History for Fantasy Writers: Journeymen

We often hear of apprentices in fantasy tales — Ray Feist’s “Magician Apprentice” comes to mind first — but apprenticeship is only one step. This article is about the next step: the journeyman (they were always men; I know of no examples of female journeymen, although there were cases of women who became masters).

Once a boy’s apprenticeship was complete, he had to serve time as a journeyman. He left the service of his master and entered into a period during which he worked for other masters, normally in other towns. This was the Wanderjarhe, the years of wandering, of journeying. During this time, at least in theory, he was a master-in-training. No longer merely studying his craft, now he would be practicing it. The point of journeying was to expose the young man to other techniques and styles, but also to afford the next generation a chance to set up shop in a new place.

The journeyman often had to pay a small fee for the privilege of working in a new town. He might stay there for a single job, or he might stay there for years. He could also return to the town of his birth; indeed, sons of masters might not truly journey at all, but merely serve a token year working for local masters. But that’s not very interesting, so let’s follow a true journeyman.

After having paid his fee in the new town, he reported to the guild for work. This experience varied widely by trade. In some cases the guild had a job specialist, specifically authorized to find journeymen for masters. The master would take the youth on for some specific period of time, anything from a week to months to whenever a particular job was completed. This last was especially common in the construction trades. In the Carpenters Guild, for example, jobs were posted on a board in the guild hall, and journeymen checked there each day for work. In the Barbers Guild, journeymen simply checked in with the jobmaster, who sent them to this or that barber for work.

Journeymen were not qualified to do a master’s work. They did the more menial, less skilled stuff. Just as some apprentices were treated as mere servants and never taught the craft, so it was with journeymen sometimes. In the case of barbers, for example, journeymen could cut hair but they were forbidden to perform a surgery, though they could do so if there was an emergency and the barber was away. In the carpenters guild, sometimes journeymen did little more than fetch and haul. A man could get a reputation for being unskilled or unreliable, and this followed him, essentially trapping him for life in journeyman status.

When the journeyman was ready to go to another town, which he could do entirely at his discretion, provided he was not under contract nor in debt (debt could trap a journeyman in a town for years), he got a letter from the guild and a gift of money (in German, a Geschenk) to help him on his way. These items could be generous or modest, which would greatly affect the journeyman’s chances in the next town.

Eventually, one of three things happened. One, he never made it out of journeyman status, spending his life as a hired hand. Two, he gained mastership in a town and settled down there. Three, he abandoned the trade and tried his hand at something else.

The eternal journeyman was an increasingly common figure at the end of the Middle Ages. Economic change made most crafts static. In that situation, guildsmen saw first to their own sons, creating barriers to keep out newcomers. No longer was it sufficient for a journeyman merely to demonstrate his skill. He had also to have enough money to buy a shop. He had to be married. He had to be a citizen, which entailed its own requirements. It got bad enough in some places that the main way to become a master was to marry the widow of a master.

Journeymen were an important and, in some guilds, vital source of manpower. Like hired labor in modern times, a journeyman could be let go at any time, for any reason, giving the master flexibility in meeting fluctuating demand.

As you might guess, there was plenty of friction between journeymen and masters under these conditions. There were strikes called by journeymen. Since these were illegal everywhere, doing so was a desperate act. More common were acts of violence against individual masters, and more common still were legal appeals to the guild or to the city council. Since those bodies were entirely controlled by the masters, such appeals were not always successful.

The happier outcome, though, was to become a master. The stereotype is in everyone’s mind, even if they can’t say what planted it there. We see a young man working over a pair of shoes, or perhaps a silver figurine, while a group of solemn, bearded masters observe with a critical eye. Artisinal craftsmanship at its finest.

It did happen. But the stereotype rather breaks down when one considers other trades. For example, what would be the masterwork for a carpenter? Did the masters watch as he framed a house? How about a miller? Was he given a new mill wheel to calibrate? Or did the masters judge how well the candidate dumped in a bag of grain?

It varied. The Barbers and Bathhouse Keepers of Augsburg provides an instructive example. There, the journeyman didn’t trim a beard. Rather, he received something more like a medical exam–an oral examination by the masters in which he had to answer various questions.

