Discovering the Ancient Guilds of Zurich

Guild insignia in Zurich
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A note to my readers: None of us can travel during the current coronavirus crisis. However I am continuing to post content for you to enjoy at home and to inspire your future travels. Happy reading and stay safe!

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The streets of Zurich are full of flags. Not just Swiss flags, with their distinctive white crosses and red backgrounds. But there are others with apparently random designs: a camel, some scissors, or a pair of scales. These images appear in other places too, on the sides of buildings, or on signs outside shops and restaurants. It wasn’t until my last morning that I started to make sense of them. I realised that the images were not a secret code, designed to tantalise tourists, but the insignia of the Zünfte, the ancient trade guilds of Zurich.

Guild insignia in Zurich
Insignia from the guilds of Zurich – here the Ox and the Stork

The Ancient Guilds of Zurich

The origins of the guilds stretch back to the Middle Ages. There were thirteen crafts guilds, each representing different trades. So, for instance, the Zunft zur Widder, with its sign of the ram, was the association for butchers and cattle merchants. A fourteenth guild, the Gesellschaft zur Constaffel, represented the noblemen of the city. The original aim of the guilds was to regulate competition and to agree rules for each trade. However, following a political coup by Rudolf Brun in 1336 they also had a say in the running of the city.

Flags in a Zurich street
The streets of Zurich are full of national and guild flags

By the 19th century the Zünfte had gradually lost their connection with the old trades. They came to be associated with the long established families of Zurich, and took on a more social and symbolic function. A series of mergers and reorganisations created the twelve guilds that exist today.

Sign of the Camel
A sign outside the Zunfthaus zum Kambel, the Guildhouse of the Camel)
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The Zünfte in the 21st Century

The Zünfte are still very much a part of the life of Zurich. They are most in evidence in April, at the time of Sechseläuten, the spring festival. At this time guild members dress in traditional attire and form a procession with a marching band, ending with the ritual burning of a snowman to mark the end of winter. If you are in Zurich on a Sunday afternoon you can learn more about the spring festival and the history of the guilds by visiting the Zunftstadt Zurich museum.

Information plaque
Look out for plaques giving information about the guilds

I wasn’t in Zurich when the museum was open but there was still plenty to discover. I started my exploration on the east bank of the river where each flag had a plaque with some details about the guild (the information is all in German, so a dictionary might be helpful). I crossed the Münster Bridge to the cobbled streets of the old town. Here I walked down Kämbel-Gasse (Camel Alley), with its Zunfthaus (guild headquarters) where food dealers and wine merchants would once have held their meetings.

Sign of the Key
We couldn’t work out which guild this was – Zurich still has some mysteries…

Then I turned into Schlüssel-Gasse (Key Alley), with its images of keys everywhere. This must have been the home of the locksmiths, but I couldn’t work out which guild they belonged to – The Smiths’ Guild perhaps? I had started to crack the code, but the city was still holding on to some of its mysteries!

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6 thoughts on “Discovering the Ancient Guilds of Zurich”

  1. Kay Dougherty

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a ritualistic burning of a snowman! How do they burn snow? I think my mind got stuck on this point… The evolution of the guilds was interesting to learn about – I’m glad they’ve persevered.

  2. It sounds like fun trying to guess which guilds the insignia represented. I love decoding a mystery. Very interesting information about the guilds – I was not aware of them.

  3. Sounds like your quest to learn more about Zurich’s ancient guilds was a fun way to explore the city and learn another side of its history. I imagine the guilds wielded quite a bit of economic as well as political power over the centuries. A parade is always fun and I’d love to see the marching processions with the members dressed in their traditional clothing and try to match the symbols with the guild!

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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