Extinct professions - reapers, rangers and root plains

Extinct professions - reapers, rangers and root plains

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The lives of people in the forest and in the fields in 1400, 1600 or 1800 were anything but idyllic. For her, wood was a hotly contested resource and increasingly in short supply. Instead of the noble knights and elves of romanticism, millions of people struggled in the fields and in the forest and tried to use every square meter - sometimes so as not to starve. In addition to animals and tools, they had their own hands. Many jobs disappeared when machines did it and factories produced what Schnitter, Köhler or Harzer had previously done.

The landscape, agriculture and forestry were very different from today's Germany around 1600 or 1800: gravel plains in river valleys, poor corridors, heath areas, bogs, floodplains and sparse forests encompassed the majority of Central Europe. Today, conservationists get the last remnants of these pre-industrial cultural landscapes with great effort. Pasture land used collectively for cattle, sheep, goats and horses created open spaces, often grass-like vegetation and park-like landscapes in the hat forests, which the undergrowth lacked.

The “German Forest” became a place of longing in Romanticism, “Forest Solitude” the epitome of “German Mind”. It didn't have much to do with the real forest, romanticism was a current of the unsettled bourgeoisie of the cities, and it was torn between the fiction of a pre-modern idyll that had never existed and the technical modernity, which simplified a lot , but also brought anonymity and hectic pace. During this time there were professions that were of great importance at the time, but have now almost completely disappeared.


As a reaper, we now know the figure of the death godfather, who uses his scythe to mow down people like stalks of grain. The template for this metaphor of death was hard manual work. Reapers were very low down in the hierarchy of agriculture. They were agricultural workers who harvested the grain with a scythe or sickle. Often it was seasonal workers who went from farm to farm and offered their services. They brought their tools themselves. They only made ends meet because the cereals rye, barley and oats ripened at different times. Added to this were the different temperatures in the mountains and valleys, sun-drenched plains and shady northern sides, which led to early or late harvesting even with the same varieties.

The reaper was a typical profession of pre-motorized agriculture, not necessarily of the Middle Ages. The number of reapers rose rapidly after 1871 in the German Empire. These “Saxon goers” moved in masses from the structurally poor areas east of the Elbe to the Magdeburger Börde, where they harvested sugar beets on the most fertile soil in the Reich. They did not cut them, but dug them out, but the name was retained. Seasonal cutters lived in hastily laid cutter barracks, which are now monuments.

There are no more reapers in Central Europe today. With the combine harvesters, the profession died out and the scythe smiths also lost in importance. However, mowing by hand is often necessary to maintain species-rich meadow biotopes. The German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND e.V.) and the German Nature Conservation Association (NABU) therefore find it difficult to find customers who can use scythe or sickle. The edge of the scythe must be at a certain angle to the grass or grain as well as to the earth so that it mows instead of sticking into the ground. This method must first be learned and trained. Reapers are still widespread in India and Africa.


The meadow maker created arable land that could be used for agriculture. It existed from the Middle Ages to the modern era. This profession is known primarily from Ravensberg, but also in East Westphalia and Northern Germany.

In the Ravensberger Land, many smaller rivers and streams ran through the valleys. The ice age formed these trough or notch valleys (Sieken). Already in the early modern period, arable and pasture land had become scarce, since many people settled here to use the heavy loess soils. In the 16th century, the Wiskenmaker (meadow makers) worked there. They pricked the edges of the valley steeply, diverted the streams to the side and thus created hanging green areas that were sufficient for two to three cuts a year - all with tools such as spades and shovels. Woods were created on the steep slopes, which the locals used as timber and heating material. So these very species-rich areas are by no means a natural landscape.

Today there are old beeches and oaks on the steep sieve edges created by the meadow makers, which the farmers planted specifically. They served not only as firewood, but also as a shelter for the cattle and as a fence. The activity of these meadow makers has been handed down from the 19th century. So hundreds of men from Sudenburg and Oldendorf moved to Prussia, Silesia, Poland and even Russia to create farmland with their own hands. At Gifhorn in Lower Saxony today they created 3500 hectares of irrigated Rieselwiesen. These served, among other things, beekeeping. With the advent of motorized agricultural machinery, there was no longer any need for the meadow makers.


In the Middle Ages there was a vintage ban between the beginning of grape ripening and grape harvest. During this time the vineyards were closed. The vineyard keepers ensured that no unauthorized person entered them. Duke Albrecht II mentioned these guardians of the vineyards in the Austrian Wine Ordinance in 1352.

