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German Genealogy

Occupations and Social Standing

Crafts and Occupational Records

Crafts have an old and venerable tradition in Germany. By the 11th century some craftsmen were already organizing themselves into guilds (Zunfte). These guilds challenged the power of the patricians in towns. The purpose of the guild was to provide training for apprentices, to maintain product quality, and to fix prices, and otherwise to regulate craftsmen.

The records of guilds are extensive and important. They often contain lists of members and notations on journeymen temporarily working in the town. Very little of this information has been published, with the exception of a few professions such as pharmacists, physicians, librarians, and Protestant ministers. They have published lists of professional members (Verzeichnisse der Berufsangehörigen).

There were three stages of training for a craftsman in Germany included: 1) a boy was apprenticed by his father or guardian to a master craftsman (Meister); 2) the apprentices (Lehrlinge) worked for their masters for a minimum of three years; and 3) and at the end of the apprenticeship period, the young man was allowed to take an examination (Gesellenprüfung), and if he passed he became a journeyman (Geselle) and was given a journeyman's certificate (Gesellenbrief). It was customary for the journeyman to undertake a journey (Wanderschaft), traveling about the country, working for, and receiving the support of master craftsmen and guilds (Innungen) in other towns. In this way the young craftsman gained experience and learned more about his trade. At the end of his itinerary, the journeyman had the right to be accepted as a master craftsman with the ability to open his own shop and to train apprentices. In some crafts a second examination (Meisterprüfung) was required before acceptance as a master craftsman.

Each stage of training generated a written record. For admission into a guild, the applicant had to present a birth certificate (Geburtsbrief) or a statement of birth or origin (Geburts- und Herkunftszeugnisse). Only legitimate individuals were allowed into the guild. Often there were also apprentice contracts. The journeyman also received a Wanderzettel, much like a passport, in which his guild attested to his competence as a craftsman and to his identity. Notations were made in this passport as he traveled observing the quality of his work and comments on conduct. Many of these Wanderzettel survive in collections. Those who became master craftsmen had their names recorded in the book of masters (Meisterbuch). (Smith, Clifford. Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research).

Village Administration and Residents

Pre-1918 German society had farm laborers and servants at the bottom of the social scale and the nobility at the top. There was virtually no upward movement between classes, and only limited upward mobility within each class. The village hierarchy answered to the lord of the land, which could be secular, like a nobleman, or religious, such as a bishop or a monastery. The land owner in turn was beholden to the next higher class, perhaps a count or a duke.

A village community included full citizens (Bürger, Nachbarn), and residents with partial or no citizenship rights (Einwohner, Hintersassen, Einsassen). Only full citizens had voting rights and could be appointed to public offices.

In a village, the top person was the lord of the land, usually a nobleman, church, monastery, etc. The town administrator (Vogt) was usually appointed by the lord of the land. The mayor (Bürgermeister) was appointed or elected by the citizens, depending on the area. The town council consisted of 7-12 men. These men exercised administrative, legislative, and limited judicial functions (not involving capital punishment). The field overseer (Feldwächter) had to enforce the borders of the various field sections and conformity to planting regulations. The treasurer (Kastenmeister) and tax collector (Zentgraf) dealt with local finances and the contributions required to be paid to the various authorities.

Bürgers or Nachbarn were citizens with full rights. In order to become a Bürger, the applicants had to be the legitimate son of a Bürger, have a good moral reputation, meet other conditions, and pay a fee (Bürgergeld). Out-of-town applicants had to provide proof of legitimate birth, proof that they could a family and of a certain amount of personal property, and sometimes procure affidavits of good moral character, etc. the town council decided who could become a citizen and st the fee to be paid. Citizens' rights included a yearly gift of firewood and occasionally wood for building, as well a right to graze cattle on the village meadow.

Hintersassen or beisassen usually had no real property in the town, and had fewer rights than a Bürger. They had no vote in village matters, did not get the free yearly wood allotment, and could not graze their cattle (if they had any) on town property.

Innkeepers were respected in the community and often held public office. The townspeople were required to patronize the inn and buy certain amounts of alcoholic beverages on social occasions, such as family events and Kirmes.

Dishonorable professions included those dealing with social taboos, such as crime, illness, and death, and "earth."  Included were bath house owners, prostitutes, executioners, bailiffs, weavers, potters, charcoal burners, castrators, grave diggers, and others, depending on the region. They married within their class and had no upward movement.

There are over a hundred terms that mean "farmer" in historical records. Most denote a level of a person's social standing, ranging from farm laborers to farmers with property and thereby having more rights and fewer obligations. In general, the lower class had fewer rights and more obligations.

This information is from a presentation entitled "Occupations and 'Social Standing' in Germany" by Baerbel K. Johnson, July 2008, at a workshop sponsored by German Interest Group-Wisconsin.

  • Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978. Historical overview of the social emancipation of the rural peasantry in Austria-Hungary, the Baltic States, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Switzerland during the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Cowan, Alexander Francis. The Urban Patriciate: Lübeck and Venice, 1580-1700. Köln: Böhlau, 1986. Includes extensive bibliography.

  • Heinemeier, Dan C. A Social History of Hesse: Roman Times to 1900. Arlington, Virginia: Heinemeier Publications, 2002. Has good bibliography.

  • Hoffmann, Richard C. Land, Liberties and Lordship in Late Medieval Countryside: Agrarian Structures and Change in the Duchy of Wroclaw. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Social history of the former Duchy of Wroclaw, part of the larger Duchy of Silesia, from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

  • Laslett, Peter, Karla Oosterveen and Richard M. Smith; Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Bastardy and Its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism in Britain, Grance, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica and Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Other Resources

  • Borrmann, Julia Katharina. "The Shoemaker (Schuhmacher/Schuster)" Der Blumenbaum, SGGS 27, 2: 64-67.