Medieval shop signs

Medieval shop signs DEFAULT

Gasthof Sign

If the facade of the building is the face of the business, on Rothenburg’s high street, colorful and creative shop signs are the flashy earrings that get your attention.

In these days of overzealous, uninspiring advertisers, it’s a pleasure to see artistic creativity used in advertising. In the US, I walk by most shop signs and don’t give them a second thought. I’m not always the target market (at the skinny jeans shop for instance), but still – the marketing department wouldn’t be happy.

But with our first steps through Rothenburg’s city gate, we noticeda gilded wrought iron sign and the shop beneath it. One after the other, down the street the signs continued, and we enjoyed every one. For us, they became not just business signs, but a street art exhibit.

Bakery Cafe Sign

Bakery Sign

In the Middle Ages, many people couldn’t read or write so shopkeepers used guild signs so travelers could find their shops. For most travelers the bread shop was one of the first stops.

Swan Hotel Sign

A gasthof (guesthouse) provided food, rest, and a place to wash off the trail dust.

Apothecary Sign

And the apothecary shop was there for the ailing.

Bubble Blowing Bear

Modern travelers aren’t always weary or ill, but many of them do have a special little one at home, and while not Medieval, this bubble-blowing teddy bear sends a clear signal of what’s available inside.

Pottery Sign

Helmet Sign

Bull Sign

Rothenburg’s attractive, whimsical wrought iron signs provide another glimpse of life in a Medieval village, and put on an art show as well – a captivating combination.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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By Patrick Hunt –

Hanging over narrow cobblestone streets, guild signs or emblems (zunftzeichen) left over from medieval tradition are eye-catching rewards appreciated in many old walking streets of mostly German-speaking regions of Europe, including Germany itself as well as Austria and eastern Switzerland and even Tyrolean Italy. This is especially noted in conservation-minded alpine towns where historic preservation is proudly valued. These hanging iron signs can also be found in other language regions of Europe where such traditional crafts are esteemed, including Provence and other areas rich in medieval architecture whose ancient streets are mostly intact.

Hundreds of these remaining guild signs can be viewed, and when one can be found in a historic district, it’s easy to begin searching for others. For some reason I’m hoping to discover, German-speaking regions seem to have by far the highest number of surviving guild signs and related merchants’ wrought iron hanging signs. It might just signify that more medieval town centers remain in German-speaking regions, for whatever sociological phenomenon or vagaries of time that suggests.

The photo just above is the moon sign of the Hotel Luna Mondschein over the Via dei Portici street in Bolzano (Bozen), where I stayed when  filming on Otzi the Iceman for National Geographic/ NOVA last summer (2011).

These shop emblems are usually made in wrought-iron and often gilded in a medieval tradition that values visual literacy when few could read or write but everyone could easily recognize emblematic signs.Continuing into relatively modern times, these guild or shop signs reflect pride in crafts or services provided in a distinctive way, since they often stick out from buildings up to four or five feet perpendicular to the direction of travel in a generally sedate mode. Where even possible, if driving an auto at any tempo higher than a largo crawl on a narrow street, they’ll usually be missed or just not fully appreciated for their intricate details.

Because they are frequently not solid but foliated with a backdrop of sky showing through them. This results in their high visibility even in silhouette from either walking (or now cycling) direction, regardless of any script especially when the craft symbol shown is reasonably certain, as in the  brewery (Bräuhaus) sign above (note the cooperage and the hops shovels and specialized rakes) or the apothecary image below with its mortar and pestle.

Some of the more or less ornate zunftzeichen signs that demanded my attention during visits in 2011-12 include in Bolzano (Bozen), Cologne, St. Gallen, Colmar, Strasbourg, Feldkirch, Grabs, and of course, Salzburg along the Getreidegasse where Mozart was born is famous for these signs. Salzburg’s Getreidegasse may have more of these densely hanging guild signs than any other street in Europe. Other towns rich in guild signs include Mittenwald in the region of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, as seen in the lead photo, and Colmar in Alsace, both with historic medieval town centers. One of my favorite guild signs in Europe is in the central pedestrian area of old medieval Colmar, rich in half-timbered houses and old shops that have continuity for half a millennium. Here Charcuterie Zimmerlin’s sign has such apropos embellishments around its lion: (see below) the lion wields a butcher’s cleaver, and a little girl is led by a pig on a leash to market; also surrounding the rectangular sign are sausage links. Signs like these almost make one laugh because they combine ad hominem gut appeal visual references with kitschy imagery.

These guild signs were often crafted by specialized blacksmiths (Grobschmiede), and worked well as advertisements for purveyors of goods. While time-venerated wrought iron images of trade guild merchants were once common, including signs of locksmiths (Schlosser), bakers (Bäcker), pharmacists (Apotheker), brewers (Brauer), wine merchants (Weinhändler), tailors (Schneider), the tradition now includes many a small hotel and inn (Gasthaus) and just about anything else imaginable.

As technology progressed, even the traditional wrought iron image of a pair of oversize scissors from the 18th century could be superseded by images of 19th century sewing machines, epitome of high tech for its time, both seen here at left and right.

