Journeymen making their way on outskirts of Faurndau, Germany, carrying their only belongings in small bundles.CreditCreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
They hitchhike across Europe, instantly recognizable in the wide-bottomed, corduroy trousers, white shirts and colored jackets that identify them as bricklayers, bakers, carpenters, stonemasons and roofers.
They are “Wandergesellen,” or journeymen — a vestige of the Middle Ages in modern Europe — young men, and these days women, too, who have finished their required training in any number of trades and are traveling to gather experience. Most are from German-speaking countries.
In the past, journeymen traveled under the auspices of a trade association, and today many still do. But many also take up the practice freely, though still adhering to the strict, often arcane, rules handed down largely through word of mouth to preserve the tradition.
According to custom, young men and women wishing to become journeymen find someone already on the road to sponsor them and help organize their trip. Prospective journeymen are debt-free, unmarried and no older than 30. They agree to stay away from home for at least as long it took to complete their traineeship — usually two or three years — plus a day, and to live by their wits, their trade and the generosity of strangers.
The night before setting off from home, a future journeyman traditionally hosts a party to say farewell to family and friends. In the course of the night, a hole is made in his or her earlobe for an earring to wear throughout the journey. Tradition holds that anyone who breaks the rules will have the earring torn out, marking that person with a cleft lobe, or a “split-ear,” a term long since adopted in the German language for a crook.
The morning after the party, the neophyte buries a memento near the boundary of his or her hometown, then climbs over the city limits sign to fall into the arms of fellow journeymen who have gathered to see the new traveler off before they resume their own journeys.
Over the coming weeks and years, the journeymen will share a kinship, serving as guides and providing a professional network and emotional support.
Journeymen carry a pocket-size diary to be filled with stamps from cities visited and testaments of work accomplished along the way. Traditionally these books were used as a résumé for finding work after a journey. Today they serve more as a travel diary.
While on the road, journeymen are not supposed to pay for food or accommodations, and instead live by exchanging work for room and board. In warm weather, they sleep in parks and other public spaces. They generally carry only their tools, several changes of underwear, socks and a few shirts wrapped into small bundles that can be tied to their walking sticks — and that can also double as pillows.
Most journeymen will work in the jobs for which they are trained. But they also take other work, either to expand their skill set or out of a need for food or a change of pace. Large summer projects, lasting several weeks, will see bakers handling jackhammers and gardeners helping out in the kitchen.
In public, journeymen wear distinctive traveling garb, their trousers sewn with pockets deep enough to hold a folded meterstick or a bottle of beer. The color of their jackets indicates their trade: Carpenters and roofers wear black, tailors maroon and gardeners deep hunter green. There are other clues, too, in their belt buckles and the brooches on their ties.
Their dress makes them instantly recognizable in the German-speaking world, though not necessarily beyond. “Outside of Germany, we are often taken for cowboys,” said Arnold Böhm, 25, a carpenter from Görlitz who spent time working in Cape Verde, Namibia and South Africa.
During the World Wars the tradition stopped, fully reviving only in the 1980s and ’90s. Many trade associations from the Middle Ages are still around, and others have sprung up for new vocations. Women also are part of the modern tradition.
In an adaptation of the old rules to modern times, journeymen do not carry devices like cellphones that allow them to be found. They carry digital cameras, if they like, and write emails from public computers.
Journeymen travel in groups or on their own, depending on their trades and their routes, often finding one another by sight. “Have you seen people who look like me?” Mathias Müller, a carpenter, asked people in Tübingen after arriving there to meet up with friends.
Traditionally, a journeyman was not allowed to travel or seek work within a 60-kilometer radius of his hometown — a guideline intended to encourage an exchange of ideas among those practicing any given trade. Today, it remains a way to ensure that the journeyman develops independence.
Nepomuk Neyer, 26, a wicker weaver from Innsbruck, Austria, recounted once traveling beyond the radius but still near enough that he could look down the valley and see his home. “That was the hardest moment,” he said.
Many of the young people who head off on such a journey had rarely left home, and then only with their parents or on school trips.
Nonetheless, for many the hardest part of their journey is deciding when to end it. The responsibilities and monotony of a daily routine have a way of making the challenges of wandering from place to place, not always knowing where you might sleep, seem like fun.
“You don’t have any overheads, you don’t have a family or a house to take care of,” Mr. Böhm said. “What you have is your freedom.”