Medieval municipal law comprised the rules of law in force in a city, which normally consisted of a collection of privileges granted externally and rules laid down internally. The existence and validity of a specific law differing from the law of the surrounding region is one of a medieval city’s most important features. Inevitably granted when a new city was planned and systematically founded, municipal law was also the culmination and termination of the gradual urbanization of already existing settlements.
Medieval municipal law as a separate legal sphere is a phenomenon that becomes discernible in the first half of the 12th century, beginning with the founding of Freiburg im Breisgau in 1120. Older cities in the German-speaking world were not yet familiar with such municipal laws. The genesis of municipal law was initially dominated by the struggle against territorial authorities and the assertion of municipal autonomy. Municipal laws dwelt on citizens’ personal liberties, their natural right to property and inheritance law as well as the administration and protection of these laws and rights by an autonomous municipal legal community that was distinct from the general judiciary in the surrounding region and aspired to become largely independent from the sitting manorial courts. Moreover, this was a fundamental prerequisite for cities’ economic development as well as the progressive differentiation of medieval society.
Various written sources provide insight into the content and forms of municipal law. Some of the oldest are charters such as Archbishop Wichmann’s charter of 1188 issued for Magdeburg or Emperor Frederick I’s charter of 1156 issued for Augsburg. The number of cities being founded increased considerably at the onset of the 13th century and the law of an older city was often adopted more or less in its entirety by other cities. The first municipal law adopted was presumably Soest law. Later, Magdeburg law and Lübeck law were primarily adopted. The reception municipal law led to the emergence of ties based on municipal law, which were inevitably conducive to correspondence among cities as well as the recording of municipal laws in writing. Once they had been founded, many daughter cities continued to request legal assistance from their respective mother cities with sentencing in individual trials as well as with fundamental issues. Such inquiries were addressed to the lay judges’ bench in Magdeburg. In numerous cases, inquiries turned into regular correspondence between the cities. Ultimately, this resulted in the appearance of an increasing number of citizens’ own records of laws alongside older charters.
Municipal laws normally had their origins in the customary laws in force in surrounding regions or among the nations that formerly resided there. The further development and differentiation of urban society and, above all, the needs of merchants, some of whom traveled far, necessitated special legal regulations, which increasingly differed from customary law and eventually engendered municipal law. Over time, autonomous municipal legislation, so-called Willküren or statutes, also increasing appeared along with the aforementioned charters of liberties.
Municipal law was essentially the right to hold markets, linked with toll and commercial privileges. Municipal law was expanded to include the right of fortification and the constitution of autonomous city councils and municipal courts. The prominence of the legal community of freemen with a judge of their own, who was sometimes elected, together with a tribunal of lay judges was fundamental to the latter.
The emergence of a city council as a municipality’s executive and lawmaking body was also typical. Even though municipal laws no longer exist in their original sense, medieval municipal law introduced innovations in many domains, which were later incorporated in general national laws, e.g. commercial law, labor law, criminal law and procedural law. The rationalization and recording in writing of the legal thought that accompanied the evolution of municipal law had a profound impact.
Gerhard Dilcher: Art. “Stadtrecht”, in: HRG Vol. 4. 1990, Col. 1863 ff.
Karl Kroeschell: Art. “Stadtrecht, Stadtrechtsfamilien”, in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, Vol. 8. München 2003, Col. 24 ff.