By Lisi Niesner
This is not a story of knights; no knight’s armor, no knight’s castles – not even swords. It does consist of plenty of honor, pride, old-fashioned traditions and to top it off a codex. Now when I imagine the Middle Ages, I believe some farmers must have been quite close to chivalry.
In times past, Austrian residents of Gailtal valley, mainly Noriker horse breeders, took advantage of their surefooted draught horses and operated a trade of wine and salt across the Alps. During these journeys they likely imitated or adapted what they discovered into a custom which lasted centuries and continued to the present day. The first written records of Kufenstechen did not appear before 1630, but we know that the rite is far older and likely related to knight festivals.
I arrived the night before the celebrations in Feistritz an der Gail, a village of around 660 in the province of Carinthia. Anticipating their most important annual upcoming festivity, I expected that everyone would be in a tizzy, but instead residents went about their quiet routines.
I began researching. As it is in small villages, stories change hands as often as a coin. I was told that once, a city in a nearby valley floated the idea of wanting to stage a copy of the Kufenstechen event. The indignation was perfect and provoked a huge discussion involving the whole Gailtal valley for months. The rumor that someone wanted to fake their traditions was much more than a personal offense for every single resident. They sharply underlined that the custom should not practiced by non-Gailtal born people. In conclusion, a code was written and sworn in by the villagers to secure the procedure of Kufenstechen; tying the custom to strict rules which had existed for centuries.
The rule states that 40 unmarried and childless men and women, all no younger than 16 and no older than 30 years, may participate. No matter what profession – engineers and bricklayers, soldiers and students, hairdressers and clerks – but it is necessary that they are born in Gailtal; only they alone are allowed to carry on the Kufenstechen tradition and pass it down from generation to generation. For the young people, there is no question whether to jump in or not, they do. It is an honor and even the youngest look forward to reaching the age that they can take on the responsible of ensuring their tradition survives.