Zurich's Monetary History


Local as well as international events have left their mark on the monetary history of Zurich. On the domestic level, for example, it was closely interwoven with the Fraumünsterstift (a former convent and one of Zurich's famous churches) over several centuries. But the Reformation, the rise of manufacturing, the Thirty Years' War, the French Revolution and other historical events have also left their traces on the town's monetary history. This DVD investigates them.


Zurich - Switzerland’s international metropolis of finance and trade, where countless banks have their headquarters. Billions of Swiss francs are traded at the stock exchange every day and business people from all over the world are busily crossing paths. Switzerland is cosmopolitan in Zurich where sciences and politics are also actively pursued. If you’re lucky you will even meet a Nobel prizewinner and federal councillors on the street. Zurich is also a cultural city, offering a wide range of events at the stately Opera House right down to the tiniest alternative armchair theatre. In short: there’s a buzz to Zurich. Or as they say in French: «Zurich, c’est une grande ville dans un mouchoir.»

How did the town on the Limmat River get its reputation? Was it the central location on the blue lake or for the fresh air? Find out here how Zurich became what it is today.


  • Cloister FRAUMÜNSTER

Today is July 21 in the year 853. Everything seems quiet in the East Franconian Empire. Really quiet? Well, no, the royal chancellery of Regensburg smells of sealing wax. A quill is being scratched across a parchment. The swooping signature of King Louis the German decides the fate and future of the village of Turegum.

Up until this moment a place of pilgrimage, Zurich now belongs to his daughter Hildegard with one stroke of the quill. Louis is also a generous father. All the royal goods in Turegum, i.e. the land and buildings, change hands. So that she doesn’t have to go short, his beloved daughter also receives the forest between Zurich and Horgen as well as what is now the canton of Uri.

A king doesn’t offer gifts of this kind every day. But Louis knows what he wants from his most capable daughter: she must build up a religious community of women in Turegum. Besides this she must also administrate and multiply the goods that have been so generously left to her! Hildegard courageously accomplished these tasks set down for her. In any case, the Fraumünster,or ladies’ convent, is an undeniable and proud witness today of the deeds of that active woman. Hildegard founded a small distinguished convent for the aristocratic ladies in those days. The educated ladies soon created a library. The Fraumünster became the seat of knowledge - the spiritual and cultural heart of Zurich.

With all due respect to culture and spiritual nourishment in the Middle Ages, there was still a long way to go until the stock exchange was built and Zurich was still far from being a financial metropolis. So what were the busy convent ladies up to with their business policy? Well, good old Louis had not found it necessary at the time to grant the minting authority to his daughter in the village of Turegum. This was by no means a sign of meanness or a lack of confidence. Seen as a market place and economic factor Zurich was just too insignificant in the middle of the 9th century for it to need its own coins.


  • HERIMANNVS Herman I. von Schwaben

The first person to mint coins in Zurich by order of the German king was Duke Hermann of Swabia. He is known to have stayed in Zurich in 929. He may have made use of that stay to have denarii struck like the one shown here. The duke most certainly paid a visit to the ladies’ convent. If he wouldn’t have gone there voluntarily then his wife Reginlinda would have reminded him «softly». Like many other aristocratic ladies, Reginlinda was an untiring patron of the ladies’ convent. At the same time she was directly involved as the mother superior of the Fraumünster until her death in 958.


The year 1045 was the second significant date on Zurich’s path to becoming a financial and trading metropolis. Henry III, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, visited his palatinate at the Zurich Lindenhof.

The Salian seemed to enjoy coming to the town on the Limmat for he visited it six times during his reign as emperor. On his second visit when he assumed office in 1045 the emperor expressed his generosity by granting several much sought after privileges to the Fraumünster convent: it was now allowed to strike its own coins.

This equally gave it the right to have its own market and demand customs duties. And as if all this hadn’t been enough tribute paid to the convent, Emperor Henry raised the rank of mother superior to imperial princess.

