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A European metropolis of Magdeburg law:

The establishment of a new town under Magdeburg law, proclaimed on 5 June 1257 by Duke Bolesław V the Chaste (whose reign spanned 1243–1279), was a foundational event for Kraków/Cracow in the true sense of the word. Notwithstanding the primarily legal and planning-based character of the endeavour, the city’s foundation generated significant momentum for societal change. Within a relatively short space of time, Kraków, originally consisting of a ducal castle and a settlement at its foot, grew into a European metropolis, one of the contemporary continent‘s premier mercantile centres and the seat of a noteworthy political self-administration.

Like Rome, Kraków was not built in a day; preparations for the city’s establishment had begun many years before it became a reality. The plan for the city came into being at the court of Bolesław V’s father, Duke Leszek the White (d. 1227), and it continued under the auspices of Henry the Bearded (d. 1238) and of his son. These dukes, whose reign occurred in the turbulent period of the struggle for ducal ascendancy at Wawel Castle, perceived Kraków as possessing the capacity to secure their position throughout Poland. Isolated, yet unambiguous sources bear witness to the emergence between 1220 and 1241 of Kraków’s first, short-lived civic community, whose demise is associated with the political catastrophe that befell the Silesian Piast dynasty with the Mongol invasion of Poland in 1241.

When did Duke Bolesław V take the decision to re-establish a settlement in the largely devastated metropolis, on a broader basis than before? How profound was his involvement in this – ultimately successful – project? We may read in the Latin of Kraków’s ‘charter of location’ (Lokationsurkunde) the names of key protagonists in this epoch-making moment of Kraków’s history: ‘[W]e promise to our reeves, Gedek, known as Stilvoyt, Jakub, erstwhile judge in Neisse/Nysa, and Dytmar, known as Wolk, who have appeared before us in person […].’ This engagement of three reeves, as opposed to just one, to re-establish Kraków distinguishes the endeavour from others of this type, and is evidently due to the size of the task facing the reeves and the Duke’s conviction of the investment’s bright prospects.

Two of the three reeves named in the charter also appear in other sources. Gedko Stilwoyt and Dytmar Wolk had a close association with Wrocław. Gedko, who makes multiple appearances as a witness to civic documents, owned a mill on the river Ohle and is thought to have held the office of a lay judge in Wroclaw from 1261 onward. His ‘known as’ name, Stilwoyt, appears to indicate that he came from a family of Wroclaw reeves. A shrewd businessman, probably of German origin, he was thoroughly familiar with the civic administration. Dytmar Wolk likewise appears in documents from contemporary Wroclaw. We are not certain whether he is the Dytmar Ruthenus (Ruthene) known to have been in that city in the mid-thirteenth century; it is possible that the name by which he was known derived from the Ruthenian wolk (wolf). The third reeve, Jakub of Neisse, appears in the records of the town of Neisse in the year 1254 as its sheriff, which evidences his links to Silesia and his experience acquired there of administrative and legal matters. All three reeves were soon gone from Kraków; as early as 1264, a charter issued by Bolesław V for the collegiate church of St Michael on the Wawel Hill names one Raszko as Kraków’s reeve. It is likely that Gedko, Dytmar and Jakub, having brought their task to its successful conclusion and received numerous gifts and privileges bestowed by the grateful duke, sold their stakes in the city, increasing their already far from negligible wealth, and moved on. We would struggle to identify with any certainty the precise role of Duke Bolesław V in Kraków’s re-establishment. Not famed for his political talent, he was nevertheless a skilled administrator, with an emphatic belief in the significance of encouraging and driving urban settlement. Alongside Kraków, doubtless his greatest success, he founded the towns of Bochnia, Zawichost, Jędrzejów, Skaryszew and Nowy Korczyn, consistently endowing them with a legal model known then as ius Theutonicum (German law) and termed Magdeburg law by academics today.

