Endowed with Halle and Magdeburg law between 1156 and 1170:
The city of Leipzig in the German state of Saxony has a current population of almost 600,000, making it the largest in the German region encompassing Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. The most powerful influence in Leipzig’s rich history is its long tradition of hosting trade fairs and serving as a mercantile centre of significance at European level. Its university, founded in 1409, was and remains an important institution of education, research and culture. Among the many giants of German intellectual and cultural life who lived and worked in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is perhaps the most towering. In its more recent history, Leipzig is credited with substantially driving the peaceful revolution of 1989 that toppled the East German regime. Leipzig’s role in the history of Magdeburg law lies in the fact that it is one of the earliest examples of a municipality’s endowment therewith; Otto, Margrave of Meissen from 1156 to 1190, a relative of Magdeburg’s archbishop Wichmann, granted the charter, and Magdeburg law remained in place between 1156 and 1170.
Leipzig, located somewhat over 100 kilometres south-west of Magdeburg, stands at a crossing of the Weisse Elster river. The first written record of the city, dated 1015, is its mention as urbs Libzi in the chronicles of the bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, who held office between 1009 and 1018. In the environs of the castle referenced there, several core settlements subsequently emerged, populated, inter alia, by craftspeople, and frequented by merchants. In the mid-twelfth century, Margrave Otto, who had originated from House of Wettin and later received the epithet ‘the Rich’ due to the discovery of silver in the eastern Ore Mountains, presided over building works which brought the core settlements together; he also elevated the thus emerging community to the legal status of a town, making Leipzig likely the first municipality to have received town privileges from the House of Wettin. This was the first of a series of towns established in the area east of the river Saale in the context of the expansion of territories that took place in the Middle Ages. The medieval princes and rulers hoped to advance their lands’ economic development by promoting the development of urban communities.
A notable and significant document, of great value to research on the history of civic life in general, has survived the centuries to tell us the story of Leipzig’s elevation to civic status: the Stadtbrief. In the thirteenth century, written documents rarely recorded the granting of town privileges, with an oral proclamation regarded as entirely sufficient. Documents exist in isolated cases, as in the German municipalities of Augsburg (1156), Stendal (after 1160), Jüterbog (1174) and Lübeck (1188). Leipzig’s Stadtbrief, which also makes reference to the conferment of Magdeburg law upon Leipzig circa 1160, is a retrospective record, presumably drawn up in the second decade of the thirteenth century; there is academic consensus that its content is true to the actual events. One persuasive view of the document’s origin suggests a connection to an uprising of Leipzig’s citizenry in 1215/16 against Margrave Dietrich, a son of Otto who ruled between 1198 and 1221. The citizens, who were seeking at the time to attain a greater degree of self-determination, had joined forces with members of the local nobility to rebel against Dietrich, initially with some success. It was not until 1216 that the Margrave, with the aid of Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (who ruled 1212–1250), managed to quell the insurrection and re-establish his authority in the city. The Stadtbrief is not a charter in the precise sense, but rather a written record of the event it details. About the size of a modern-day postcard, and bearing script on both sides, this piece of parchment bears a genuine seal of Margrave Otto, depicting him mounted, albeit applied upside-down. The document is undated, but we can identify the approximate period of its creation by the dates of Otto’s accession (1156) and the death of the bishop John of Merseburg, whom the document names as a witness (1170).
The detailed stipulations set out in the Stadtbrief commence with the proclamation that Margrave Otto has portioned the town for the construction of buildings and founded it, with the assurance of his grace, under Halle and Magdeburg law: ‘O[tto] dei gratia Misnensis marchio Lipz edificandam distribuit sub Hallensi et Magedeburgensi iure additto pietatis promisso constituit’. The document pledges to the citizens that only in the case of a campaign against Italy will the Margrave require of them the payment of a small tax. There follow determinations on the area to which the municipal law shall apply, known as the wicbilede, and on the position of the signs at its boundaries. Among the Stadtbrief’s further provisions were the order that, in line with Magdeburg law, every eighteenth bushel was to go to the town miller as his fee, and the dictum that the customary law of the march was to govern possession by the Leipzig citizenry of inheritances and fiefdoms (‘secundum fori conventionem’). Assuming, as we may, the authenticity and accuracy of its content, Leipzig’s Stadtbrief simultaneously constitutes one of the earliest written mentions of Magdeburg law, the oldest document attesting to the Halle law which drew on it, and one of the first instances of the term wicbilede (in modernised German Weichbild) in a document.