Coinage, market and customs tolls were important for a growing economy, as they were the «cash cow» of the Middle Ages. For «whoever owned the minting authority cashed in on the striking rate» and «those entitled to hold a market received the customs duties».

With Emperor Henry’s generous gift to the Fraumünster in 1045, the mother superior became de jure and de facto the ruler of Zurich. Not only was she the spiritual leader, she also had the political and economic power in her hands as the ruler of the town.

Unbiased visitors to the beautiful town on the Limmat naturally ask themselves why the guildsmen still manage to exclude the «Fraumünster association» from the annual Sechseläuten procession (a festivity of the Zurich guilds marking the beginning of Spring). After all, the procession only took place for the first time in 1818.

Zurich experienced its first economic highlight under the Staufer emperors. The power of the town ruler, the mother superior of the Fraumünster, grew constantly. After receiving the minting, customs and market rights in the 11th century, she controlled a great deal more 100 years later. All the business affairs ranging from lucrative salt trading and the controlling mills, bakeries and markets as well as rights to the lower jurisdiction were treated at the table of the noble mother superior.

So what did Mechtild of Wunneberg and Elisabeth of Wetzikon have struck on their coins during their term of office as mother superior and minting authority?

As they were pious Benedictines, it of course had to be a religious motive, possibly directly related to the convent. Here we can see the image of Saint Felix. But his sister, Regula, is also illustrated on the coins. So how did Zurich obtain its two saints?


 Felix, Regula, Charlemagne, Louis the German and Hildegard - the cornerstones of medieval Zurich and substrate on which the small village of Turegum would blossom out into the proud town of Zurich.

Felix belonged to the legendary Thebaen legion which was massacred right down to the last man in St Maurice around 300 AD. The reason for the massacre: emperor Diocletian and his co-regent Maximian demanded of the Roman legion that it revere the imperial cult. However, the soldiers and officers of the Thebaen legion were Christian and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They were far readier to die a martyr’s death just like their saviour than give up their faith. Felix finds out about this ominous judgement and flees to Zurich with his sister Regula.

But Felix and Regula can’t escape the persecution of the Christians, that is constantly waging. In the end they are captured, tortured and executed.

Many pay for their Christian belief with torture and execution. However, it wasn’t enough to face death courageously to become a saint. No, it needed a lot more - a sign of God. And this is exactly what happened: when they had their heads chopped off on the Water Island on the Limmat, the bodies of Felix and Regula didn’t just collapse and fall to the ground. No, they picked up their heads, crossed over the wooden bridge, walked slowly uphill til they finally collapsed and died on a small slope.

God revealed Himself by making a sign in the village of Turegum. This was reason enough for Christians to go on pilgrimage to Zurich subsequently. It wasn’t long before the Wasserkirche Church was built on the spot of the executions, and it soon became the most important place of pilgrimage north of the Alps.

Quite a pretty legend, don’t you think? Charlemagne and his grandson, Louis the German, knew about this incredible story and paid homage to the two saints in their manner. Charlemagne had the Grossmünster Cathedral built over both graves.

Louis’ gift and order to his daughter Hildegard are due to the adoration of both saints.

Grossmünster, Wasserkirche and Fraumünster - Zurich’s three most important churches are all linked directly to the legend of the two saints Felix and Regula. Thoughout the Middle Ages pilgrims came to Zurich. Obviously business was brisk for pilgrims needed board and lodging as well as their devotional objects. Commerce was active in front of and inside the Wasserkirche. Invalids dragged themselves to the spring to drink the miraculous water. Full of adoration believers touched the execution stone. Pilgrims’ pennies and other pilgrimage souvenirs were sold. The later conflict between the Wasserkirche and the Grossmünster was pre-programmed - though quite some time was to pass until then.


Naturally, the mother superior of the Fraumünster supervised any business to do with the pilgrimages, market and customs. The Fraumünster convent was at the zenith of its power and the ruler of Zurich was proud to have herself depicted on the coins - as Elisabeth of Spiegelberg here - around 1300. But be careful, noble Elisabeth, can’t you tell the signs of the times? If this question had been asked of the imperial princess of Zurich, she would have laughed out aloud. How could any of those men whom she - the ruler of Zurich - had appointed as mayor, customs officer and mintmaster ever be dangerous for the convent?

