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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!