Banská Štiavnica Show on the map

At the heart of Upper Hungary’s medieval mining industry:

Alongside the great socio-economic changes taking place in Europe as a whole during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Hungary was experiencing marked processes of internal consolidation, with the scattered miners’ settlements in the important mining regions of the era beginning to evolve into towns. Banská Štiavnica (in German Schemnitz) holds claim to the title of Slovakia’s oldest mining town. Intensive mining had arisen in its surrounding area from the twelfth century’s final quarter onward. The first document to mention the town – referring to it as terra banensium (land of the miners) – dates from 1156 and was issued by Martyrius, then archbishop of Esztergom (in office 1151–1158); a copy from 1347 has survived the centuries. The earliest authentic written record of Banská Štiavnica is a deed from the year 1217, recording the first extraction of silver at a place called ‘Bana’. A further source, a deed from 1228, refers to the town’s surrounding area as argenti fodina (silver mine).

In this period, the Kingdom of Hungary was recruiting miners and smelters whose technical knowledge exceeded that then typical of the area, along with coinmakers, from Kutná Hora and from Tirol, Styria and Carinthia in present-day Austria; it later looked further afield still, to Saxony. The workers, and the new ore extraction methods they brought with them, joined with the local residents in laying the foundations for a more technically progressive and effective mining industry in the region and for the mining towns’ blossoming into economic prosperity. From the thirteenth century onward, their rulers endowed them with specific privileges, making them ‘Free Royal Mining Towns’, a title Banská Štiavnica presumably received in the year 1238. The town’s municipal and mining law probably came into being in today’s Slovakia, but its authors spoke German and wrote it in German, the local written and vernacular language of the time. Banská Štiavnica’s original municipal law is one of Slovakia’s oldest, and its mining law is the oldest of its kind. Indeed, we can assume that a customary mining law was extant in the town as early as the thirteenth century’s opening third. Banská Štiavnica’s lay judges set out its municipal and mining law in writing in accordance with legal tradition, having been commissioned to do so by Hungary’s king Béla IV, who occupied the throne from 1235 to 1270. This first privilege conferred upon the town endowed it with the independence of its administration and judiciary, the right to extract ore freely, and the right to make its own laws.

This original municipal and mining law fell victim in 1442 to the fires that burned after the town’s sacking by the army of Bishop Simon Rozgonyi of Eger (in office 1438–1444) and the nobleman Ladislav Čech of Levice (Ladislav Lévai), head of the Hungarian county of Bars (in office 1439–1441, d. 1454). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the town nevertheless repeatedly invoked those original privileges for purposes that included persuading the Hungarian rulers to exempt the town from tolls, fiscal concession charges and customs duties, or seeking the right to fell trees in the royal forests for mining purposes.

The oldest surviving written document detailing Banská Štiavnica’s municipal and mining law appears in the (Zweites) Schemnitzer Stadtbuch of 1466, a volume bound in wood with a red leather overlay, worked silver embellishments and depictions of lions’ heads. Alongside municipal notes and text delineating the town’s municipal and mining law, the Stadtbuch contains illustrations by Valentinus Gobil, recorded as a clerk in the town in 1432, depicting the municipal coat of arms, the coats of arms used by families from its citizenry, and a scene of the Crucifixion. The law’s actual text is in German; it makes reference to copies of the German version of the mining law given to the city of Jihlava. The volume’s introductory section is taken from the original law of Banská Štiavnica and from the municipal law applied in practice up until that point. In the further chapters, we notice formal features that were unusual during the reign of Béla IV (1235–1270) and a number of elements distinctly progressive for their time.

