Lviv / Lemberg Show on the map

One city, four municipalities:

The city of Lviv (L’viv/Lemberg) in today’s Ukraine is situated on what was once a trading route from the Bavarian cities of Regensburg and Nuremberg to Prague, Kraków and beyond to Constantinople and the Black Sea ports. Archaeological finds bear witness to settlement in the region starting in the sixth century CE. The first indicators of the city as a centre of power date from the mid-thirteenth century. It was at this time that the Rurikid king Daniel of Galicia, whose reign lasted from 1205 to 1264 and who had borne the title of king from 1253 onward, had a castle erected at the site of Lviv. The city’s name may be associated with Daniel’s son Lev, who reigned in the Principality of Halych as Leo I of Galicia from 1264 to 1301 and assumed the title of king in 1269. We know little of the city’s development in its earliest decades. This changed in the mid-fourteenth century, when, after the death of the last Rurikid ruler, the principality fell to the Polish king Casimir the Great, who reigned from 1333 to 1370. Under his rule, Lviv’s significance soon overtook that of Halyč, the principality’s erstwhile centre. The exalted status planned for the city is evident in its ‘privilege of location’ (Lokationsprivileg), the charter which endowed it with Magdeburg municipal law, issued in 1356. This charter removed Lviv from the judiciary authority of all bearers of office with the exception of the king himself and his appointed reeve. Giftings of extensive tracts of land ensured that Magdeburg law’s influence stretched beyond the city walls and into its environs. In this respect, the charter issued by Casimir was of the typical form of one conferring civic laws upon a place. One of its clauses, however, was unique in the history of Magdeburg law in Poland; it addressed not only the Catholic civitas, but also those among the city’s population who belonged to other groups, referred to as the gentes or nationes. The charter mentioned by name the Armenians, Jews, Ruthenians, Tatars and other groups ‘of whatever nature or estate they be’[1], all of whom received the right to avail themselves of Magdeburg law and convene their own courts of law, presided over by the king’s reeve, or, alternatively, to reject Magdeburg law and dispense justice in accordance with their own legal precepts. This Lokationsprivileg paved the way for the establishment in Lviv of several distinct collective legal subjects, each – at least in principle – of equal rank.

The years that followed did indeed see the emergence of several distinct municipalities in Lviv, during which it became evident that the charter constituted more of an invitation to the city’s communities to constitute themselves formally than the reflection of structures that had already been in existence. Over the ensuing decades, an Armenian and a Jewish municipality joined the civitas as autonomous administrative organs within Lviv. The Jewish community rejected civic law as a framework, and in 1367 attained a charter of its own which precluded ‘the judge of the city’ from exercising any authority over the city’s Jewish population.[2] There are also records of Tatar residents; this group, however, at no point sought to organise its own administration. Although the oldest civic documents of Lviv mention the Ruthenians, they did not formally self-administrate their political affairs until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The Armenians, then, were the group which, alongside the civitas, took up the charter’s offer of endowment with Magdeburg law. From 1378 onward, both of these communities had their own reeve, each of whom engaged in direct dialogue with the king and his officials. Within the city walls, distinct districts for the various population groups formed around the churches and the synagogue, later appearing in town maps as the Armenian, Ruthenian and Jewish quarters. Contemporary sources mention street names such as Armenische Gasse and Judengasse as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century. There was no obligation for inhabitants of Lviv to live within their ‘own’ quarter. Documents pertaining to property purchases and sales from the early fifteenth century point to a concentration of Armenians’ houses, first, around the Armenian cathedral, and second, further north, close to the Dominican monastery; the Armenian bathhouse had originally been located at the city marketplace. The oldest written record of the Judengasse relates to a house belonging to a Ruthenian woman. Notwithstanding that the buying and selling of property did take place largely on an intra-community basis, deals in this respect between Armenians, Catholic citizens, Jewish and Ruthenian inhabitants of Lviv were far from unheard of. Property was a frequently offered security in reciprocal lending, but forfeiture of a house due to inability to pay a debt was a rare occurrence; the gesture of offering the property as a security against a loan was of greater significance than the building’s actual value.