Fig. 1: Kraków’s Wawel Hill, featuring the cathedral and the castle of the Polish kings

The annals kept by the Kraków chapter of what was known as the Wawel cathedral record that in 1257, ‘Cracoviensis civitas iuri Theutonico traditur et situs fori per advocatos et domorum et curiarum immutatur’ (The city of Kraków was placed under German law and the reeves altered the positions of squares, houses and lordly residences). The chronicler, installed upon the Wawel Hill as the symbol representing the Kraków chapter’s seat, had clearly deemed these events worthy of recording for posterity. What he could not have known, and we know from our temporal vantage point of several centuries, is the extent of the changes, in terms of urban planning, demography, the economic and political sphere, and indeed of society, which were emerging in Kraków. Describing what he could see with his own eyes – great investments and the changing face of the city -, the chronicler could never have anticipated that the thirteen million annual visitors to Kraków marketplace 760 years into the future would share his admiration for the foresight in planning and the aesthetic merits displayed by the ensemble. Neither could he have foreseen Kraków’s rise to become one of medieval Europe’s most significant hubs of international trade, a key scene of political events, and a melting-pot of highly diverse cultures. The old town’s symmetrical, chessboard-like layout, which has held UNESCO World Heritage status for many years, exerts a powerful appeal to today’s tourists.

Kraków’s period of endowment with Magdeburg law was one of its golden ages. This era lasted over 500 years in total, the first half of which was particularly marked by extraordinary developments and outstanding achievements; it is rare for political bodies and organisations to maintain such momentum over such a long period of time. It was not until the issuance, on 18 April 1791 by the Great Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of the Free Royal Cities Act, which abolished the principles on which this model of civic administration had rested, that this period in Kraków’s history drew to a close. In the decades immediately following 1257, the city had flourished, enjoying the respect and goodwill of the dukes of Kraków. Bolesław the Chaste’s successor, Leszek the Black, who reigned from 1279 to 1288, showed his appreciation to the city for its loyalty to him during the revolt of the knights in 1285, bestowing upon it the right to fortification in the following year. The fortifications subsequently erected, made of wood and earth, were effective enough to assist the city in repelling a further Mongol attack on Lesser Poland in 1287/88. The significance of this event to the Cracovian collective memory is evident in the annual custom in which, on the eighth day after the feast of Corpus Christi, the ‘Tartar rider’ Lajkonik processes around the city on a hobby horse, followed by an entourage.

Fig. 2: St Florian’s Gate in Kraków’s old town

After Leszek the Black died without heirs and the Wroclaw duke Henryk IV Probus was presumably appointed his successor, to subsequently reign from 1288 to 1290, the citizenry of Kraków evinced their loyalty to him as he sought to maintain the throne; his early demise robbed the city of a promising ruler. Following him, the Bohemian king Wenceslaus II ascended the throne in Kraków, reigning 1278/1290 to 1305. It was during his rule that a wall of stone replaced and significantly expanded the previous city fortifications. A remnant of that wall, St Florian’s Gate, is one of Kraków’s most recognisable symbols today. After having taken Kraków in 1306, King Władysław the Elbow-high, who reigned 1306–1333 in Kraków and 1320–1333 as King of Poland, bestowed upon it, in an attempt to increase his support among its citizenry, the ‘staple right’ for copper, that is, the right to require copper merchants to unload and market their wares in the city; its exercise proved of foundational importance to Kraków’s subsequent economic success. When, in 1387, the city joined the Hanseatic League, a confederation of mercantile cities and market towns, it acquired the epithet of ‘house of copper’ (in German Kupferhaus).

Kraków’s citizenry soon advanced to become a political force to be reckoned with. It was the political ambition of its leadership that gave rise to the first serious conflict between the city and the reigning duke. In May of 1311, the citizenry, above all settlers of German origin, involved themselves in a political dispute around the ascendancy to the Cracovian throne; led by their reeve Albert, they revolted against Władysław the Elbow-high and gave their support to his antagonist, Duke Bolesław of Opole (who reigned 1281–1313). Eventually, twelve months into the dispute, Władysław ordered his troops to occupy the city and had the ringleaders of the rebellion put to death. We have a silent witness to the revolt in the shape of a lump of lead, weighing 693 kilograms, originating from this period and excavated during an archaeological dig at Kraków’s main marketplace. It is likely that, in the spring of 1312, its owner, one of the rebels, foreseeing the impending defeat, buried it there in an attempt to conceal his assets. We might assume that he was aware of his looming fate because he was unable to pronounce the phrase soczewica miele, koło młyn correctly; contemporaries record that this shibboleth served the Duke to identify those of German origin among the citizenry, condemning to death those who stumbled over these difficult Polish words. Once the rebellion was put down, the landscape of power in Kraków shifted; the hitherto all-powerful office of reeve found itself stripped of its opulence and privilege, and the city’s Council took the lead henceforth in civic matters. This notwithstanding, although the Duke had taken the lives and fortunes of many Cracovian citizens, his assault on the city’s economic privileges was temporary; in 1320 he began incrementally restoring rights to the citizenry and indeed granting new ones. Both he and his son Casimir the Great, who reigned from 1333 to 1370, continued to grant their support to the city, with its prominence in the political and economic plans of the Piast dynasty’s final members.

