Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Best Medicine? Laughter, Of Course!

Crossing the bridge over the Partnach, the river that separates Garmisch from Partenkirchen, a thought crossed my mind: the threats and crises that we face, while different from those of earlier centuries, are no more serious than those problems of the 16th—or any other—century. Maybe there are even a few lessons we could learn from the way people coped.

During the 1500 and 1600s in the Werdenfels region, epidemics and Swedish invaders regularly caused massive social upheavals and high death rates. The Oberammergau Passion Play grew out of these events, as did another tradition that has spread to many towns in Bavaria, the Schaeffler dance.

The Schaeffler were the coopers, the craftsmen who made not only the barrels to store beer and wine, but a variety of other wooden containers and kegs. Their name came from the Bavarian word Schaff, a keg or barrel that opens on the top.

Munich’s beer barrel makers, who eventually formed a guild, were an integral craft there since the 7th or 8th Century —no surprise considering the central role that beer has played in the city. According to a local tradition, their dance originated in 1517, one of the numerous years that the plague had infested Munich. Thousands of Munich’s inhabitants had died and the city was at a standstill. Only the Neuhauser and Isar gates were open and vigilant guards permitted very few people to enter. Coins brought into the city had to be soaked in vinegar and letters were fumigated with smoke. Streets were deserted, except for the gravediggers. Eventually the disease loosened its grip but Munich’s residents continued to huddle in dark rooms, refusing to open tightly shut windows.

During these grim days, a member of the coopers’ guild realized that the town’s residents needed a bit of comic relief. He called together the members of his guild and asked them to help cheer up the local population with music and dance. The coopers agreed to participate and, wearing their green caps, white shirts, and red jackets, marched to the marketplace and began dancing in circles with boughs of evergreen. The joyful sound of music and colorful celebration lured inhabitants outdoors. Church bells began to ring, calling people to services of thanksgiving. Joyous reunions with friends thought to be lost fueled the revival and Munich finally awakened from its nightmare. Thanks to one man’s idea and help from his guild, the dark mood had been banished and the city returned to life.

Of course, Bavarians are not known for missing—or forgetting—opportunities to celebrate. In the 1700s, records show that the Schaeffler dance was again performed in Munich. During the 19th Century the dance spread to other communities, thanks to young men who had apprenticed in Munich as coopers. When they completed their apprenticeships, they moved to other communities and introduced the custom throughout Bavaria as well as Franconia, just to the north.

By 1842 a cooper in Murnau, about an hour south of Munich by train, introduced the dance to his town. Since Murnau at that time boasted 11 breweries (today, as far as I can tell, there are only two left) and many of the coopers had apprenticed in Munich, there was no shortage of experienced dancers, who were also required to be single and of good character. Murnau’s first recorded Schaeffler dance took place in 1859 and established a tradition now observing its 150th anniversary.

Originally, dance participants were limited to single young men of good character. By the 1960s, the numbers of men taking up the cooper trade dwindled and the changing times necessitated compromise and liberalization. If the dance was to survive, new sources of dancers had to be found. Thus, men who were married or worked in other occupations became eligible to participate. But despite the disappearance of barrel making as an occupation and the dispersal of the custom beyond its original location, one tradition is still maintained: the dance was, and still is, performed only every seven years.

In mid-July, Schaeffler dancers from Bavaria and Austria gathered for Murnau’s celebration. Not only was there dancing in the street on both Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday, crowning the weekend, all 2000 participants paraded through the old town before a crowd of about 10,000 visitors, who happily enjoyed the escape offered by the laughter and spectacle.

Marching brass bands. . . , horses and oxen pulling beer wagons. . . , clowns. . . , floats depicting Murnau’s history. . . , men twirling hoops. . . , standard bearers carrying the flags of each Schaeffler corps. . . , the Schaeffler themselves, most wearing the traditional green, white, and red outfits and leather apron of medieval barrel makers . . . , a group of people dressed in medieval costumes pulling a cart bearing a plague victim to his final resting place—all paraded through Murnau’s old town, representing some element of the Schaeffler dance tradition and the harsh times from which it developed. This cheerful legacy created during tragic experiences is a triumphal commemoration of the grim human events, survived thanks to the touch of humor and humanity.

For more photos, see


bee said...

Very interesting. Why is it performed every 7 years?

About Margie said...

There are several possible explanations for the seven year interval--but who knows which one is correct!

First, seven, along with three, is one of the mystical numbers. God created the world in seven days, etc.

Duke Wilhelm IV (Bavaria's ruler from 1508 to 1550 and the ruler responsible for the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law which ensured the top quality of Bavaria's beer) may have granted the coopers permission to dance every seven years.

The various guilds had other traditions and performances, such as the Butchers' Jump (that's another story!)

The plague was believed to return every seven years in a more virulent form.

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