German wandergeselle in traditional uniform — carrying on the tradition of the first-ever on-call tradies from 1,000 years ago

The first travelling professionals

by Andy Bryenton

These days we take it almost for granted that a phone call will summon for us a master craftsperson or professional who can practise their trade for us in our own home or on the farm. Things were very different, though, in medieval times, when people were forbidden from moving around freely by feudal laws. The first ‘free agents’ in the trades were the journeymen, and part of this is thanks to a mistranslation!

Ancient guild law gave three ranks to craftspeople, those of apprentice, journeyman and master. The ‘three degrees’ of rank are still preserved by very ancient guilds like those in London, and by groups like the Masons.

The term ‘to give someone the third degree’ refers to the tough spoken-word exam used to test journeymen and see if they were ready to become masters; that’s why it refers to a fierce interrogation. Apprentices, as today, received less pay and took part of their wage in education. It’s the second group, the journeymen, who were the first on-call professionals.

The original term comes from the Latin ‘diurnus’, for ‘day’. It was translated into French as ‘journee’ when France was the superpower of medieval Europe. Hence a ‘journee-man’ was a fully qualified person who was paid day by day for their work and could work for any master by negotiation.

He was allowed to switch job sites at will, seeking the best pay for his efforts, and could travel at a time when many common people could not, taking his gear on the road in a horse-drawn wagon. The only restriction was that the ‘journee-man’ was not allowed to hire his own staff until he had produced a perfect example of his craft to be inspected by a board of masters. That was literally his ‘masterpiece’.

Some think that a mistranslation of ‘journee’ as ‘journey’ led to the practice of German guild members of the second rank actually being sent on a three-year tour of Europe to hone their skills.

Unlike journeymen of other nations, the ‘wandergeselle’ of the German carpenters guild, for example, must travel from town to town to learn all the different specialities, which come from different regions. In New Zealand, the concept has come full circle. Our ‘journeymen’ are usually fully qualified masters in their own right, but they do indeed travel out to work on a daily or hourly rate to help the rest of us with jobs like plumbing, electrics, mechanical work and more.