There is even a delightfully unique museum on the Wienerstrasse in Graz, Austria, that houses the Hans Schell Collection, highlighting the tradition of guild signs. The museum’s second floor has many of these wrought iron guild or shop signs on display along with many other wrought-iron artifacts including elaborate locks and keys. Acquisitions of vintage wrought iron guild signs can mean purchases of thousands of dollars or euros, as sales of such collectors’ items shown by the Hampel firm in Munich over the past few years continue to rise; as their demand increases. Not only collectors prize them: they are often purchased by new owners of vintage establishments who have renovated the old shops or hotels and want the authentic appeal these traditional signs bring, especially when seen hanging over the street where they are spotted long before a sign painted across the building’s front.

Lindau-am-Bodensee, Bavaria zunftzeichen signs (Photo P. Hunt 2012)

Here (above photo) is a small assortment of street signs in Lindau am Bodensee, including the closest one adjacent to the Lindauer Hof Hotel on the Seepromendade frontage, although this one is on the side street. On the Marktgasse near the great square of the Monastery of St. Gallen and its Stiftsbibliothek, the famed Conditorei Praline Scherrer sweethouse makes its mouthwatering statement with its gilded sign of sweet pastry and chocolate. I had a steaming tureen of rich hot chocolate there in late summer of last year (2011) when visiting the monastic library for research, as the sign clearly worked on me.

Regardless of where these entertaining or proud guild signs can be spotted, they are always worth the inspection. Sometimes they even have multiple references to the trade or commodity being advertised – as in the Colmar Charcuterie Zimmerlin – and make more than one attempt to reach the viewer,  a subtle merchandising technique antecedent of subliminal sales in modern commercials. Other signs over old roads, as in the below silhouetted highly visible tandem pair in Grabs, Switzerland, share in their appeal to the traveler: on the left one sees the stable for horses or perhaps horseshoe repair, on the right is the conveyance coach that sometimes marks a mode of transport or otherwise signifies a posthouse for a night’s stay or longer. Either way, it might be the same family making more than one crafty profit from passersby on either side of the street.

Here also is the perennial necessity of the bootmaker (Schuhmacher), whose leather craft could hardly be more important given the dubious quality of roads outside cobbled stone streets, because if the feet are uncomfortable, the whole body will be painfully aware of how much longer the journey seems.





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The old Medieval towns of Europe come with intriguing stone walls, moats, cobblestone streets, clock towers, gates, churches, and castles. They are also adorned with hanging signs that stick out perpendicular above the business doors that can easily be seen from afar. The signs vary in shape and color, however, they always come with a symbol or picture depicting the product or craft made in the shop. Best of all they can be found throughout the countries of Europe.

The Middle Ages lasted in Europe from around 600 to 1500 AD. It was during these times that individuals joined together to form guilds or working groups that represented all of the trades and crafts performed within a town. There were tanners, bakers, shoemakers, apothecaries, candle makers, and more, each displaying its unique signage to attract customers.

Up until the 1500s few people could read or write, consequently, there was little writing on the signs. A butcher shop might use a picture of a cow or pig, a pharmacist often displayed a mortar and pestle, and a blacksmith might use a crossed hammer and sickle to portray his business. Quite often, the signs were silhouettes made of black wrought iron—these are particularly impressive on a blue sky day with mountains in the backdrop.

Through the years most of the Medieval towns have been destroyed due to war, disasters, and neglect, however, there are still, many that have stood the test of time. Here is a list, prepared by, of 15 amazingly well-preserved Medieval towns in Europe:

Nordlingen, Germany                                   Toledo, Spain

Carcassonne, France                                     Bruges, Belgium

Torun, Poland                                                Siena, Italy

Dubrovnik, Croatia                                       Ptuj, Slovenia

Ohrid, Macedonia                                         Chester, England

Prague, Czechia                                            Bergen, Norway

Obidos, Portugal                                           Delft, Netherlands

Tallinn, Estonia




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In France shop signs served as house numbers until the French Revolution. The first signs appeared in the early 13th century and were coat of arms. Carved above the main entrance door, they indicated private houses or mansions.

shop sign, teashop sign

Inns and hostels soon followed the example so that their provincial and foreign customers could find them easily. The use of signs increased during the 14th century to become common a century later when every house, inn, restaurant, hostel and shop had its own.

Made of painted metal sheet, they were as large as possible to draw attention and advertise a specific trade and were hanging at the end of a metal or wooden pole.

Coat-of-arm carved above the entrance door France

Shop and house signs became so popular that their overwhelming number eventually became a problem. Not only did they darken the narrow and busy alleys of our medieval towns, cities and villages, but they were also noisy and dangerous as they threatened to fall at the slightest gust of wind.

French potter shop sign

It was not until the mid-18th century that these hanging signs were banned and were replaced with painted boards placed on the facades. House and shop signs then gradually disappeared with the numbering of the houses.

shoe shop sign

But they reappeared in the last decades and shop keepers compete of ingenuity and creativity to produce the most original design. This series shows you some  contemporary signs that are largely inspired by the medieval ones and seem to revive a long gone tradition, they are fun yet elegant, draw attention and represent perfectly the trade they advertise.


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Tags:  Advertising,  Europe,  France,  Shops,  signs

About the author


I am French Parisienne and lived in Asia for nearly 20 years before settling in the UK 3 years ago. I have an interest in everything and every culture and am an avid reader. French linguistics is my "specialty" but I have a passion for history and try to mingle them. Humour is very important to me, I love writing, talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, learning more from others... the world is full of fascinating people! I never leave my home without my camera, there is always something unusual, beautiful or strange to capture. I like to pay attention to details, to the world of the "small", a parallel world if you take the time to look for it...And above all, I love my country of birth, France.


Shop signs medieval


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