However, even imperial princesses can’t prevent the demands and tendencies of the times. And things were moving in another direction - not only in Zurich but also in the entire Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

When the three Länder of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden met and swore their defensive alliance on the Rütli, noone ever envisaged the consequence of this act. Countless battles and victories over the imperial army made this primitive Swiss alliance attractive for the surrounding regions as well. In 1351 Zurich joined the Confederation as the fifth allied partner.

At a glance this was a small step made by Zurich but it had its consequences for the political and economic development of the town - and of the entire Confederation.

Isn’t the Zunfthaus or guildhouse zur Kämbel magnificent to behold? It represents all those tradesmen, merchants and handworkers whose financial management was subject to the guild rules of town mayor, Rudolf Brun.

The rich people of medieval Zurich must have had fine, superior garments for Kämbel hasn’t got anything to do with a camel. A Kämel is nothing less than an Angora goat whose fleece is wonderfully soft and hairy.

Hence, Zurich’s textile industry has its roots in the Middle Ages.

How did one get to this economic climax in the later Middle Ages? The crusades and Mediterranean trading with the Arabian countries proved to be economic stimuli not only in northern Italy but also in the whole German Empire. Being part of the German Empire turned out to be a blessing and profitable for Zurich and the Confederation.

Trade produces prosperity and soon larger, heavier silver coins were needed to master business transactions. Just like in Berne and Sion, Zurich had large silver coins minted in the new Italian fashion. But in Zurich they were called dicken (meaning fat) for their weight, rather than testoni.

Our dicken doesn’t only stand for prosperity, however. It also represents two historically important aspects for Zurich.

 The inscription «MONETA NOVA THURICENSIS» tells us that the town now had the minting authority. This represented a further step in the gradual deprivation of political rights for the Fraumünster convent. Nominally still the ruler of Zurich, the mother superior couldn’t make any objections. There wasn’t not enough scope for power and even the human resources were inadequate: six noble ladies weren’t enough to keep check of a town that was rapidly growing.

The councillors didn’t seem to trust the new Zurich money entirely, for quite obediently they placed Felix and Regula on the obverse of the coins.

And Felix and Regula were not only the saints of the town of Zurich. They are also presented in the same way on the seal of the Fraumünster convent. Hence, the motive on the dicken is nothing other than an attempt made by the town to legitimize its still unusual activity.

Everything still seems very tranquil in Old Zurich. The town uses its minting authority in its power and also strikes the trendy new large silver coins, the guilders, which will one day go down in history as the talers.

As you can see, the town saints were adhered to on the obverse in 1512 as well. All the same, there seems to be an amazing increase in people on the image. Besides Felix and Regula there is now the imaginary Saint Exuperantius. We owe this new saint to a badly interpreted text as exuperantius is the comparative for exuperans (meaning excellent). People ignorant of Latin thought the adjective supposed to describe Felix and Ursula was a proper noun. And that’s how the new saint was born. This personified error in reading can also be found on the seals of the town of Zurich.

Zurich seemed to really enjoy its role as minting authority and powerful town. The coats of arms of the 14 dependent bailiwicks are proudly portrayed on the reverse of the guilder. The addition «Civitas Imperialis» is also new and in need of clarification.

Why raise the status of the free imperial town? After all, Zurich had been directly subjected to the German emperor ever since 1218. Now the town appeared to need to legitimize itself still towards the Fraumünster convent. But this would all change soon. For soon a priest would set off for Zurich from Einsiedeln on his journey full of consequences.


 If the guildsmen slowly deprived the once mighty Fraumünster convent of its power over the centuries, then one man gave it the kiss of death: Huldrych Zwingli, the taciturn catholic priest. His militant sermons initiated the reformation in Zurich and he left the town the unmistakable mark of his Protestantism right to this very day.

