The Journeyman in a New World

The Journeyman in a New World

The Journeyman in a New World

“If we looked backwards more (or more at people we think are backwards), would the New World define itself by things, by whatever is new?”

While in Livingstone, we had the unexpected experience (well, one of many, many, many unexpected experiences) of meeting a journeyman. The tradition of journeymen dates back to the late medieval ages, when guides were first organized. Communities of skilled craftsmen in the guild monitored the training of their own tradesmen and the products they produced. Guilds were developed for weaving, tapestry, carpentry & cabinet making, merchants, smiths, painting and many other crafts across most of Europe; they were tied to the development of the all-too-familiar ‘classe bourgeoise’ and, perhaps also to the consumer culture we so firmly (mistakenly?) associate with the 20th century.

Training in the guilds began with apprenticeship, when a young man was offered to a master by his family (in the hopes that he would one day be raking it in as a master, himself). At first, the apprentice was similar to slave labor, but was allowed to see some of the secrets of smelting metal or collecting paint colors; after a few years he might be allowed to participate in some of this work rather than all the housework he would have been doing up to this point. After several years of menial labor, the apprentice would begin to learn the master’s craft. In several more years, he would have progressed well enough to produce products up to the guild’s rigorous standards. He was ready to graduate to journeyman- which meant he was ready to travel the world for three years carrying only his clothes and the skills in his head and hands.

The journeyman we met and photographed is wearing traditional carpenter’s garb- tough (and hot) cloth to withstand puncture and cutting. He must wear these clothes for the entire three years, after which he may wear whatever he wants. He could not use a backpack but only the pack rolls his predecessors had used hundreds of years ago and he could only use the tools he found at hand. His task was to go out and learn about the world, himself and the skills and methods of his comrades in other parts of the world: a centuries-old foreign exchange program to ensure that the guild at home was up-to-date on the latest technology!

The journeyman we met was German; the three years he was required to travel and learn in order to gain admittance to his guild back home made me think quite a bit about the value of preserving such ‘traditional’ heritage.

I am a product of a culture that is defined by constantly redefining itself and by assuming that culture- what defines the kind of lifestyle you want to participate in- is usually some thing (‘thing’ as in stuff, consumerism, shopping) that is new, hot, fresh off the press, off the runway, or off the plane from factories in China and newly added to the Pottery Barn or Sharper Image catalog. Or maybe it is ‘retro’- but only because that is the latest thing- the latest fad. ‘Latest’ and ‘thing’ being the key words, of course. Keep in mind, of course, that much of this stuff must be disposable so that newer stuff can take its place.

After all, the traditions of the American cultural tool belt- foods, music, holiday celebrations- are understood as leftovers from those cultures ‘back home’ in the Old World (with the possible exception of Thanksgiving and the tradition of Santa Claus, the latter of which just goes back to advertising anyway).

I am not sure I would have made these comments about consumerism being at the heart of American culture- the right to buy and own whatever you want- before having spent a year away from it in a place where consumerism just can’t exist in the same way- much less with the same merchandise.

Maybe as a historian I just like seeing traditions kept but I really enjoyed seeing this young German in his strange costume wandering through a backpacker joint somewhere in the middle of central Africa keeping alive a tradition that is older than my country. It seemed genuine and perhaps more in tune with the whole point of travel than the thousands of battery hours, digital photos, and diary pages that were consumed by other travelers that day. Again, I refer to the ‘things’ and ‘consumption’ of the other travelers on purpose for the difference was stark.

Unlike the other tourists, the young journeyman was engaging and offering part of himself- his knowledge- with people who shared something of his skills, knowledge and interests and probably none of his ‘things’- tools, materials, etc.

That was when I asked myself, if we looked backwards more (or more at people we think are backwards), would the New World define itself by things, by whatever is new?

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