In contrast to Magdeburg, Leipzig and the other municipalities in the Wettin dominions did not gain independence from their civic lords; Leipzig remained within the Wettin territorial state that was emerging in the late Middle Ages despite having already established a council constitution during the thirteenth century. This lack of municipal autonomy did not inhibit Leipzig from flourishing; it is likely that the city was of significance in this area of the German lands as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but its trade fairs rose to attain pre-eminence across the Holy Roman Empire from the mid-fifteenth century.
Written sources that testify to the structures of jurisdiction and the practice of law in Leipzig exist only for the fourteenth century onward. The year 1304 sees the first reference to lay judges forming the city court under the auspices of the sheriff installed by the territorial ruler. The administration of the court passed into the hands of the city authorities in 1423 against security and in 1435 in full and in perpetuity, presided over thereafter by an employed judge appointed by the Council. The city’s Schöffenbücher, records preserved to posterity from the fifteenth century onward, note that the municipal court, which continued to use a bench of lay judges, had authority over cases brought voluntarily as well as over ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ criminal matters; this former area of law in particular saw its offices overlap with those the Council exercised. Alongside their authority in the court, limited to the city itself, we are in possession of evidence that, from the fourteenth century, Leipzig’s lay judges served as a body which issued legal opinions and administered justice, including to those coming from outside the city to seek justice, in which case a Schöffenmeister presided over their deliberations. Their learned reputation was similarly distinguished to that of Magdeburg’s bench, and they received regular requests for pronouncements on a legal issue, issuing opinions far beyond the bounds of the Wettin territories.
One significant difference between Leipzig and Magdeburg consisted in the constitution of their lay judges’ benches, called Schöffenstühle. In Magdeburg, the Schöffen and the Council were two strictly separate groups; in Leipzig, by contrast, the lay judges who sat in the municipal courts were drawn exclusively from the members of the Council, and, from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards, it was usually a mayor who held the office of Schöffenmeister. This extensive entanglement between the Council and the bench led in the 1470s to the practice of university-trained legal experts joining Leipzig’s Schöffenstuhl; the first was the mayor Johann Schober (c. 1425–1480), holder of the degree of Magister. A history of the city notes that ‘[t]his [made] Leipzig’s Schöffenstuhl the oldest German regional court in which individuals learned in the law sat in judgement’.
In 1409, Leipzig acquired a university, founded with the particular impetus of the Meissen margraves Friedrich IV, who reigned from 1381 to 1428, and William II, who held the office from 1407 to 1425; both rulers were keen to take advantage of the German exodus from Prague to the end of founding an institute of higher learning in their territory. During the fifteenth century, the university’s faculty of jurisprudence evolved into an additional collegial body of legal opinion and arbitration in Leipzig, frequently receiving requests for their learned view from outside the city and working alongside the Schöffenstuhl. On occasion, the latter, when faced with a complicated case, sought advice from the faculty; in some instances, the two bodies collaborated to produce legal expertises. As in the case of the Schöffenstuhl, the university faculty pronounced on cases far and wide, considerably beyond the Wettin lands.
As early as 1432, Frederick II, Elector of Saxony, who ruled from 1428 to 1464 and whose father, the erstwhile margrave Frederick IV, had received investiture as Elector of Saxony from King Sigismund (reigned 1411–1437), had issued a prohibition on his subjects seeking legal instruction or opinion in Magdeburg, ‘as had been the use hitherto’, instead requiring them to turn primarily to sources of advice in Leipzig, either its ‘presiding citizens’ (i.e. the lay judges’ bench) or the ‘honourable doctors’ of the university’s faculty of jurisprudence.
Alongside the activities of its lay and learned legal institutions, Leipzig came to further prominence as legal centre of the Wettin lands through the establishment in 1483/1488 of a regal high court of law (Oberhofgericht). In 1574, Leipzig’s Schöffenstuhl was removed from the auspices of the city and reconstituted as a court of the sovereign which remained in place until 1831, dispensing justice for the entire kingdom or electorate (Kurfürstentum). It was on the basis of this enduring tradition of jurisprudence that Leipzig became the home of imperial Germany’s highest court, the Reichsgericht, in 1877. In 2002, the building that once housed this institution became the seat of the German Federal Administrative Court.
By Henning Steinführer
 Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 86–89.
