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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/