History and tradition
The custom of Wanderjahre evolved in the late Middle Ages and lasted until industrialization. Completing one’s Wanderjahre, which means three years and one day, was a prerequisite for qualifying as a fully fledged craftsman, allowed to run his own business and to take on apprentices of his own.
Only male apprentices went hiking and they belonged to many crafts, although carpenters are the most famous among them because of their distinctive costume. Rules and conditions, which had to be adhered to, were very strict and the journeyman had to carry his Wanderbuch to document where he had been. Nobody who was married, in debt or had a criminal record was allowed to go on Wanderschaft.
The purpose was to teach the future Meister responsibility and to give him the opportunity to see the world and hone his skills in foreign surroundings.He was not allowed to accept pay and could work only for food and shelter. A silver earring and ornaments on the waistcoat served as emergency funds should he run out of money or could be sold to pay for his funeral should he die during his Wanderjahre. The apprentice had to wear his distinctive Kluft at all times.
Vocabulary for Wanderjahre
Die Wanderjahre - years on the road
wandern - to hike
tippeln - to hike
Das Jahr - year
Der Geselle - journeyman (approx. meaning of the German term)
Der Meister - craftsman (after qualification and exam)
zu Fuss - on foot
Das Wanderbuch - hiking passport
Der Zylinder - top hat
Die Weste - waistcoat
Die Lehrzeit - apprenticeship
Der Lehrling (modern word: der Auszubildende) - apprentice
Die Innung - guild
Die Zunft - guild
Die Schaechte - unions of apprentices
Der Freireisende - independant journeyman, not belonging to a Schacht
Die Logis - lodgings
Der Anhalter - hitch hiker
Die Schlaghose - flared pants
Der Knopf - button
Die Schlafrolle - sleeping roll
Die Kluft - traditional clothing
etwas hochmachen - to make a good impression
Das Schlitzohr - literally: slit ear, meaning a journeyman who had behaved badly and whose earring had been torn out as punishment
auf der Rolle - on the roll (hiking)
Das Silbergehaenge - silver ornaments worn on waistcoat
Das Mittelalter - Middle Ages
During industrialization the tradition of Wanderjahre had declined, but recent times have seen a revival. The most important change is that nowadays, female apprentices are also allowed to go on Wanderschaft. The journeymen are still organized in guilds, but there are many who don’t belong to any, known as Freiheitsbrueder.
Reunification in Germany and growing unemployment have played a mayor role in the resurrection of the trend, as many young people from the former DDR made their way to West Germany as Handwerksgesellen auf Wanderschaft.