Lenzen (Elbe)

Lenzen an der Elbe: Town Law with Hanseatic References

Lenzen, which is favorably situated for shipping traffic between the Elbe and Elde rivers directly on the Löcknitz, adopted the law of the town of Salzwedel in the Middle Ages. When exactly this act of transfer took place cannot be determined with certainty. From the available written sources, however, the time period can be narrowed down. In 1219, the Brandenburg Margrave Albrecht II (r. 1205–1220) gave Lenzen as a fief to Count Heinrich von Schwerin († 1228), with which he intended to secure his allegiance and military support.[1] Already in 1237, Lenzen was in possession of the two counts Heinrich (r. 1233–1237) and Bernhard von Dannenberg (r. 1227–1266), who in that year exempted the citizens of Lübeck from trade taxes in their entire dominion, with the exception of the usual customs duties. This happened with explicit mention of Lenzen, Dannenberg and Dömitz.[2] At this time, a considerable settlement with market traffic must have already formed around the castle of Lenzen, which received municipal rights either still under the counts of Schwerin or only from the Dannenbergers. When, at the latest in 1252, the Margrave of Brandenburg, now Otto III (r. 1220–1267), again came to Lenzen, the place was named civitas, i.e. town, in the confirmation document of the same year.[3]

Otto III conceded the same rights to the citizens of Lenzen as all other Brandenburg towns had, including exemption from customs duties in his margraviate territory. In addition, the town was to enjoy the same rights and all freedoms with regard to the rivers Elbe and Elde as it already had under the counts Günzel von Schwerin († 1274) and Bernhard von Dannenberg. Both counts can thus be credited with promoting the urban development of Lenzen. Finally, Margrave Otto confirmed another privilege that was obviously significant for the citizens of Lenzen, according to which the town was allowed to follow the legal customs of Salzwedel and to seek legal advice there.

In this way, it becomes evident that the citizens of Lenzen made use of the Salzwedel law for themselves. Presumably, the majority of the town’s inhabitants came from the Altmark region around Salzwedel and thus advocated the adoption of the town’s legal customs there. A striking difference to the Magdeburg law existed above all with regard to inheritance law regulations and legal principles concerning trade. The connection to Salzwedel also resulted in close contact with cities of the Hanseatic League, such as Hamburg, Lübeck and Rostock, and Lenzen citizens possessed far-reaching networks. The Hamburg debt book of 1288 illustrates this fact[4] since it contains a number of entries, which are connected with money transactions of Lenzen citizens. Accordingly, for example, the trade contacts of Johann von Gorne from Lenzen resulted in family ties to the important Hamburg family Miles, whose members were often active in the town council.[5]

Business relationships and family connections were inextricably interwoven. Salzwedel law also provided a significant basis for contacts, as it had many references to the town laws of the Hanseatic towns on the North Sea and Baltic Sea. In mutual exchange, the towns could rely on similar legal customs, which enabled a higher degree of consensus in everyday dealings with each other and facilitated agreements. For example, through clever policies of their council, Lenzen citizens possessed extensive selling and trading rights in the Hanseatic area. An important commodity shipped there was oak wood, which was cut in the so-called Kuhblank near Lenzen and transported as wagenshot sawn wooden planks (lignorum wagenshot).[6] In addition to wood, Brandenburg grain was an essential commodity shipped north from Lenzen on the Löcknitz, Elde and Elbe rivers. Among the business friends of the citizens of Lenzen in Hamburg were merchants from Flanders. The already mentioned Johannes von Gorne, for example, was in business relations with Jacob von Wedde from Utrecht and promised him the repayment of a monetary debt on July 21, 1295.[7]

Beyond their preferred market town of Hamburg, citizens of Lenzen were in contact with other Hanseatic towns, acquired goods here and sometimes settled there. This often resulted in legal transactions that required settlement between the towns, as can be seen from a document from 1414 preserved in the Tallinn city archives. It states that Claus Ditleves, a citizen of Lenzen, was the brother and heir of Heinrich Ditleves, who had died in Lübeck and was a citizen of Reval, now called Tallinn, and had legitimate claims to property in Reval. In order to be able to take them over, the Lenzen council turned to Reval and confirmed the origin of Claus Ditleves with the request to give him the possessions of his brother.[8] In a typical way, here it is demonstrated that regulations of inheritance processes were an important competence of medieval town councils.

