A centre of trade and a royal residence on the banks of the Danube:

In the Middle Ages, the area on which today’s Budapest stands was the site of a number of emergent settlements. One of them, Buda, rose quickly to supraregional importance as a royal residence and a centre of trade, and made use of its optimal location on the banks of the Danube and its long-distance mercantile relationships to attain the status of a key metropolis in medieval East Central Europe.

This period of flourishing was not to begin until after the end of the Mongol invasion. Between the years 1242 and 1247, Buda came into being through the relocation of a settlement onto the hill on the Danube’s right bank, a move associated with the urban development policies of King Béla IV. After initially attracting settlement largely by Hungarians, Buda began, some years subsequently, to see the arrival of Germans from the Danube’s left bank, where the town of Pest stood. At the same time came settlers from other mercantile towns such as Nitra and Trnava.

A notable proportion of Buda’s initial inhabitants were in royal service, and numerous others came from Regensburg and Vienna. The town’s upper class primarily worked in the king’s fiscal administration, leasing royal revenues, minting rights and tithes and conducting further financial business with the king. The members of this privileged group also traded in cloth and invested in land, many owning farms, vineyards, mills and sometimes even entire villages in Buda’s environs. Large numbers of Jews and Italians were also resident in Buda; the Jews enjoyed royal protection and involvement in the town’s trade with the Orient, until their expulsion from Buda in the late fourteenth century.

From the turn of the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries onward, a primarily mercantile stratum of patricians dominated civic life in Buda; their business and family connections to the merchants of southern German towns and cities saw traders from Nuremberg gain particular influence in Buda’s economy. Higher officials of the kingdom now lived in the city, and Buda’s merchants and craftspeople supplied the needs of the royal court and of those who attended the city for court sessions and assemblies of the estates.

Until the mid-fifteenth century, the city’s pre-eminent personages were largely German, and its middle stratum of trades- and craftsmen, mostly Hungarian burghers, led separate lives from the German citizenry and attended church in their own parish. This social split, dividing merchants originating from towns and cities in southern Germany and Austria from Hungarian practitioners of manual trades, sparked various episodes of civil unrest during the fifteenth century.

Buda’s civic law drew on the charters and privileges granted to its original settlers. The royal privilege – known as the Golden Bull – issued in 1244 by King Béla IV contained the fundamental freedoms which comprised Buda’s law, including the right to freely elect the head of the municipality, with the caveat that the King confirm the choice thus made. Other rights included that of free choice of the parish priest, freedom from tolls throughout the land, and staple rights, with the last of these in particular drawing merchants in numbers to Buda’s markets. The city also received the right to hold annual fairs. In the late thirteenth century, conferments of civic rights on newly established settlements began taking Buda as a model. Localities thus influenced by market privileges originating in Buda included Sopron, Komárno, Košice, Prešov and Bardejov, alongside municipalities in Transylvania such as Brașov and Sibiu. The regulations governing Buda’s manual trades likewise served as exemplary instances of their kind, with the statutes of guilds from the city adopted by Hungarian mining towns and by Debrecen.

Beginning in the mid-fourteenth century, Buda’s Council found itself called upon by residents of mercantile and market towns in cases of legal dispute, and settled these matters in accordance with its municipal law. Around the same time, an association of seven free royal cities engaging in long-distance trade emerged; its members consulted one another on the application of laws and began in 1430 to send delegates from the citizenry to the royal upper courts of law in these cities. Its leading member was – of course – Buda.

The municipal law of Buda found written form in the fifteenth century’s first half, with many concordances in evidence between its book of municipal laws (Stadtrechtsbuch) and Saxon-Magdeburg law. Its Early New High German text drew the reader’s attention to these congruences in its very first sentence, thus emphasising the high regard in which Buda held Magdeburg law. The Stadtrechtsbuch began with a discussion of the ‘doctrine of two swords’ describing the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular power, a key issue in German law books of the time. Various legal terms used in the text, alongside its syntax and passages clearly adopted verbatim, support the assumption that the authors in Buda drew on texts from Saxon-Magdeburg law. One route by which these laws may have arrived in Buda is the city’s trade with the Silesian region; it is also possible that they came via Vienna. Károly Mollay has called Buda’s Stadtrechtsbuch the ‘most significant and most comprehensive source on legal practices in the [early] modern age, not only in Buda and the so-called free royal cities, but also in the towns and cities of Hungary’.[1]

Buda’s prosperity evidently continued until the mid-sixteenth century, when the city fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. After 1541, Buda’s citizenry fled to other trade-based localities with similar civic privileges and freedoms, such as Bratislava and Košice. Buda’s mercantile and manual trades lost significance and found themselves limited to supplying the immediate region. Until 1686, Buda was an administrative city in the Ottoman Empire and served as the seat of the Budin Eyalet. Subsequently, in 1703, Buda’s citizenry approached the King with the request that he confirm the freedoms granted in 1244, making reference to the Golden Bull issued by King Béla IV as the central pillar of their city’s law. From this we see that the tradition underlying Buda’s civic law spanned not only geographical regions, but also chronological eras.

By Katalin Gönczi


[1] Karl Mollay: Einleitung, in Karl Mollay (ed.), Das Ofner Stadtrecht. Eine deutschsprachige Rechtssammlung des 15. Jahrhunderts aus Ungarn, Budapest 1959, pp. 7–31; refer to p. 7.



Monumenta Diplomatica Civitatis Budapest / Budapest történetének okleveles emlékei [Documents as monuments to the history of Budapest], vol. 1, 1148–1301, ed. Dezső Csánky et al., Budapest 1936, vol. 3, 1382–1439, ed. Bernat L. Kumorovitz, Budapest 1987.

Das Ofner Stadtrecht, Eine deutschsprachige Rechtssammlung des 15. Jahrhunderts aus Ungarn, ed. Karl Mollay, Budapest 1959.

Further reading

Balázs Nagy, Martyn Rady, Katalin Szende and András Vadas (eds), Medieval Buda in Context, Leiden 2016.

Martyn C. Rady, Medieval Buda. A Study of Municipal Government and Jurisdiction in the Kingdom of Hungary, New York 1985.

András Kubinyi, Die Anfänge Ofens, Berlin 1972.

András Kubinyi, Budapest története a későbbi középkorban Buda elestéig (1541-ig) [The history of Budapest in the late Middle Ages, up to the fall of Buda in the year 1541], in László Gerevich (ed.): Budapest története. vol. 2, Budapest története a későbbi középkorban és a török hódoltság idején, Budapest 1973, pp. 7–334.

Katalin Gönczi and Wieland Carls, with contributions by Inge Bily, Sächsisch-magdeburgisches Recht in Ungarn und Rumänien. Autonomie und Rechtstransfer im Donau- und Karpatenraum, Berlin 2013.

Katalin Gönczi, Ungarisches Stadtrecht aus europäischer Sicht. Die Stadtrechtsentwicklung im spätmittelalterlichen Ungarn am Beispiel Ofen, Frankfurt (Main) 1997.

László Blazovich, József Schmidt (ed., tr.): Buda város jogkönyve, 2 Bde., Szeged 2001.

Cite as:

Katalin Gönczi: Buda. A centre of trade and a royal residence on the banks of the Danube, in in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 27/11/2020, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/buda/