Billy Goat History

The historical billy goat auction

Billy Goat History

“Whoever has made the highest bid on the stroke of six, owns the billy goat and his purchase is to be documented. The billy goat is to be put up for auction!”

This decree by the High Municipal Court opens the highlight of the annual famous Deidesheim festival day. At 17.45, the big bell in the Catholic church sounds and the auctioneer enters the stage. The task of finding solvent bidders among the crowd willing to outbid each other is far from easy, and requires a loud voice and a lot of auctioning skill. When the hammer falls at the last stroke of the bell at 18.00, the billy goat is sold to the highest bidder. For the rest of the day, this bidder is the center of attention and can count himself lucky to have won the auction. However, he must first place the purchase price in cash on the mayor’s table in the council hall before he gets the billy goat and the document.

So, the Tuesday following Pentecost, which used to be Deidesheim’s day of hearing, has long been an occasion for celebrating and remembering the history of the region and its people.

The first documentary evidence of rights of herbage in the surrounding forests of Deidesheim and Niederkirchen dates back to 1404. The document, which was issued for the community of Lambrecht and the St. Lambrecht monastery, states that only large horned livestock was to be kept on the pastures around Deidesheim, and not pigs or goats. The contract also mentions Lambrechts right of herbage “since time immemorial” in return for a capable and well-horned billy goat. The youngest resident of Lambrecht had to lead the billy goat to Deidesheim on the Tuesday after Pentecost and tether it to a special ring at the town hall before dawn. The bearer of the billy goat was officially granted a meal of bread and cheese and two liters of wine. In the late afternoon, the billy goat was then to be put up for auction.
It was not unusual for this complicated contract to cause conflicts between both parties, often meaning that amendments had to be made. Such amendments and hostility occurred in the years of 1534, 1535, 1685, 1749/50 and 1768 in particular. The quarrels were mostly about the condition of the billy goat and its “delivery.” Although Lambrecht tried to get around its duties several times, the billy goat has always ended up being handed over to Deidesheim since the year 1404.

In 1808, another billy goat settlement became necessary. A decree, signed personally on 26th November by Napoleon I. in his military camp at Arando de Guero, ordered, “the old rights of herbage remain in effect, as does the payment of a capable and well-horned billy goat…”

A lengthy and costly dispute arose in 1851. Deidesheim rejected the billy goat delivered from Lambrecht, as the animal allegedly lacked the necessary characteristics and was delivered after dawn.

A replacement billy goat was also rejected and Deidesheim wanted to go to higher authorities to claim its rights. In the following year, the billy goat was rejected again and Deidesheim took legal action. The lawsuit at the Zweibrücken Court of Appeal was finally settled in 1857. While Deidesheim had to bear the legal costs, it was ruled that Lambrecht had to provide billy goats for the years between 1851 and 1857. Thus, eight billy goats were put up for auction in 1858.

As the forest concerned was owned by both Deidesheim and Niederkirchen (formerly Nieder-Deidesheim) until 1873, the latter had a right to claim one third of the proceeds of the auction. However, the local authorities had to be in Deidesheim during the reception and auctioning of the billy goat.

In recent history, serious disputes about the contract and the delivery of the billy goat have become less common. However, some teasing does occur in the days before Pentecost, though this is usually resolved “the-Palatinate-way” with a few (or more) glasses of good wine. To strengthen the harmonic town partnership even more, residents from Deidesheim also help to organize the traditional hand-over of the billy goat to Lambrecht’s youngest couple and the Lambrecht Geißbock Play, which takes place every 5 years.      

In the early hours of Tuesday after Pentecost, a delegation of residents from Lambrecht, including the mayor, the marital couple, the bailiff and the billy goat set off to Deidesheim through the forest. At the edge of the forest, they are welcomed and accompanied by the town’s ranger, a troop of town soldiers and a classy tipple as a little foretaste of what awaits them in Deidesheim.

As the regulations of the contract have become more moderate, the billy goat only has to arrive at the town limits by 10.00. The solemnly dressed council members, schoolchildren, the folklore group and the High Municipal Council gather there to welcome the people from Lambrecht and examine the billy goat. If the animal passes the first examination, it may enter the town accompanied by the Geißbock March of the Kolping Band. Having arrived at the stage in front of the town hall, the billy goat undergoes a most thorough examination by the High Municipal Court, which tests its capability and horns. The contact is only fulfilled once the municipal stockyard master has officially confirmed that the the billy goat is in a suitable condition. As always, the young couple is served bread and cheese and, of course, wine from Deidesheim.

As in the past, there are festivities in front of the town hall in the afternoon. Before the great auction begins, the numerous visitors from far and near can enjoy folklore dances, traditional games and plays, and Palatinate brass band music.

The highest bids for the billy goats reflect the respective period’s economic situation. In recent years, the billy goats were sold for prices between 1750 and 4650 Euros. However, the price, which is absorbed into the forest budget of Deidesheim, is not what matters. It is the charming atmosphere and the preservation of local traditions that make this Tuesday after Pentecost (and the most important holiday in Deidesheim) so very valuable.

Werner Leim
In: Festschrift 600 Jahre Stadtrechte Deidesheim


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