 15, 2006 [3 favorites]

Fascinating stuff Effigy2000. Thanks for posting!
posted by frecklefaerie at 6:39 AM on December 15, 2006

I wouldn't say this tradition is declining. Some sources say the journeymanship is actually booming since the german re-unification and the following economic decline, because many craftsmen couldn't find steady work.

After the end of the guild system so called "Schächte (ger. wiki)" were founded in the 19th century to promote the journeymanship. There are several of these organisations, the biggest is the Rechtschaffene Fremde (righteous foreigners) with 150 to 170 travellers (of an overall 600-800). A traditional Schacht wouldn't take in women. In the 80s two alternative, non-traditional Schächte were founded where women are accepted. Today about 80 are on the walz, about 10%.

A friend of mine went on the walz, only to come back a few weeks later when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. (There is a self-help group for left behind girlfriends, liebe fremde)
posted by kolophon at 7:34 AM on December 15, 2006

I read about these travelers recently on.... Metafilter. However, my search fu is failing me now. Maybe someone can so better ? Would love to have done this in my youth though.
posted by dawdle at 9:15 AM on December 15, 2006

In France, the order is known as Les Compagnons du Devoir, with plenty of google links out there. Also, there was an outstanding article on the subject in Parabola Magazine, Fall 1991 if you ever run across it.
posted by Heatwole at 10:58 AM on December 15, 2006

Outstanding post in all ways, thanks Effigy2000.
posted by peacay at 10:41 PM on December 16, 2006

Fabulous post, very interesting Effigy2000 - thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 8:55 AM on December 17, 2006

Effigy, I'm sorry but you've really grabbed the wrong end of the stick re waltzing matilda. Swaggies went bush in the depression of the 1890s due to extreme poverty and the shearers dispute, not to gain or share experience at all.
posted by wilful at 9:22 PM on December 17, 2006

wilful: YHTB. HTH. HAND.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:50 PM on December 17, 2006

"Effigy, I'm sorry but you've really grabbed the wrong end of the stick re waltzing matilda. Swaggies went bush in the depression of the 1890s due to extreme poverty and the shearers dispute, not to gain or share experience at all."
posted by wilful at 3:22 PM AEST on December 18

A fair point, wilful, but bear in mind that I didn't say Waltzing Matilda was about the 'auf der walz' tradition. Instead, I said it had been inspired by it, which is discussed in the last link of the OP which says;

"I cannot say with certainty that the term waltzing Matilda came from the German auf der Walz gehen mit Mathilde or some formulation such. It seems likely."

The wikipedia article on Waltzing Matilda says much the same thing.

So for clarifications sake, I am not trying to say that Waltzing Matilda is about people who went 'auf der walz'. I am saying that it is likely Banjo Patterson was in some way using the phenomenon as part of the influence for his poem.

On a related note, the wikipedia article on Waltzing Matilda has a link to a WP article about 'auf der walz' under the title 'Wanderjahre' (traveling years, literally translated, I think). It makes for interesting further reading for all those who did enjoy this post... if you can read German, that is.
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:48 AM on December 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

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