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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/