The keepers had far-reaching powers. For example, they were allowed to kill anyone who entered the guarded vineyard with weapons. Anyone who stole even three grapes could from then on be called a "harmful man", in the presence society of the Middle Ages, in which trade and communication took place primarily face to face, it was tantamount to social ostracism. Anyone who opposed arrest by the Weingartenkeeper was declared bird-free. The Austrian guardians' order of 1707 even prescribed that, depending on the size of the theft, grape thieves should cut off an ear or cut off a hand.

Signs made of straw and wood indicated that the vineyard was closed, the contemporary counterpart to our "no entry" signs. Guardians were only allowed to become punish-free men whose law was not in question, who were physically fit and who knew the area. Guardians were well paid and work increased their social prestige.

They had to swear by the guardians' order to work day and night and to live in huts in the vineyards during working hours. At first they were simple houses made of straw and grapevines, later the garden owners created permanent accommodations for them. The huts were mostly camouflaged to surprise potential lawbreakers. Guard pillars made of tree trunks are known, to which a guard bike was attached at the top, onto which the guardian climbed in order to view the country after intruders. In the vicinity of Vienna, such guardian pillars were made from delaminated black pine trees.

The keepers carried axes, also known as guard choppers, and sabers. In modern times, the weapons arsenal of the vineyard keepers was expanded to include pistols and rifles. Firearms were rarely used to kill thieves. Rather, they served to scare the red-handed. The guardian's job was to arrest the convicts and hand them over to the authorities. In the early days, they handed over the delicacies to the owner of the vineyard, later to the police. They received a bonus for delivered thieves, which was then called Stinglgeld. The guardians wore horns, known in Traiskirchen as Hiatapfoazn, as well as whips, the Hiatagoassln. In doing so, they also drove out birds such as starlings and thrushes that haunted the vineyards.

The end of the ban period was October 10th. A roar of black powder indicated that the vineyards were open again. The keepers moved into the towns and were greeted with solemnity. Often, this entry of the guardians coincided with Thanksgiving.

The guardian profession existed until the 1970s. The last two guardians in action in Rust am See mainly chase away birds. Since the 1990s there has been a re-performance of the old guardian festivals in Austria. Some of the vineyard huts have been restored to convey this piece of cultural history to visitors.

Root plains and herbal women

The name of this once recognized profession initially sounds like Waldschrat or Dorfdepp. His other name, root collector, also sounds like a poor swallow who digs the plants out of the earth so as not to starve.

In essence, it was herb collectors. Contrary to the idea of ​​the herbalist or the herbal witch, men, but not only, performed this activity. “Collecting” was hard work. The roots had to be excavated intact - with small spades, hatchets or even with your bare hands.

The root collectors from Arnsdorf in Lower Silesia became known. They dug up the herbs growing in the Giant Mountains. The local pharmacies then processed them

  • Teas,
  • Anoint,
  • Pastes,
  • Tinctures,
  • Stomach drops
  • and also made herbal liqueurs from it.

Such a herb collector was described in 1690:
"He was a strange appearance - tall, dressed all in green, with a mighty wreath of all kinds of herbs on his head and an equally mighty beard. Lively snakes hung around his neck; he let them bite them bloody, in order to then demonstrate the healing effects of the snake bacon with which he smeared the fresh bite wounds. He had various herbs with him. It was said that he even had magic remedies. "(Poznaj swój kraj, No. 12/2002, p.27)

The decline of the root collectors had the same reason as the end of the rat poison sellers and the wander healers at the annual markets: the control of medicine with official test procedures. In 1843, the trade regulations under Friedrich Wilhelm II only allowed officially approved medicines. The still living roots have a right to continue their herbs for life (ad dies vitae) to process, but successors were not allowed. Theodor Fontane wrote in 1891 about the last laboratory technician from Krummhübel, Ernst August Zölfel. He was one of the last of his profession.

Forest drawing cutter

Forest sign cutters marked trails in the woods. Their activity has come down from the Dresden area in particular. The creation of such route networks spanned centuries. In the early modern times, routes from the Middle Ages were measured, mapped, expanded and expanded. The woodcutters carved symbols into the bark of trees. To do this, they cut out a piece of bark, carved the respective shape into the wood and painted it red.

The Dresden suction types

In 1560 Johannes Humelius designed a network of trails in the form of a star around the Dresden Saugarten. Eight axes ran from this core at 45 degrees. There were also five ring routes in concentric formation - cross two to cross six. In 1589 the complete network appeared on a map of the Dresden Heath. The purpose of this system was an easy hunt, because the heath was the hunting ground of the Dresden electors. Over 270 black symbols marked bridges, hills, springs and so on. Even today there are around ten of these hand-carved symbols in the heath.


