Neumarkt 13

< Back
Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

What is the story behind the racist house names at Neumarkt 13?

Written by Ashkira Darman (Audio will follow shortly…)

WARNING: The following contains source citations that use racist language.

In the 15th century, Zurichers changed their residence approximately every five years. Within this active movement, the house name was often the only stable element that held entire streets together over long periods of time. It served as orientation, identification and clarification of ownership. For example, a deed of sale from 1443 refers to the change of ownership of the "hus zum Morenkopff", which we associate today with the address Neumarkt 13. Another source proves that in 1467, the silk embroiderer Jörg Rott and his family lived there and paid five pounds in taxes for it.

Several houses in Zurich from the 14th and 15th centuries bear the term "M***" in their names, as does another house at Marktgasse 19 from the 16th century, which was known as "M***könig". Such house names are not specific to Zurich and can be found in numerous late medieval towns. But how did the contemporaries of that time interpret this, from today's point of view, racist term?

In the early Middle Ages, from the 6th to the 11th century,  the term "M***" was a designation of origin and can be traced back to the Latin loanword "maurus". Increasingly, however, it merged with the Greek term "moros", which means foolish and godless. This conflation of words also reflects the view of "Christian Europe" on the "Muslim world". The controversial term consequently referred both to inhabitants of Mauritania and to the whole of Africa, as well as to Muslims. 

There was little direct contact in Europe with people referred to as “M***” until the Crusades in the 11th century. Nevertheless, numerous figures with explicitly black skin color appeared in theological texts and images, which embodied the negative, sin, and evil. Until the late Middle Ages, horror images of grotesque black demons and devils with African features were spread.

As long-distance trade intensified from the 11th century onward, contacts with people from the Arab and African regions increased. This was accompanied by the emergence of more pictorial representations of so-called "M***". These representations were ambivalent. On the one hand, black people were depicted as less human or as torturers of Christ, but on the other hand, there were also examples of positive depictions, such as those of St. Mauritius, the three kings, or individual African, non-Christian people who behaved in a "virtuous" manner. In Zurich and in southern Germany, however, there are no black depictions of St. Mauritius or of the city saints Felix and Regula, all three of whom belonged to the Theban Legion and who were described as "moren" in an imperial chronicle in 1160.

Art of the late Middle Ages showed less variety of skin tones. Higher-ranking Christian people were increasingly depicted with white skin. Black people, on the other hand, were increasingly depicted in a derogatory manner. In the process, clichés were taken up that continued to be prominent in modern racism. Religious and cultural attributions were increasingly linked to external characteristics. On the Iberian Peninsula, for example, fundamental differences between people were asserted as early as the 15th century, in order to deny certain people rights and privileges.

This change in meaning emphasizes the ambivalence toward "M***", strongly characterized by exclusion and demarcation. While the term did not yet have racist connotations during silk embroiderer Jörg Rott’s lifetime in the 15th century, it increasingly became a symbol of exoticism and foreignness. This is the history of the term's use today, not merely its "original" meaning. 

Ashkira Darman is a historian. She wrote her doctoral thesis in the field of late medieval Jewish history with a focus on legal and financial history at the University of Zurich. Over the years, she has been dealing with questions of knowledge production and knowledge transmission within the framework of the postcolonial approach. She teaches history at the Realgymnasium Rämibühl.


Quellenexzerpte und Hausgeschichte von Heinrich Steinmann 1979, Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zürich.

Die Steuerbücher von Stadt und Landschaft Zürich des XIV. und XV. Jahrhunderts. Steuerrödel 1467 – 1470. Hsg. vom Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich. Zürich 1942 – 1958.‍ (Bilder)

Further reading:

Caviness, Madeline. From the Self-Invention of the Whiteman in the Thirteenth Century to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In: Different Visions: a Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art 1 (2008). S. 1 – 33.

Devisse, Jeanand Michel Mollat. The Image of the Black in Western Art. From the early christian era to the “Age of Discovery”: Africans in the christian ordnance of the world. Part 2. Hsg. David Bindman und Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Cambridge 2010.

Hatt, Linda. Die Hausnamen der Schaffhauser Altstadt. Masterarbeit Universität Zürich. 2014.

Hinrichsen, Malte und Wulf D. Hund. Metamorphosen des «Mohren». Rassistische Sprache und historischer Wandel. In: Sprache - Macht – Rassismus. Berlin 2014. S. 69 – 96.

Gilomen, Hans-Jörg. Demographie und Mobilität. Fragen nach den Grenzen von Bindung von Familienidentität an den Wohnsitz in der spätmittelalterlichen Stadt. In: Häuser, Namen und Identitäten. Beiträge zur spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Stadtgeschichte. Hsg. K. Czaja und G. Signori. Konstanz 2009. S. 11 – 30.

Grohne, Ernst. Die Hausnamen und Hauszeichen. Ihre Geschichte, Verbreitung und Einwirkung auf die Bildung der Familien- und Gassennamen. Göttingen 1913.