Whether Lenzen, like Salzwedel, oriented itself more strongly to Stendal or Brandenburg law in the late Middle Ages in the course of the consolidation of rule within the margraviate of Brandenburg is not proven due to the lack of sources, but it is obvious, especially since the connection to the Hanseatic League also loosened significantly in the transition to the 16th century.

Author: Sascha Bütow
(English translation: Uli Nickel)



[1] Verein für mecklenburgische Geschichte und Altertumskunde (ed.), Mecklenburgisches Urkundenbuch, vol. 1: 768–1250, Schwerin 1863, no. 251, p. 251.

[2] Ibid., no. 466, p. 463.

[3] Adolf Friedrich Riedel (ed.), Codex Diplomaticus Brandenburgensis, series A, vol. 25, Berlin 1863, no. 3, p. 2.

[4] Erich von Lehe (reviser), Das hamburgische Schuldbuch von 1288 (=Veröffentlichungen aus dem Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg 4), Hamburg 1956.

[5] Cf. Erich von Lehe, Hamburgs Verbindungen zu Kaufleuten der Prignitz in der frühen Hansezeit, in: Prignitz-Forschungen 1 (1966), pp. 57–71, here p. 62.

[6] Sascha Bütow, Die brandenburgische Binnenschifffahrt auf Klein- und Nebenflüssen im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert, in: Mitteilungen des Vereins für Geschichte der Prignitz 11 (2011), pp. 5–92, here p. 82.

[7] Erich von Lehe (reviser), Das hamburgische Schuldbuch (same as note 4), p. 89.

[8] Tallinn, Magistratsarchiv, TLA.230.1I. 529.


Cite as:

Sascha Bütow, Lenzen an der Elbe: Town Law with Hanseatic References, in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 04/12/2023, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/lenzen-elbe/

Herzberg (Elster)

Herzberg an der Elster – Councilors Communicate Town Law

As for so many towns, there is no town law granting document for Herzberg, which is located on the Elster River and today belongs to Brandenburg. However, the existing sources indicate clearly that the Counts of Brehna supported the early urban development of the settlement, which was located in good traffic connections in their dominion between the Fläming, Elbe and Lower Lusatia. In 1239, Count Dietrich von Brehna († 1264) granted his oppidum “Hirtsbergh” a forest located on the Elster River with woods, grazing and all other rights of use.[1] Herzberg is still called oppidum, i.e. small town or market site, at this point. The citizens (burgensi), who are also mentioned here, had already developed it a good bit. They were looking for further privileges to use the landscape around Herzberg, where the building material wood could be extracted, but where also pasture and cultivation areas could be created.

The appropriation of landscape-related rights documented in 1239 is typical for medieval towns and made up a fundamental pillar of their economy. Consequently, further efforts of the council can be traced for Herzberg. In 1271, for example, Count Conrad von Brehna († 1274) confirmed to Herzberg another grove that lay in the direction of the neighboring settlement of Gräfendorf (“Grevendorp”) near the Postberg (“Posberge”) mill located there. Herzberg is mentioned in this context for the first time as civitas, i.e. town.[2] As a result, it is indisputable that the citizenry had acquired town law. However, there is no indication from which place this town law was adopted.

However, a good argument can be made that Herzberg oriented itself to the nearby towns with Magdeburg law to the west of the Elbe. The town also entered into alliances with these. A treaty concluded in 1306 between Herzberg, Aken and Wittenberg, which was directed against the power of the ducal Saxon bailiffs, is an example of self-confidence. The three cities swore to each other harmony and mutual assistance in the event that one of them should have its rights and freedoms violated by the bailiffs. If the citizenry in question should then act contrary to the law, the other two would stand bail for the legality of this action before the Saxon duke as their supreme lord, just as if they themselves were affected by it.[3] At this point, a high degree of autonomy is evident, which sought to limit, if not eliminate, the jurisdiction of the bailiffs appointed by the duke and their claims related to the towns.

Individual citizens of Herzberg also stood out by name in the 14th century. Sometimes they gained significant influence. An example of this is Hermann Zülßdorff, who in 1391 lent his sovereign, Duke Rudolph III of Saxony (r. 1388–1419), a sum of 50 Schock (= 5 dozens = 60 pieces) of Bohemian groschen and, in return for this sum, was financially involved in the escort of the town of Herzberg.[4] Accordingly, Zülßdorff was to receive five groschen, which came from the income of the escort and was paid annually by the Herzberg council to the duke. This arrangement was to continue until the amount of the original loan was settled. The case is representative of the bourgeois prosperity that had grown in Herzberg in the meantime, which was related not least to the town’s favorable transport location on the lower military road between Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder.[5]

The market in Herzberg was dominated primarily by the so-called Viergewerke (four trades), which were first mentioned in a document in 1398. These were the shoemakers, cloth manufacturers, butchers and bakers. Second only to the council, they represented an important political community in the town. It is noteworthy that the Viergewerke in Herzberg were established on the model of the city of Wittenberg.[6] This is an indication that the Herzberg councilors must have often sought information on legal matters there.