The matters governed by this municipal law included freedoms and privileges pertaining to the citizenry and the penalties for their infringement. Specific beneficiaries of the law were the Ringbürger and Waldbürger, wealthy citizens and residents active in the mining business, largely German in origin, and living on the town’s circular Ring street or its market square. They were subject to no ruling authority, instead only to the jurisdiction of their own freely elected representatives, that is, the municipal judge and Council. The law further covered the election of the judge and Schöffen (lay judges) which the Council comprised; in accordance with royal decree, election was to take place annually on the feast of Candlemas (2 February). The judge was to be an honourable man who had been a member of the Council for at least a year; candidates were generally from the best-off strata of the citizenry. The newly elected judge had the task, alongside four members of the previous legislature’s Council, of proposing and confirming the new Council’s members, which included the municipal bermaster. A notary conducted the chancellery’s business and represented the town in legal matters. The articles of the municipal law listed further rights and duties pertaining to the judge and the Schöffen, set out a manner of proceeding should they be the victims of slander, and gave ordinances for the punishment of this act.

Rights and liberties granted by this municipal law further protected the citizens’ individual freedom, life, health, private property and practice of religion, sought to secure the peace in the town, the accuracy of the weights and measures used at market and the right to bring a case before the municipal court, and set out stipulations for the punishment of witches, thieves, robbers and tricksters and for murder and the causing of bodily harm. Penalties ranged from fines and banishment from the town to imprisonment, torture, breaking on the wheel, the amputation of hands, beheading, drowning and burning at the stake. Conviction of a crime usually meant the loss of citizenship rights and privileges. Acts with an element of moral turpitude attracted particularly severe penalties. The law set great store by protecting private property and the sanctity of the home; a householder who killed an attacker or burglar in the course of defending his property was not subject to punishment. The penalties for theft and arson were extremely stiff, and whosoever harboured a thief was pronounced as guilty as the thief himself. Amputation of the hand was the fate of those caught three times using false weights or measures. The laws on spiritual atonement included the requirement on the miscreant to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, or to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The mining law of Banská Štiavnica, albeit of greater brevity than its municipal law, encompasses all stipulations required at the time for the smooth running of mining operations. It governed legal aspects of mining and smelting including the boundaries of mine workings, their lease and exploitation, and the meeting of two tunnels (tunnelling from opposite ends), and included provisions relating to test tunnels, the principal adit level, free and blind shafts, and shallow experimental tunnelling. Further, it specified procedures for the approval of brief or longer idle periods, for instance during illness or for the observance of church feast days, and for leasing allotted portions of the mine and building smelting works and mills on land belonging to another. It prohibited dispossession of defaulting debtors who owned mining assets. Violations of any of these stipulations, such as moving or damaging the boundary stakes used to divide the workings, was punishable by forfeiture of assets or even death. Other aspects of this law set out the role and powers of the bermaster and the procedures for his appointment and dismissal. Any Council resolution for the purpose of settling a conflict required the involvement of the members of the Council, the Schöffen, three experienced and disinterested experts from the ranks of the owners of mine workings, and a bearer of sovereign state authority, in the person of the mining official known as a Kammergraf.

The endeavour of drawing up these laws, and the resolution of legal issues on their basis, required the members of the Council and the representatives of the mining chamber and of the citizenry of Banská Štiavnica to possess profound knowledge in the field and extensive experience. The town’s municipal and mining law served as a model for the subsequent endowment of other mining towns in the Kingdom of Hungary with municipal law and charters; they included Banská Bystrica (1255), Kremnica (1328), Hybe (1265), Ľubietová (1379), Brezno (1380), Gelnica (1287), Pukanec (c. 1321), Rožňava (end of thirteenth century), Jasov (1243), Spišská Nová Ves (1380), and Ľupča (1263 and 1270). The foremost of these were the ‘golden town’ of Kremnica, Banská Štiavnica as the ‘silver town’, and the ‘copper town’ of Banská Bystrica.

The ‘guests’ (hospites) recruited to Banská Štiavnica from other regions received privileges similar to those they would have held in their homelands. In 1424, in his capacity as King of Hungary, Sigismund of Luxembourg (reigned 1411–1437) bestowed the flourishing mining towns of Central Slovakia and the county of Zólyom upon his wife, Barbara von Cilli (1390–1451), as the Widerlage of the Hungarian queens, giving them financial security for their possible future widowhood and simultaneously endowing them with political influence. A year later, in 1425, Sigismund exempted the mining towns from the payment of tolls and other charges when importing goods.