 Urkundenbuch der Stadt Leipzig, vol. 1 (= Codex Diplomaticus Saxoniae Regiae, second principal division, vol. 8), ed. Karl Friedrich v. Posern-Klett, Leipzig 1868, no. 2, pp. 1 f.
 Urkundenbuch der Stadt Leipzig, vol. 1 (= Codex Diplomaticus Saxoniae Regiae, second principal division, vol. 8), ed. Karl Friedrich v. Posern-Klett, Leipzig 1868, no. 2, p. 2.
 Bernd-Rüdiger Kern, Rechtspflege, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 213–221; reference here is to p. 218.
 Theodor Distel, Beiträge zur älteren Verfassungsgeschichte des Schöppenstuhls zu Leipzig, in Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Germanistische Abteilung 20 (1887), 89–115; reference here is to pp. 110 f.
Jens Kunze, Das Leipziger Schöffenbuch 1420–1478 (1491). Edition (= Quellen und Darstellungen zur Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig 4), Leipzig 2012.
Urkundenbuch der Stadt Leipzig, Bd. 1 (= Codex Diplomaticus Saxoniae Regiae, second principal division, vol. 8), ed. Karl Friedrich v. Posern-Klett, Leipzig 1868.
Karlheinz Blaschke, Vom Stadtbrief zum Reichsgericht. Die Stadt Leipzig als Ort der Rechtsprechung, in Leipzig – Stadt der Rechtsprechung. Prozesse, Personen, Gebäude (= Sächsische Justizgeschichte, Bd. 3), Dresden 1994, pp. 2–29.
Enno Bünz, Gründung und Entfaltung. Die spätmittelalterliche Universität Leipzig 1409–1539, in Geschichte der Universität Leipzig 1409–2009. Bd. 1: Spätes Mittelalter und Frühe Neuzeit 1409–1830/31, ed. Enno Bünz, Manfred Rudersdorf and Detlef Döring, Leipzig 2009, pp. 21–325.
Enno Bünz, Die Chronik des Thietmar von Merseburg und die Ersterwähnung von 1015, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 86–89.
Enno Bünz, Entstehung und Entwicklung der Stadt im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 123–146.
Theodor Distel, Beiträge zur älteren Verfassungsgeschichte des Schöppenstuhls zu Leipzig, in Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Germanistische Abteilung 20 (1887), 89–115.
Detlef Döring, Justizwesen, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 2: Von der Reformation bis zum Wiener Kongress, ed. Detlef Döring with contributions from Uwe John and Henning Steinführer, Leipzig 2016, pp. 165–177.
Stephan Dusil, Das hallische Stadtrecht und seine Verbreitung im Mittelalter. Forschungsstand, Fragen, Perspektiven, in Halle im Licht und Schatten Magdeburgs. Eine Rechtsmetropole im Mittelalter (= Forschungen zur hallischen Stadtgeschichte 19), ed. Heiner Lück, Halle 2012, pp. 37–60.
Bernd-Rüdiger Kern, Rechtspflege, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 213–221.
Heiner Lück, Die kursächsische Gerichtsverfassung 1423–1550 (= Forschungen zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte 17), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 1997.
Julia Pätzold, Leipziger gelehrte Schöffenspruchsammlung. Ein Beitrag zur Rezeptionsgeschichte in Kursachsen im 16. Jahrhundert (= Schriften zur Rechtsgeschichte 143), Berlin 2008.
Henning Steinführer, „sub Hallensi et Magedeburgensi iure“. Der Leipziger Stadtbrief – eine Quelle früher Rezeption hallischen Rechts?, in Halle im Licht und Schatten Magdeburgs. Eine Rechtsmetropole im Mittelalter, ed. Heiner Lück (= Forschungen zur hallischen Stadtgeschichte 19), Halle 2012, pp. 61–71.
Henning Steinführer, Stadtverfassung, in Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig. Bd. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Reformation, ed. Enno Bünz with contributions from Uwe John, Leipzig 2015, pp. 183–201.
Marek Wejwoda, Die Leipziger Juristenfakultät im 15. Jahrhundert. Vergleichende Studien zu Institution und Personal, fachlichem Profil und gesellschaftlicher Wirksamkeit (= Quellen und Forschungen zur Sächsischen Geschichte 34), Stuttgart 2012; cf. in particular pp. 82–97.
Henning Steinführer, Leipzig: Endowed with Halle and Magdeburg law between 1156 and 1170, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 11.08.2020, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/leipzig/
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. 199–202.