Zwingli - a fascinating combination of devout Christian and veteran soldier, was not finicky in his dealings with the pilgrimage centre of Zurich - the Wasserkirche and the town saints. The Wasserkirche was emptied, the frescoes destroyed and torn down from the walls, the crypt and fountain filled in. The last mother superior of the Fraumünster, Catherine of Zimmern, a friend and fervent follower of Zwingli, handed over the Fraumünster to the loyal town custodians and married the mercenary leader and knight, Eberhard von Reischach. Side by side, Reischach and the aggressive Grossmünster priest fought at the memorable battle near Kappel in 1531. Side by side both lost their lives on the battlefield.

During the beginning of the reformation, the free imperial town of Zurich was awarded a coveted privilege: the right to mint gold coins. Nothing could better illustrate Zurich’s economic importance than this act of the German emperor. It may seem quite ironic that Zurich received this right precisely from a fervent catholic, namely, Charles V, one year before the reformation broke out.

Now Emperor Charles always had some difficulties with the Confederates. Often he faced them in their role as mercenaries in the French army or the federal mercenaries could also be met in the papal army. The obstinate Confederates did not consider Charles’s imperial coin reform. Zurich may have had the imperial eagle struck on its gold crowns. However, the town’s self-assertive nature prevented the gold content from being prescribed by the emperor.

The ladies of Zurich are extremely fashion-conscious and not just since the introduction of the Bolero award! So where does this flair for textiles have its roots?

War does not only involve misery and poverty. It also speeds up the transfer of know-how. This happened in Zurich in 1550 when Zurich was the stronghold of Protestantism. Whoever had to flee the Catholics for his faith came here. The protestant immigrants from Locarno were to Zurich what the Huguenots were to the Genevan banks. They brought Zurich a considerable economic upswing with their cloth trade, particularly in cotton. For, by contrast with other textile sectors, the cotton industry in Zurich was not governed by the guilds could be carried out freely. This was a welcome economic niche for the newly arrived and women, who could make an income from cloth weaving and bleaching that had equally not been controlled by the guilds.


 Not only Zurich’s coins circulated in the Zurich markets in the 16th century. Quite on the contrary, coins from the other locations in the Confederation were exchanged with imperial money from the German empire as well as French coins. It was difficult to keep track! However, the customs and exchange rooms did have assessment lists which provided information about the relative values of various kinds of money. The amounts could be calculated pretty correctly but how did one work out the tiny differences in value between the various kinds of coins?

That’s why one had token coins - the Zurich heller or haller struck on one side only.

Despite Zwingli’s opposition to mercenariness, those who led these hireling soldiers could become rich and earn prestige in Zurich around 1610. And the successful manufacturers of textiles, in particular silk, climbed the social ladder. This is a state-room at the old Seidenhof (silk factory) from 1610. This room, as well as the reception rooms of the Fraumünster cloister and other representatives rooms in Zurich - can be visited at the Swiss National Museum

Disapproved and decried as idolatry during and shortly after Zwingli’s reformation, saints Felix and Regula were back and very much en vogue again! As though nothing had happened, the mintmasters were minting both saints - though this time without their escort «Häxebränz» - on Zurich’s new gold coins, the ducats. And as it’s so easy to resort to history, Charlemagne reappeared on the new coins. Though no one will deny his services as the first German emperor, Charlemagne was raised to the status of saint in the inscription «SANCTUS CAROLUS»!

And this happened in protestant Zurich - had he known, good old Zwingli would have turned over in his grave!


1642 - the Thirty-Year War was still waging and it still wasn’t certain whether the Confederation would get dragged into the war between the Reformed and the Catholics. However, it would be wrong to give that as the sole reason for the construction of Zurich’s military installations.

The ravages of war brought refugees from southern Germany. Zurich expanded the regions under its command and the population grew rapidly. Soon there was a shortage of space. Zurich’s guilds became reticent, not accepting any new members. The status quo was determined once and for all, and so by using its defence installations, the proud town on the Limmat river closed its walls to its own national population and any further growth. These were the preliminary signs of the Ancien Régime and of that mentality which was eliminated pitilessly one century later in the uprising of the inhabitants of Stäfa and with the help of Napoleon’s troops.

