Lay Judges and the Lay Judges’ Bench

Schöffen or lay judges are individuals who administer justice. In the Middle Ages, they were also occupied with governance. The term Schöffe denotes an assesor and is derived from the Germanic word skapjan, meaning rule in the legal sense. In the Germanic era, mediation and the administration of justice were the responsibility of the entire legal unit, i.e. a settlement, a region or even an entire nation. Adult men from the particular community attended the assemblies held.

Society’s increasing social differentiation and specialization also engendered a differentiation of the administration of justice. Lay judges, assessors who replaced Merovingian magistrates (Rachinburgen), did not appear in the Carolingian Empire until after 770. As part of his judicial reform, Charlemagne took advantage of the growing authority of judicial arbitration and institutionalized lay judges in the interest of centralized Carolingian power. He enhanced the legitimation of legal proceedings by making lay judges royal representatives. The lay judges’ job thus became a permanent and regular office, which was simultaneously intended to stem the influence of overly powerful counts. A lay judge’s time-consuming job initially required financial security derived from land ownership and prestige. Carolingian lay judges’ task in comital courts was to administer justice, primarily in cases of property, inheritance and severe punishments.

The specific form of the Carolingian lay judiciary never established itself throughout all of the Carolingian Empire, though. Friesian, North Sea and Baltic Sea, and, later, Lübeck law, for instance, did not have any lay judges. The lay judiciary mandated by the Franks after the end of their bloody conflicts largely became established among the Saxons. The lay judgeships widespread in village, territorial and municipal courts in the high and late Middle Ages were no longer directly in the tradition of Carolingian lay judges, however. The limited small body of assessors as well as the form of the office chiefly survived.

Lay judges were central bodies of legal and institutional development in the history of European cities. They assembled on a lay judges’ bench (or lay judges’ court). The term itself is ambiguous and denotes both the place where the lay judges worked and the institution itself. There is evidence of them as officials entrusted with the administration of justice from the mid-12th century onward. They were often directly linked with growing cities’ withdrawal from manorial units, whose administrative duties they initially also assumed. Lay judges’ authority to administer justice generally pertained to any legal matters that arose and extended to every resident of their city.
They represented a city’s interests before its territorial lord as well, thus being agents of the pursuit of municipal self-governance and liberty. Into the 16th century, the office of lay judge in medieval cities was also primarily reserved for the wealthy upper class, i.e. usually merchants, who were normally not academic jurists.

Lay judges’ duties and jurisdiction underwent a number of changes over the centuries. More and more frequently, city councils took over the affairs of governance and lawmaking, whereas lay judges were confined to administering justice. Lay judges grew particularly important for inquiries from other cities about the interpretation of provisions of Magdeburg law. Their legal instructions and advice, made lay judges instrumental in spreading individual municipal laws and in establishing ties of municipal law.


Marc Boone: Art. “Schöffe, Schöffengericht, Schöffenbank”, in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, Vol. 7. Munich 2002, Col. 1514 ff.

Heiner Lück: Der Magdeburger Schöffenstuhl als Teil der Magdeburger Stadtverfassung, in: Hanse, Städte, Bünde. Die sächsischen Städte zwischen Elbe und Weser um 1500. Ausstellung Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg, 28. Mai bis 25. August 1996, Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum Ausstellungszentrum Hinter Aegidien 17. September bis 1. Dezember 1996, Ed. by Matthias Puhle. Magdeburg 1996,
p. 138 ff.