The tradition of the Schäfflertanz dates back to the year 1517 when Munich was suffering the plague.
It is 2019, so time again for the Coopers Union of Munich to perform their traditional Schäffllertanz, or cooper’s dance. With their traditional costumes and boxwood bows, the 41-member dance troupe is out on the streets to act out a rite marking the end of the Black Plague in Munich.
Their dance enjoys a long and varied history dating all the way back to 1517, when Munich suffered through one of the worst outbreaks of the Plague in its history.
It all started when a barrel maker from one of Munich’s many cooper guilds sought to raise the morale of the devastated population. As it became clear that it was once again safe to walk the streets after the Plague had passed, the cooper, whose name remains unknown, decided that a frolicsome dance would be the most effective means to pull people out of their misery.
Why a cooper? Back then, fumigation was held to be the most effective method against the widespread epidemic and the smokey process of producing the tar used to seal their barrels, known as pichen in German or pitching in English, proved to ward off the disease as it deterred the fleas that, as it later became known, served as its vectors. The practice of barrel making thus became, unlike at other times, welcome within city limits. And because coopers enjoyed a lower death rate from the disease, they developed a reputation for being Plague resistant.
That, along with the essential role that cooperage had always played in the storing and shipping of food, beer, and other staples, meant that coopers became some of the most prominent residents of the city by the 16th Century. It was the sight of these trusted coopers dancing through the streets bearing hoops bedecked in life-affirming green foliage that drew the city’s residents out from their dark and shuttered homes.
And as the legend has it, the Wittelsbacher Duke of Bavaria at that time, Herzog Wilhelm IV, granted the Coopers Guild the right to hold the dance henceforth to commemorate the end of this terrible episode in the city’s history. In reality, the first official record of this celebration dates to 1702, when the magistrates of the city gave their formal, written approval. In 1760, it was decided that the dance would be done every seven years.
Schäfflertanz Local Schedule
11:00 Harthof, Weitlstraße 66, Augustinum Seniorenresidenz München-Nord
12:00 Forstenried, Forstenrieder Allee 187, Alter Wirt
14:00 Altstadt, Sparkassenstraße 2, in der Kassenhalle
15:00 Fürstenfeldbruck, Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, Faschingstreiben
17:00 Neuhausen, Rotkreuzplatz, Stadttanz mit Faschingstreiben
10:00 Altstadt, Viktualienmarkt, Faschingstreiben
11:00 Deisenhofen, Hubertusplatz, Oberhaching,
13:00 Hallbergmoos, Rathausplatz, Faschingstreiben
14:00 Trudering, Wasserburger Landstraße 32
15:00 Karlsfeld, Rathausstraße 67, Marktplatz
16:00 Pullach, Kirchplatz, Faschingstreiben
17:00 Starnberg, Kirchplatz, Faschingstreiben
18:30 Ludwigvorstadt, Deutsches Theater München, Schwanthalerstraße 13, Karneval wie dazumal (Eintrittskarte erforderlich)
21:00 Uhr Abschlusstanz, Neuhauser Straße. 27, letzter Tanz der Saison 2019 vor der Herberge
The reason for this seven-year cycle is the subject of speculation. According to one theory, it is simply that seven is a lucky number; according to another, it was that the coopers had to wait their turn in a rotation with other guilds and their own traditional rites; and yet another holds that the seven-year cycle approximates the recurrence of the Plague itself.
Whatever the truth may be, this tradition has come to form a central part of the lore of Munich, having been performed every seven years since 1760, except for one year, 1942, when the demands of the war and pressure from the Nazi party prevented it from taking place. The symbolism and regalia of this tradition can be seen in key locations in Munich’s city center. Two Schäfflertanz figures adorn buildings corners kitty-corner one another on Schäfflerstrasse while the same figures are on display in the famous Glockenspiel at the Munich City Hall, or Rathaus.
Their costumes, and the dance itself, are replete with symbolism: The green cap alludes to the boxwood bow carried throughout the ceremony; the white apron worn under the red jacket is the typical vestment of a cooper; the black tie and black belt are symbolic of the Plague itself, while the sash worn around the waist bears both the Bavarian as well as the Cooper Guild Coat of Arms, within which are to be seen two rampant lions holding the crown of the Wittelsbacher family.
The Reifenschwinger has perhaps the most difficult job. He holds a wooden hoop with an indentation on the inside rim for a small glass filled with wine. Standing on the keg in the middle of the circle of the dancers, he twirls his hoop over his head and between his legs, being careful, of course, not to spill one drop of wine from the glass. At the end of his performance, he drinks the wine and tosses the glass over his shoulder where one of the clowns catches in his cap.
Playing a special part in the ceremony are the two so-called fore dancers, whose charge it is to lead the group; the hoop swinger, selected on the basis of his ability to keep not one but two glasses of wine (symbolizing good health) suspended within his two Bavarian blue-and-white-colored hoops as he whirls them through the air; and of course, the clown, known affectionately as the Kasperl in Bavarian culture. His diamond-patterned costume is a mash of the colors of Bavaria (white and blue), the city of Munich (yellow and black), and the red and green of his fellow dancers.
Beware of this mischievous buffoon, as he glides through the crowd stroking black paint on the noses of unsuspecting spectators, lucky (or unlucky) enough to receive a reminder of the Black Death. The paint, calling to mind both the blackness of death as well as the cooper’s pitch, is drawn from a pouch on the clown’s belt bearing the wood-carved figure of Gretl, a farmer’s daughter who braved the streets of Munich to deliver desperately needed food to its residents as they were ravaged by the disease.
Another outstanding member of the dance troupe is the Fähnrich, the flag bearer, on whose flag can be found the endearing and famous symbol of the city of Munich, the Münchnerkindl, or Munich child. Although orginally a monk, the image has changed over the years since its inception in the year 1158. As the insignia on the flag was downsized, the monk came to bear closer resemblance to a boy with long, blond hair. Later still, the boyish image morphed into its present-day image, that of a young woman, played in person this year by Fanziska Grillenberger.
The dance consists of a series of movements, with the dancers forming configurations that symbolize the city’s struggle with the Plague. In the first movement the dancers form a snake, symbolizing the dreaded mythical Lindwurm, a dragon-like figure thought to have menaced the city by flying over it spreading the disease. The second is the arch, where all the dancers huddle together, signifying the retreat of the residents into their homes.
The third, a cross, recalling the Christian faith and hope that brought them through their time of troubles. The fourth, the crown, honoring the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV. In the fifth, the dancers break up into four groups of five, each swirling in sync with the other, meant to symbolize the gears of life brought once again into motion. And finally, each dancer dances on his own, showing that each may now do as he pleases now that life has returned to normal.
More about the dance, the history of the Cooper’s Union, and the schedule for their remaining performances can be found on the Schäfflertanz website: https://www.schäfflertanz.com/