Which brings up a related topic. A new master was entering into more than just a craft, he was entering also into a guild and a city–a community. The journeyman in most guilds was also required to demonstrate that he knew the guild’s regulations. In some places, this was an annual requirement. In addition, he was required to recite the city’s citizenship oath. This was normally where any rules about social status (no former serf could become a master, for example) and marital status (single men were regarded as too unstable to become masters) could be enforced.

Once the journeyman was passed by all concerned bodies, there would be a feast at the guild hall. Not every guild had a guild hall; the poorer ones typically rented a hall from an associated guild. But there would always be a feast, with much drinking. The advent of a new master was of greatest importance to the guild.

What about those who quit? It was possible. It was even possible to be a master in one guild and then switch careers. There was more mobility in the Middle Ages than most people nowadays would suppose. There were towns that had so few practitioners of a craft that they did not have their own guild, and the masters of one craft existed under the umbrella of another trade. Entry into such was sometimes easier. In addition, many unskilled trades, such as carters or fishmongers, were not organized as a guild at all. So it was always possible to switch careers, even if doing so might be undesirable.

For the Fantasy Writer

There are more story-telling possibilities for the journeyman than either the apprentice or the master. Their situation was more fluid, which means more room for conflict.

The journeying is the chief attraction. Any time you take a young man (I know of no instances of female journeymen, but in your fantasy world you could certainly create them) out of his home environment and put him in a new place, there will be plenty of story angles.

One, in particular is worth mentioning. Remember that a journeyman had to marry before he could become a master. During the Reformation this created a real problem in some areas where the journeyman might be a Lutheran but the town was dominated by Catholics. We have appeals from such, asking to be allowed to become a master anyway because no local girl will marry them. Maybe the guild doesn’t allow elves, or maybe it’s only elves. Whatever the situation, the journeyman is the young craftsman eager to get his big break.

Another permutation would be to play with the whole notion of journeying. What if the journey had to be to a specific place, one suitably distant and challenging? Or if the journey involved not merely generalized work but a set of particular tasks? It would all be terribly unfair, of course, and oppressively enforced by the guild masters. A journeyman wizard certainly has possibilities, don’t you think?

What Do You Say?

Have you used guilds in your stories? What use did you make of them? We’d love to hear from you!


I know of few works specifically on journeymen, none in English. There is some stuff on modern journeymen—it’s still practiced in Europe, on a small scale. But here are a few items that might be interesting.

A brief article about compagnonnage, a kind of union of journeymen in France

The charter of a guild in the city of Arras that has items about journeymen

  • Guilds in the Middle Ages, Georges Renard

E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

E.L. Skip Knox
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Brianna Sharp
Brianna Sharp
10 months ago

Love learning new things like this! Very well written and informative.

Marc Vun Kannon
10 months ago

In my novel Ghostkiller I had the Mediums Guild still existing into a modern age (the book was set in a modern urban environment) since the nature of mediums made changing the structure unnecessary, much like sharks haven’t really evolved in millions of years, being perfectly adapted for their role.

Pemry Janes
Pemry Janes
10 months ago

I feel a little silly for never having thought before why a journeyman is called that. It is obvious in hindsight.

Lou Lou
10 months ago

This was really interesting, thankyou 🙂 I’m Roma and up until the 1940s we still had a similar system to this so I have a story you might like – my family were blacksmiths and when each child (boy or girl) was 12 – 14 they were expected to learn their trade outside the family (often with the family they were betrothed to). My Dad and his little brother were put with a blacksmith who used to beat them. One day he knocked my Dad to the ground and stood over him threatening him with the hot iron, so my Dad’s little brother came up behind him with a huge iron bar and cracked him round the back of the head! The two boys ran home to my Gran (who everyone was scared of!) and when the local police bobby came knocking she came to the door with a frying pan and told him both boys had been with her all morning – he eyed the frying pan carefully, apologised for disturbing her and went on his way. BUT, both boys got the hiding of their lives from her and my Granddad as they’d brought the family into shame, messed up their apprenticeship and potential marriage prospects and now wouldn’t be able to enter the blacksmith trade either. They ended up getting drawn into gangland London as there were few other options for them. In the end my Dad managed to get out but my uncle never did. I think it shows just how important these placements were and how far reaching the effects could be for the young men (and in our culture it could be women too).

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