The scent of roasting lamb filled the air as blacksmiths hammered nails on an anvil and men locked swords in scenes typical of medieval times.
But the year is 2005 and conjuring up past eras in Zurich was the triennial Medieval Spectacular held outside the Frauenmünster Church.
Visitors were transported back to the Middle Ages as soon as they entered the fair grounds, thanks to squawking chickens, hay bundles, women in long tunics and men in leather jerkins and jaunty caps.
The majority were young children, armed with notebooks, researching the various facets of medieval life on display.
There were also accidental tourists, who had no idea that such a fair was taking place but were pleased to have stumbled upon it.
We’re from New Delhi — what’s going on here? asked an Indian visitor of a woman dressed as market-trader.
The soap-maker watched over his cauldron of boiling liquid, sweetly scented with lavender.
A young man in a billowing linen shirt stirred a giant frying pan at least a metre in diameter, filled with dozens of kilos of onions, marinated cabbage and Spätzli, an egg-based local variation of pasta.
A woman sat at a spinning wheel, hair pinned up under a brown cap, working the treadle with her bare feet.
Nearby a long-haired blond man in black short trousers drew curious visitors to his
mouse roulette. A group of children stopped and placed a wager on the octagonal table with raised walls, containing eight houses.
They each chose one, placing a semi-precious stone on a roof. Winner took all if the mouse decided to enter your abode.
An old man with dirty white hair, dressed in what looked like brown sacking riddled with holes, begged for alms, insulting people to get their attention.
Musicians dressed in harlequin costumes stopped to chat to passers-by, while pushing their belongings in what they anachronistically called their
Ferrari — a large wooden cart.
Fair with a message
The organiser of the three-day event was the Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster or Fraumünster guild, a female-only association.
But the event is much more than just a pleasant day out and has two purposes.
The Spectaculum takes trades, which were once commonly practised in the Middle Ages, out of the museum and onto the streets, says the guild. It is especially important, in its view, for children and young people to see how different life was in the past.
There is also the link that the Fraumünster guild has to this period in time, as Jeannette Derrer, the guild’s prioress or vice-president, told swissinfo.
Our society has its origins in the Middle Ages and we want to show this heritage to the Zurchers, Derrer said.
That is not to say that the Fraumünster is an ancient association — the guild was set up in 1989 and is named after the Fraumünster Abbey, which once stood on the same site as the Frauenmünster church.
The Abbey’s founding stone was laid in 853 and it existed until 1524. Its abbesses were powerful women in Zurich and were known as imperial princesses. During their
reign, they were de facto rulers of the city.
The members of the guild today are in a loose hierarchy, with nomenclature taken from the Abbey’s heydays. Hence, the association’s president is known as Hohe Frau, similar to Her Highness and its vice-president as prioress.
While Zurcher women in the modern age may not be as powerful as their medieval predecessors, Derrer says that her guild works as a network.
About fifty women are members and are mostly locals; they practice professions ranging from journalist to seamstress. The eldest is 80 years old and not all are Swiss.
But the organisation has faced an uphill struggle to be recognised by the so-called traditional guilds. Some of these have been around for centuries.
Membership is exclusively male, and many seem to have a hard time accepting a female-only guild among their number.
Their opposition has meant that the Fraumünster ladies have not been able to take to the streets alongside the other guilds during the annual Sechseläuten parade in Zurich.
As a sign that they bear their male colleagues no grudge, the Fraumünster have invited the other guilds to participate in the Medieval Spectacular each year it has been held.
And for the first time, a number of guilds displayed their skills during this year’s events. These included shoemakers and blacksmiths from Zurich and Schaffhausen.
I think it’s a show of solidarity and the men like what we are doing here, so we are very pleased they are taking part, Derrer said.
The relationship between us is no longer full of conflict… whether we can take part in the Sechseläutern procession next year or the next, I don’t know but we wont give up hope, Derrer added.
Middle Ages charm crowds in Zurich — swissinfo