Regarding the regulations of the Magdeburg law, the councilors from Herzberg also coordinated with the neighboring towns. Thus, in 1417, an agreement was reached with the town of Torgau concerning those hereditary estates of citizens for which there were no heirs and which thus fell to the hometown of these citizens. Due to marriages between families from Torgau and Herzberg, it must have happened more often that estates in Torgau went to the council of Herzberg and that something similar happened the other way around. For this reason, the councils of both towns agreed not to claim ownership of the estates in the other town that had fallen to them. This agreement was to apply to both Heergewäte, the inheritance for male descendants, and Gerade, the inheritance parts intended for female descendants. This reveals a “communication of the towns in the legal sense”[7] established with Magdeburg law, as has been noted by legal history research elsewhere. According to this, many legal issues remained unknown to the towns and could only be solved consensually and pragmatically through exchange with other citizenries.

The Herzberg councilors used this practice for generations, during which they were just as energetic in their efforts to preserve their municipal rights. When opportunities arose, they cleverly used changes of power to confirm centuries-old town privileges. The extinction of the Saxon Ascanians in 1422, to whom Herzberg belonged as dukes of Saxony-Wittenberg, marked an important moment in this process. Even before the dukedom, together with the associated electoral dignity, passed to Friedrich der Streitbare (Quarrelsome) von Wettin (r. 1381/1423–1428) a year later[8], the Herzberg councilors approached the Roman-German King Sigismund (r. 1411–1437). In 1422, the duchy had reverted to him as overlord, and this opened up the opportunity to have Herzberg’s town charter confirmed by the highest authority. A glance at the royal document dated February 18, 1421, reveals the basic modalities of the elections of councilors and mayors in Herzberg, which had been practiced since time immemorial. Consequently, the council consisted of six persons; two each were provided by the rich, the tradesmen and the rest of the citizens. These councilors were to elect a new mayor “mit gantzer Einträchtigkeit” (“with complete unanimity”).[9] After one year, the mayor and three councilors were to retire by rotation, one each from the rich, the trades and the rest of the citizens. They were to be replaced by one representative from each of the three urban groups. The new council thus constituted then elected a new mayor. As part of the annual elections, the four outgoing officeholders had to report to their successors.

The council was the highest judicial authority within the town. It was allowed to bring to court and punish violations of the town’s laws committed by fellow citizens. Likewise, disputes between ducal Saxon officials and citizens of Herzberg were to be heard and decided solely before the town court. This was a substantial strengthening of the powers of the town’s jurisdiction. It illustrates that the Herzberg council was able to secure decisive advantages in its efforts, which were already directed against the bailiffs in 1306. The fact that the Herzberg councilors regarded these comprehensive regulations on the election of municipal offices and the decrees on the town court as the foundations of the municipal constitution is evidenced by a final stipulation in the royal document. According to this, the text of the document was to be read out publicly on the occasion of the annual mayoral election. In this manner, the Herzberg council communicated essential principles of the town law and solidified them in the minds of the inhabitants. This practice also reflects an important piece of civic self-image, which was based on the acquired and constantly defended freedoms of the town.

Author: Sascha Bütow
(English translation: Uli Nickel)



[1] Diplomataria et scriptores historiae Germanicae medii aevi, vol. 3, edited by Christian Schöttgen and Georg Christoph Kreysig, Altenburg 1760, p. 393, no. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 394, no. 5.

[3] Cf. ibid., p. 402, no. 24.

[4] Cf. ibid., p. 455, no. 143.

[5] Cf. Rainer Aurig, Möglichkeiten und Grenzen interdisziplinärer Altstraßenforschung: Vorwiegend mit Beispielen aus der westlichen Niederlausitz, in Im Schatten mächtiger Nachbarn. Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur der Niederlausitz, edited by Klaus Neitmann, Potsdam 2006, pp. 111–139, especially pp. 121–122.