We know the ranger from the novel Lederstocking and through Karl May's characters like Old Firehand. In the fantasy role-playing game, he occupies a fixed place as a ranged player in pseudo-medieval player groups. As a self-made man who lives from hunting fur animals and makes a profit on his own, he would have ended up in prison in Central Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern times at best as a poacher. In fact, these rangers did not develop until America, where hunting privilege was just as little as other aristocratic privileges.

These men, also known as mountain men or “coureur des bois” in French, moved west from the colonies on the east coast to the large lakes, the Rocky Mountains or the endless forests of Canada. They lived with the Indians and exchanged their furs at the branches of the large trading companies.

The first known coureurs were Médard Chouard, also known as Sieur des Groseilliers, and Pierre-Esprit Radisson. In 1660 they came back to the French settlement of Trois-Riviéres with 60 canoes of fur from the great lakes. Rangers were the first pioneers in the west and opened up trade routes in land that was new to Europeans. The deal was great. Fur animals like

  • Lynxes,
  • Beaver,
  • Otter,
  • marten
  • or raccoons

was still in abundance.

Those who had the courage to turn their backs on the cities of the east and live in the wild could earn a rich nose. But soon many of the rangers were no longer interested in profit because they lost faith in profit as a measure of all things. When they had exchanged their furs, they squandered the proceeds with their Indian friends at parties. Then they moved back into the woods to live in freedom, far from everyday bureaucracy. That became her purpose in life.

The great time of the French rangers came to an end when the Hudson’s Bay Company itself advanced into the West. The former independent fur hunters now worked as employees of the large companies. The rangers experienced a big boom at the beginning of the 19th century when beaver cylinders were fashionable in Europe. In the 1820s, however, this fashion was over and many of the fur hunters gave up their jobs.

In the 19th century, independent trappers, the Mountain Men of the Rocky Mountains, developed again. When citizens of the cities of the east met these natural boys, two worlds met. Dressed in furs and suede, with overgrown beards and long knives, they appeared to the bourgeoisie in New York or Chicago as "wild" as the Indians with whom the Mountain Men lived in close friendship. They often married Indian women. James Feminore Cooper immortalized the Ranger in the novel Leather Stocking in 1821.

Pine soot burner, resin and lubrication burner

The soot burner was one of the most extinct jobs in the woods. Pine soot burners smoldered cones of coniferous wood, brushwood and pine shavings and added resin greaves, waste that resulted from the extraction of tree resin. The ash that was left was called black soot, an almost pure carbon. The soot served as the basis for paints, printing inks and shoe polish, and ink could also be made from it.

The soot burner was working on a kiln that rested on a stone foundation. The soot trap was next to the stove, and the smoke was gathering from the opening in the back of the stove. The soot now adhered to the walls in the soot area and the soot burner knocked it off there. 50 kilos of resin greaves resulted in up to six kilos of soot.

An early modern boom

Soot burners were of enormous importance in the early modern period and this is due to Gutenberg's printing press. Without the fine carbon produced in the soot smelters, mass printing of books and leaflets would not have been possible. Only in the industrial revolution did the soot producers lose value. Because the industrial smoldering of hard coal required far less effort.

What did a soot burner deserve?

A soot burner did not get rich, nor did it gnaw on the hunger cloth. First of all, he had to invest a lot in fuel, stove, auxiliary staff, taxes and interest. The bottom line was that a medium-sized hut that produced about 40 quintals of soot a year generated an income that was just enough to finance life. Very few soot burners only worked on the kiln. Most of them also worked as Harzers or Pechsieder, sometimes they were also related to the Koehler.


Harzers extracted resin from trees, using pine in particular. They removed the bark from the trunk and cut into the wood underneath. The injured tree emitted resin, the Harzers caught it, collected it and processed it further. Resin was heavily regulated everywhere in Germany, because it has always been in close competition with forestry, because dehairing makes wood almost worthless as timber.

Pechieder and lubrication burner

The soot boilers often worked at the same time as pitch heaters and lubrication burners. They burned tree resin into lubricants and used them to supply brewers who sealed their barrels, pharmacists who used them to make pitch oil, and butchers who removed the slaughtered animals' hair with rubbed pitch.