Fig. 3: The covered markets for linens and cloth in the marketplace of Kraków

The coronation in 1320 of Władysław the Elbow-high as King of Poland, which took place in Kraków, sealed the city’s status as premier setting for the coronation of the Polish kings, a position it held until the monarchy’s demise. The first official visit to take place in the reign of each newly-crowned king saw him proceed from the Wawel to Kraków to receive the oath of allegiance from the citizenry in the main marketplace. In the period that followed this accession, Kraków blossomed into a major trading empire, a centre of European finance and a hive of manufacturing, with meat and leather processing work playing prominent roles. Kraków dominated the copper and lead markets, was a prime mover in the salt and linen trades, and took a brokering role between other trading partners in the lucrative trade in spices with the Levant, in the wine trade with Hungary and in ironware with Austria.

Kraków’s population rose in direct proportion to its economic centrality; from the approximately 3,000 residents it counted in the mid-thirteenth century, it quadrupled its population to around 12,000 within just a century. This rise in numbers precipitated a corresponding territorial expansion. The year 1335 saw the foundation, on Kraków’s southern edge, of a new town named Kazimierz for its founder, the Polish king Casimir the Great, who established a further new town on the city’s northern margins in 1366. Initially named Florencja, this settlement soon received a new name, Kleparz, whose origin is unknown. In this way, the civitas of Kraków evolved into a tripartite conurbation, which had 20,000 inhabitants in the mid-fifteenth century, swelling to approximately 40,000 by the beginning of the sixteenth. Successive rulers from the Jagiellonian dynasty further reinforced Kraków’s prominent position, with both Władysław II Jagiello (reg. 1386–1434) and his son Casimir (reg. 1447–1492) extending its rights and royal privileges. Among them was the granting in 1387 of the right to require itinerant merchants to pass through the city. Wladyslaw’s son solemnly confirmed these privileges’ conferment on the city on a number of occasions, the first of them in 1457. A high point in Kraków’s medieval history was the famous Congress of Kraków, which took place in 1364 and featured a banquet hosted by Mikołaj Wierzynek (d. 1368) for the monarchs, princes and other dignitaries who had made their way to the city for this occasion to whose grandeur and magnificence numerous historical paintings testified thereafter.

To this day, Kraków bears the traces of Magdeburg law in its layout, its architecture, its principal thoroughfares and the location of its parks and green spaces, each of these intertwined with modern developments driven by the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries. The Kraków founded under Magdeburg law appears akin to a logical algorithm defining its fundamental parameters and its residents’ collective memory and giving birth to the community and the shared values which are the essential catalysts of all civic development. As the city’s founding charter of 5.June 1257 wisely notes, ‘As this community of people, that is natural and is regarded as such, exercises justice on earth, it is of benefit to all, and it is equal to justice itself.’

By Michał Niezabitowski


Further reading

Michał Niezabitowski, Geografia a historia Krakowa, warunki naturalne rozwoju Krakowa [The geography and history of Kraków, the natural conditions of Kraków’s development], in Kraków. Nowe studia nad rozwojem miasta [Kraków: New studies on the city’s development] (= Biblioteka Krakowska 150), ed. Jerzy Wyrozumski, Kraków 2007, pp. 19–43.

Krzysztof Ożóg, Kultura umysłowa w Krakowie w XIV wieku: środowisko duchowieństwa świeckiego [Intellectual culture in fourteenth-century Krakòw: The circles of the secular clerics], Kraków 1987.

Jerzy Rajman, Kraków: Zespół osadniczy, proces lokacji, mieszczanie do roku 1333 [Kraków: Its foundation, settlement and citizenry up to the year 1333], Kraków 2004.

Marcin Starzyński, Krakowska rada miejska w średniowieczu [The Krakòw civic council in the Middle Ages], Kraków 2010.

Jerzy Wyrozumski, Dzieje Krakowa [History of Krakòw]. vol. 1: Kraków do schyłku wieków średnich [Krakòw until the end of the Middle Ages], Kraków 1992.

Cite as: 

Michał Niezabitowski, Kraków / Cracow: A European metropolis of Magdeburg law, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 11/08/2020,

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. 232–236.

Photo credits

Fig. 1 and 3: pixabay

Fig. 2: wikimedia commons