[6] Cf. Heinrich Kamm, Studien über die Oberschichten der mitteldeutschen Städte im 16. Jahrhundert, subvolume 1 (= Mitteldeutsche Forschungen 87/1), Köln/Wien 1981, p. 193.

[7] Inge Bily, Wieland Carls and Katalin Gönczi, Sächsisch-magdeburgisches Recht in Polen. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Rechts und seiner Sprache (= Ius Saxonico-Maideburgense in Oriente 2), Berlin/Boston 2011, p. 27.

[8] Descriptive on this Steffen Raßloff, Mitteldeutsche Geschichte. Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Thüringen, Magdeburg/Leipzig 2016, p. 70.

[9] Same as note 1, p. 488, no. 112.


Cite as:

Sascha Bütow, Herzberg an der Elster – Councilors Communicate Town Law, in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 01/12/2023, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/herzberg-elster/


A market hamlet in the Altmark and its medieval legal history between sovereign and aristocracy 

“[Greater] Apenburg was always a market hamlet and only occasionally referred to itself as a town”, states town historian Evamaria Engel. Despite her assessment and despite rudimentary medieval sources, Apenburg has a remarkable history of town law, which only a few comparable small towns and hamlets possess. The relationship to the Brandenburg sovereign, on the one hand, and to the noble city lord, on the other hand, was of great relevance in this context.

Apenburg, in contrast to the nearby village of the same name Lesser Apenburg, formerly called Greater, since 1997 Hamlet Apenburg, was caught in the 14th century in the warlike conflicts between the Brandenburg Margrave Ludwig (r. 1351–1365) and Duke Otto of Brunswick (r. 1318–1344). In the process, the village burned down completely in 1343 and was rebuilt at its present location with the support of Ludwig. The planned new layout of Apenburg can still be seen in today’s settlement ground plan: the main street (today Vorderstraße) leads as the central axis through the village and is flanked by two parallel streets (Hinterstraße and Lindenwall). The result is the impression of a rounded town layout, which was protected by the Purnitz River in the west and a moat connected to it in the east.

In 1344, the Margrave granted extensive privileges and possessions to the councilors (“consules”) and the municipality (“universitas opidi”), which included urban hide village plots such as meadows, forests, waters and pastures. Among these properties, an “old field” is mentioned especially, which most probably had already belonged to the land of the destroyed predecessor settlement. The levies, which were to be paid to the sovereign from the use of these municipal properties, were reduced by the Margrave to five marks for six years, each due on Walpurgis (April 30) and on St. Martin’s Day (November 11).

In 1351, Margrave Ludwig transferred Apenburg by a feudal act to the von der Schulenburg family, which was loyal to him. The von der Schulenburg family then took over the local rule of the town and, as a sign of their power, had a new castle built next to the town, the remains of which still exist today. The 200 or so medieval inhabitants of Apenburg thus experienced a change in their legal status, as the market town was now mediate and part of a noble exercise of power. Nevertheless, mayors and councilors left no doubt about the validity of their municipal rights, as evidenced by the town book begun in 1349 and kept by the Apenburg mayor. Besides numerous legal agreements, it contains a record of the Apenburg town law from 1402, from which it is evident that the municipality had adopted the legal customs of the town of Salzwedel. Introductory words mention that the transfer of rights had once been made by the Margrave of Brandenburg. This reference to the highest authority in the Margraviate of Brandenburg is likely to have been made by the mayor and councilors to the von der Schulenburg family when it came to the confirmation of municipal rights in repeated negotiations. However, this could hardly have affected the existing power relations.

Nevertheless, the written record of Salzwedel law in Apenburg is considered to be a unique feature. It reflects the self-image of a relatively small citizenry. The town book mentions that it was the Apenburgers for whom an application of the rights taken over from Salzwedel seemed necessary and expedient: “[…] dar uns des noet unde behoff ys […].” This suggests that the citizens of Apenburg themselves were the driving force behind the transfer of rights and petitioned the Margrave of Brandenburg for confirmation of the Salzwedel law. The town book is eloquent evidence that they succeeded in this. With the acquisition of the town charter, the citizens of Apenburg were able to ask Salzwedel, which was only about 20 kilometers away, for solutions to disputed legal issues. How often this happened is not known. De facto, the von der Schulenburg family might have defended itself against competing legal judgments from outside because the court of lay assessors of Apenburg was integrated with the rule of the von der Schulenburg family into their district court. A court order of the year 1572 from the early modern period states that six lay assessors occupied this committee: two each came from Beetzendorf and Apenburg, and two others were mayors of surrounding villages. With this integration of the community of lay assessors into the Schulenburg district court, the noble family was able to exert a high degree of influence on the court system in Apenburg.

