Weichbild (Weichbildrecht) and Sächsisches Weichbild

The term Weichbild (municipal jurisdiction), stemming from the Middle Low German word wikbelde, spread into Northern and Central Germany from the 12th century onward. The word element wik refers to pre-urban origins and means something like village, estate or independent settlement. It frequently appears in place names, e.g. Brunswik (Braunschweig). The root word bild, in turn, is derived from bilida (law).

The word Weichbild had different meanings as it evolved in legal language. It originally described a particular form of hereditary tenancy in the region of Westphalia in the 12th century that rendered property conferred by a sovereign hereditary. It was linked with property law, which brought membership in the village community. It had nothing to do with specifically municipal law. After 1200, the term broadened to the “municipality in which this law is valid”. The term thus no longer only described the content and form of the source of law but also the geographic extent of its validity. Whereas communities with Weichbild in the region of Westphalia were not necessarily identifiable as cities, Weichbildrecht (municipal law) facilitated the foundation of cities in the territories east of the Elbe and Saale. The word Weichbild even came to denote municipal jurisdiction or an entire municipality. The term Weichbildrecht increasingly became synonymous with municipal law. This also happened in the territory where Magdeburg law held sway.

Although Magdeburg‘s municipal law was probably never recorded in its entirety, a version of the law in effect was compiled in the
13th century in a law book consisting of several parts, which was drafted by the circle of Magdeburg’s lay judges. This private text is essentially, it comprised of two brief compilations of laws: the “Magdeburg lay judges’ law” and the “judiciary’s law book” (also called Weichbildrecht). The first part contains a brief introduction to the city’s history with an account of the city’s foundation by Otto the Great (reigned 936−973) and its endowment with Weichbildrecht under Otto II (reigned 973−983). This is followed by some regulations of Magdeburg‘s lay judges’ bench, which are based on Magdeburg’s lay judges’ legal instruction for Breslau from 1261 and was enlarged with additional legal opinions from lay judges. The second part of the law book describes the different courts in Magdeburg together with their jurisdictions and procedural principles. An introduction contextualizing Weichbildrecht in the general legal system was eventually added to the texts later.

The so-called Weichbildchronik (Weichbild chronicle) furnishes a brief survey of the history of the world from the Creation up to the Kings of the Germans beginning with Otto I and ending with William II of Holland (reigned 1254−1256) as well as accounts of popes and Archbishops of Magdeburg. The aforementioned compilations of laws together with the Weichbildchronik form the Weichbild vulgate, also known as the Sächsisches Weichbild (Saxon municipal law). The exact date of its original compilation is uncertain but was presumably around the turn of the 14th century. 134 manuscripts and fragments of the Sächsisches Weichbild have survived. Only the Sachsenspiegel and the Schwabenspiegel have survived in more manuscripts. The Weichbild vulgate began being glossed in the mid-14th century. It was additionally translated into Latin, Polish and Czech and thus contributed substantially to the spread of Magdeburg law in Eastern Europe.


Karl Kroeschell: Art. “Weichbild, Weichbildrecht”, in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, Vol. 8. München 2003, Col. 2093 ff.

Hiram Kümper: Sachsenrecht. Studien zur Geschichte des sächsischen Landrechts in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit (Schriften zur Rechtsgeschichte, 142). Berlin 2009, p. 392 ff.