Charcoal burner

In the Black Forest there should be a ghost, the little glass man. The charcoal burner Peter went to this because Peter hated his laborious and dirty work, which brought him neither wealth nor recognition. Then he met an even worse forest spirit, the Dutch Michel. The pact with the spirits provided Peter with wealth, but also a cold heart in his chest, so that he felt neither joy nor sadness. The fairy tale "The Cold Heart" by Wilhelm Hauff from 1827 relates much more to the real world than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and names three old professions: The little glass man is reminiscent of the glass blowing huts in the Black Forest, Peter is a coal burner, and that Holländermichel is emblematic of the raftsmen who drove tree trunks from Swabia to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The fairy tale has a lot to offer in social history. Romanticism was an art form of change from the feudal period to industrial society. As a charcoal burner, Peter was on a branch that was just breaking off at the beginning of the 19th century. These coal burners still existed, but lignite and hard coal increasingly replaced the charcoal distilleries and steam engines. This is one of the reasons why Peters' profession, which had fallen out of his time, brought neither profit nor status.

In the Black Forest, the Köhler produced charcoal in piles, primarily to smelt iron, but also to manufacture glass and to process precious metals. Charcoal was necessary to produce metals and glass because the temperature of fires from firewood was not sufficient. Charcoal burners were never regarded and lived in relative poverty. They had a bad reputation like everyone who spent most of their lives outside the village and city community. Then there was the dirt. Although the hygienic conditions of the early modern period were generally inadequate, the charcoal burner, which smelled of smoke in every pore and adhered to the soot on every bare skin area, was considered to be as disreputable as tanner or masker. You needed him, but you didn't want to have much to do with him.

Reconstructed coal-fired huts in the Harz, Black Forest or Deister are reminiscent of this once ubiquitous trade in forest areas. They also remind us of how wrong today's projections of a “German jungle” are, which mostly imagine a “good old time” around 1800. Where tourists today enjoy the dark mysticism of the pine forests, the forest was almost cut down 200 years ago. It was only when the trades of the soot burners, coal burners and raftsmen had lost their importance that the forest could grow again.

The rafters

The Old Testament already reports that Hiram, the king of Tire, supplied the cedars in rafts across the Mediterranean to King Solomon of Israel. The Romans bought timber in the form of rafts from Corsica. In the late Middle Ages, the growth of the population, especially in the expanding cities, caused a shortage of wood, construction and firewood had to be transported from far away. The simplest and sometimes the only method of moving the heavy tribes was through rivers. "The people who live at Kinzig, especially at Wolfach, feed on the large timbers that they seam through the water of the Kinzig to Strasbourg and conquer a lot of money every year." Sebastian Münzer wrote in 1544 about rafting in the Black Forest.

As early as 926, the Hungarians cut wood in the Black Forest to build rafts. Until the Middle Ages, the Black Forest was a sparsely populated primeval forest, but it provided an important resource in quantities: wood. It was used to produce charcoal; people used it to build houses and needed it in mines. They made most everyday objects out of wood, water pipes as well as carriages, ax handles and furniture.

The wood pulled people into the Black Forest. The new profession of raftsman developed in the High Middle Ages. His trademark was a black hat with a wide brim, gauntlet boots reaching to the stomach and leather trousers. The raft tied the trunks with willow branches, a demanding task because the raft was exposed to heavy loads - from river curvatures, currents, rocks and other obstacles.

An important tool of the raft was the raft hook. He used it to loosen wood that had wedged. This activity was called "blowing up". It was very dangerous because the raftsman could also fall into the tearing water and be killed by the tribes. The season lasted from spring to autumn, in winter the raft made his tools, such as wedges and clips.

The Dutch needed wood from the Black Forest and the best way to send the heavy logs was by the rivers. Raftsmen tied the tree trunks together to rafts, then they moved towards the Rhine to Holland, where the river flows into Rotterdam. Small rafts in the side valleys came to the raft harbors and were tied together to form large rafts that comprised up to 200 tribes. The "Dutch firs" from the Black Forest were coveted, tall and straight and they offered the best material for the masts of the sailing ships.

While wood is still an important economic activity in the Black Forest, railroaders and trucks made the raftsmen unemployed. The last rafts left Schiltach in 1894 and Wolfach in 1895. The raft path from Lossburg to Wolfach is reminiscent of this old trade. Elsewhere in Germany, rafting continued until the 1950s. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


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  • Schüttler, Adolf: Das Ravensberger Land, Aschendorff Verlag, 1995
  • Federal Plant Protection Agency (ed.): Plant Protection Reports, Volumes 43-44, 1972
  • Krause, Gunther: "Historical signs of the Dresdner Heide on and around Weixdorfer Flur", in: Weixdorfer Nachrichten, 28th year number 4, 2018
  • Pusch, Oskar: "The Dresdner Saugarten in the Dresdner Heide", in: Announcements from the Landesverein Sächsischer Heimatschutz, Volume XVI, Issue 1–2, 1927
  • No printing ink without soot burner: (accessed: October 18, 2018)
  • Reith, Reinhold: The old craft: from Bader to Zinngiesser, C.H.Beck, 2008
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