The council’s policy was also covered by such influence, which is typical for mediate settlements. A document from 1445 testifies to the establishment of three fairs with a cattle market in Apenburg, approved by Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg. On closer inspection, it becomes evident that this privilege was granted at the request of the von der Schulenburg family, to whom the Margrave granted special “Gunst und Gnade […] für ir Stettlin Apenborch” (“favor and grace […] for the small town Apenborch”). This illustrates the great influence of the von der Schulenburg family within the municipal politics of Apenburg, in which they repeatedly acted on behalf of the citizenry.

Apart from a few documents and the already mentioned town book, there are hardly any meaningful sources about the politics of the council in the Middle Ages. However, it can be assumed that the mayor and the council were strongly in favor of fortifying Apenburg. A massive wall, as in other larger towns, did not exist in Apenburg. Instead, planks and the already mentioned moats protected the community. Traces of this medieval fortification are still visible today. The traffic leading into the town was controlled at two gates mentioned in 1444: the old or Gardelegen Gate and the new or Salzwedel Gate. The tasks arising from the town administration, such as market supervision, town planning and keeping the protocols, were most likely separated between the councilors in the usual way. Since 1344, a mayor and four aldermen are testified. In the transition to the early modern period, the differentiation of these offices decreases, so that in the 18th century, similar to a village settlement, only two mayors are mentioned as the highest representatives of Apenburg.

The councilors were supported in their charitable and social tasks by a Kaland brotherhood, which was also active in Apenburg. This brotherhood took care of the sick and needy, but also provided for transients and those seeking help in the spirit of late medieval piety and Christian charity. There is evidence that not only men but also women belonged to the Kaland in Apenburg. The community owned several houses within the town and was led by a dean. A treasurer took care of a large part of the administrative tasks, as he was responsible, among other things, for receipts and expenditures. A priest and other clergymen were in charge of the pastoral care of the Kaland. As can be learnt from documents, the Apenburg Kaland was closely linked to the one in Betzendorf. Without being able to gain a complete impression, the Kaland may thus have been an important pillar of social community life in Apenburg.

Against the background of an overall assessment of the urban development of Apenburg, Berent Schwineköper has pointed out that the “place consisting predominantly of agrarian citizens […] never attained special significance”. Of course, such an interpretation always depends on the criteria applied. From the point of view of legal historical research, Apenburg, with its connection to the Salzwedel law, points to a regionally limited spreading and power of influence of this special medieval town law. This process, which was quite important for a market town, was supported not least by the mayor, councilors and citizenry of Apenburg.

Author: Sascha Bütow
(English translation: Uli Nickel)


Further reading:

Lieselott Enders, Die Altmark. Geschichte einer kurmärkischen Landschaft in der Frühen Neuzeit (Ende des 15. bis Anfang des 19. Jahrhunderts), 2nd edition, Berlin 2016.

Evamaria Engel, Chancen für ein neues Deutsches Städtebuch der ostdeutschen Bundesländer, in: Der weite Blick des Historikers. Einsichten in Kultur- Landes- und Stadtgeschichte, Peter Johanek zum 65. Geburtstag, edited by Wilfried Ehbrecht et al., Köln/Weimar/Wien 2002, pp. 257–266.

Heiner Lück, Sächsisch-magdeburgisches Recht zwischen Elbe und Dnjepr, in: Kulturelle Vernetzung in Europa. Das Magdeburger Recht und seine Städte, edited by Gabriele Köster, Christina Link and Heiner Lück, Dresden 2018, pp. 13–27.

Peter P. Rohrlach (editor), Historisches Ortslexikon für die Altmark, vol. 1, A–K. Berlin 2018, pp. 41–47.

Albert Schulenburg, Zur Geschichte des Marktfleckens Groß-Apenburg, in: Jahresbericht des Altmärkischen Vereins für vaterländische Geschichte 34 (1907), pp. 129–138.

Berent Schwineköper, Groß Apenburg, in: Handbuch der historischen Stätten, vol. 11, Provinz Sachsen-Anhalt, edited by Berent Schwineköper, 2nd edition, Stuttgart 1987, pp. 153–154.


Cite as:

Sascha Bütow, Apenburg. A market hamlet in the Altmark and its medieval legal history between sovereign and aristocracy, in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 28/11/2023, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/apenburg/