1648 was the year of the peace treaty of Westphalia. Afters 30 years of the ravages of war in Europe Catholics and Protestants were given a modus vivendi at long last. It was also an important year for the Confederation which had been spared from the war. The small de facto federal union, independent for centuries, was now recognised as being independent by the Holy Roman Empire.

However important its independence may have seemed legally speaking, nothing much changed in the daily life of the federal cantons.

In 1660, when this taler was struck, Zurich’s most important export remained its dynamic young men, who would hire themselves out as mercenaries. Their biggest client was France. Yet as lucrative as this profession may have been, it was very controversial in Zurich since Zwingli’s times. However, town mayor Waser, who had this taler struck, was a supporter of the mercenarial agreement with France. The crown above the Zurich coat-of-arms and the small lily - the heraldic symbols of the Bourbons - led to the local population labelling this coin the Waser taler and the taler of arrogance.

Simmering liquids, hissing noises and smells pervaded the atmosphere of 18th century Zurich. No, for once this wasn’t due to political confusion. All these noises and smells stemmed from the textile manufacturers and their so-called fabriques or factories like the beautiful Florhof shown here. Would anyone nowadays staying in this elegant hotel ever imagine that in 1710 eighty textile workers sweated over their work at 20 ovens, where the water was boiling. Sheep wool was cleaned and combed at the Florhof. When the Schinzers, the owners of the Florhof, then also opened a warp installation, they definitely belonged to the leaders of Zurich’s booming textile industry. They were ranked in third position according to the customs duties paid for the imported wool.

10,000 inhabitants in the town and 150,000 in the country - this was the proportion of the population in the republic of Zurich in the 18th century. In other words, politically and economically seen, 150,000 inhabitants depended on the goodwill of 10,000. For the town decided what would land up in its market and who could live and work in Zurich. But how long would proud Zurich manage to keep its own rural population outside the town walls?


 It took a small Corsican thirsting for power to awaken the Confederation and Zurich from their rigid, sclerotic state and make them realise that times were changing.

The Napoleonic soldiers raged throughout Europe like a forest fire, making all the old political structures collapse. «Liberty, Fraternity and Equality», was the noble motto. The rural population of the republic of Zurich welcomed the French troops as their liberators in 1798. At long last the political and legal preponderance of the town had been broken. And at long last the old town privileges had been eliminated by the roar of the French canons.

Napoleon forced a centralistic structure on the Helvetian Republic with an iron hand. The mintage of the states was lifted and an uniform currency with the French image was introduced. Yet soon the small emperor had to realise that the headstrong Confederates would not respond this way.

As from 1803 the states minted their own coins once more, and so did Zurich. This is one of Zurich’s last taler dating back to 1813, i.e. the Napoleonic times. The German Peter Bruckmann cut the seal. Actually it’s rather surprising considering that Zurich had been one of the European centres of gold and silver smithing just 60 years earlier.


 «Knowledge is power» and whoever spreads knowledge can set off the economy unexpectedly. In 1843 the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published the rates of the Paris stock exchange for the first time, thereby laying the spiritual foundation stone for a profitable institution, which has marked Zurich’s economic life right to this very day.

In 1880 Zurich built its first stock exchange. However, already 50 years later the building became too small. Its location is reflected in the name of the tram stop Börsenstrasse. A new location had to be found and this was done in 1930. For over 60 years this building would house the stock exchange from where streams of money would flow into the Swiss economy. The construction of the exchange - the logical conclusion of a development that began in 835 with Hildegard’s royal order - was a truly notable success story.

«One Nation, one currency» since the victory of the Liberals over the Conservatives in the Swiss civil war of 1847, the Swiss confederation had become a federal state. And ever since the Swiss franc had been introduced as Swiss national currency in 1850, payments were made in «Fränklern» and «Fünflibern» in the blue town on the Limmat. And this is still the case today whilst neighbouring countries only have the euro...


Signet Sunflower Foundation