The formation in 1388 of an alliance of Central Slovakian mining towns for the purpose of securing their common economic and other interests saw initially six municipalities come together, with their number rising to seven as of 1453 (septem civitates montane superiores). The members of this association were Kremnica, Banská Štiavnica, Banská Bystrica, Pukanec, Nová Baňa, Ľubietová and Banská Belá. They worked together to protect and advance their prosperity in the industry, cooperating in selecting pits and introducing new mining regulations, as well as defending their interests against the Ottoman Empire, which was expanding its territory during this period, and in other matters.

The territory within which excavation of precious metals took place belonged to the king and the king alone, a right known in German as Bergregal. The local mining businesses surrendered the Urbühr, a mandatory proportion of the ore excavated, to the king. The oldest administrative institutions in the mining trade were the mining chambers, whose origins had their roots in the Árpád dynasty’s rule. Their principal task was to collect the Urbühren owed to the king from the mine owners, who were subject to the requirement to exchange the gold and silver they had mined at the chamber. At the head of each chamber was an official known in German as a Kammergraf (comes camerae), who alone held the right to determine the metals’ purity. Originally, all mining settlements had had their own chamber; many of these closed successively as volumes of metal excavated fell, until, by the mid-fifteenth century, the only chambers left were those in Banská Štiavnica, Kremnica and Banská Bystrica.

During the sixteenth century, the political landscape of the time brought its influence emphatically to bear on the development of the mining industry. The Battle of Mohács, fought in the year 1526, when the Ottoman army occupied Hungary’s southern regions, precipitated an exodus of mine owners from the territory, sending the mining and metal industries in the region into a steep and eventually terminal decline. The Habsburgs, attaining the Hungarian throne, pursued a policy of centralisation in their administration of mining and its associated trades and industries. The new, joint mining regulations of the septem civitates, issued in 1550, and those proclaimed in 1573 by the Holy Roman Emperor and Hungarian king Maximilian II (on the throne 1562–1576), announced the appointment of a senior or ‘head Kammergraf with authority over the elected bermasters of each Free Royal Mining Town. Restructuring of the mining administration in the sixteenth century saw it centralised and placed under the control of the head Kammergraf as the supreme administrative organ of the chambers and the entire mining industry of contemporary Central Slovakia. During the sixteenth century, this new office had its seat in the premises of the mining chamber in Banská Štiavnica, eventually merging into one with that institution, and assuming the administration of mining across the Central Slovakia region.

By Adriana Matejková


Further reading

Mária Čelková/Mikuláš Čelko (eds), Banská Štiavnica: mesto svetového dedičstva UNESCO [Banská Štiavnica: a UNESCO World Heritage site], Banská Bystrica 2017.

Ľubomír Juck, Výsady banských miest na Slovensku v stredoveku [The privileges of the Slovakian mining towns in the Middle Ages], in Richard Marsina (ed.), Banské mestá na Slovensku [Mining towns in Slovakia], Martin 1990, pp. 82–90.

Marián Lichner et al., Banská Štiavnica: svedectvo času [Banská Štiavnica: a witness to history], Banská Bystrica 2002.

Richard Marsina, Banskoštiavnické mestské a banské právo [The municipal and mining law of Banská Štiavnica], in Richard Marsina (ed.), Banské mestá na Slovensku [Mining towns in Slovakia], Martin 1990, pp. 13–35.

Ilpo Tapani Piirainen, Das Stadt- und Bergrecht von Banská Štiavnica/Schemnitz: Untersuchungen zum Frühneuhochdeutschen in der Slowakei, Oulu 1986.

Jozef Vozár (ed.), Kódex mestského a banského práva Banskej Štiavnice [The municipal and mining legal code of Banská Štiavnica], Košice 2002.

Cite as:

Adriana Matejková, Banská Štiavnica. At the heart of Upper Hungary’s medieval mining industry, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 17/11/2020,

A version of the original German text previously appeared in Gabriele Köster and Christina Link (eds), Faszination Stadt. Die Urbanisierung Europas im Mittelalter und das Magdeburger Recht (catalogue of the eponymous exhibition, 1 September 2019 – 2 February 2020), Dresden 2019, pp. 220–224.