The various communities in Lviv did not live alongside one another in separate, hermetically sealed bubbles. As a rule, marriages between Catholics and those of another denomination (Orthodox Christians or Jews) required one of the prospective spouses to convert, usually to Catholicism; this stricture made such matches rare. The case was different in respect to the Armenian community. Parts of the Armenian clergy, especially in the region known as Armenia Minor (Cilician Armenia), had close personal connections to the Catholic Church, and the Pope had charged the Dominican monks in the eastern European regions with providing pastoral care to the Armenians. Marriages between these groups were no rarity, and many wills of Armenians in Lviv gifted endowments to Catholic churches and cloisters.

Both Armenians and Ruthenians found great appeal in the citizenship status afforded them by the charter of Lviv, which granted them full access to the trading and customs privileges enjoyed by the citizenry. The city’s oldest libri civitatis contain some names of Ruthenian and Armenian individuals with a post-nominal civis. The extent of demand for citizen status among Armenians in particular drove a perception, in the mid-fifteenth century, that it constituted a threat to the autonomous Armenian administration in Lviv. In 1440, King Władysław III, who reigned in Poland from 1434 to 1444 and in Hungary from 1440 to 1444, saw it as incumbent upon him to unambiguously set out the rationale underlying the municipality structures in Lviv, stating that his will was for ‘those of one faith [to] partake also of one law […] that they may support one another all the better’.[3] To those Armenian merchants who had made themselves subject to Magdeburg law before seeking royal assent, he granted their desired change of status, on condition that they continued to pay the taxes required of Armenians.

During this era, a shift took place in the local and wider political climate. Władysław III, as king of Poland and Hungary, was preparing to embark upon a crusade against the Ottoman Empire in the hope of barring its way as it advanced on Constantinople. In this atmosphere of religious tension, the Council of Lviv presented itself to the king as a ‘bulwark of Christendom’[4]; emphasising Lviv’s distinguished deeds of defence against external foes, it deemed these merits to justify its, the Council’s, authority over all in the city, including its non-Catholic population, whom it believed should, ‘like all foreigners’[5], be subject exclusively to its jurisdiction. For a quarter of a century, Lviv’s Armenian community resisted this intensifying claim to hegemony. Then, in 1469, came the abolition of the office of Armenian reeve; henceforth, the Armenian community’s elders, in a manner similar to the lay judges of the citizenry, were to sit as a court under the auspices of the Council-appointed city reeve. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the Armenian elders approached the king repeatedly with complaints that the civic administration was disregarding their rights. By this time, the citizenry had expanded its hegemony to encompass the local economy alongside the juridical sphere, giving members of the Jewish and Armenian populations repeated cause to complain of restrictions on their trading activities. The Council, for its part, cited examples of other towns and cities under Magdeburg law, particularly Kraków, whose administration similarly took steps against ‘improper’ trade conducted by ‘foreigners’.[6]

In both Kraków and Lviv, the Polish king admonished the antagonists, calling repeatedly for the parties to come to an amicable resolution of the dispute within the city, but avoided taking one part or the other. The Armenian elders continued to bring forward their complaints until a scandal erupted around a controversial death sentence passed by the Council of Lviv in 1518 against a member of the Armenian community. The condemned man’s relatives appealed to the king, who intended to have the case dealt with by the royal court, but by this time the Council had carried out the sentence. The king responded by having the mayors imprisoned. The Armenian elders argued that this scandal had only been possible through the Council’s systematic denial of their rights. In the following year, they presented the king with a Latin codification of Lviv’s Armenian law, which found official ratification at the subsequent imperial assembly. At this time, the king confirmed the privileges afforded to the Armenian community, including those formerly pertaining to the Armenian reeve. Two years later, it was the Council bringing complaints that now Catholics were not even permitted to appear as witnesses before the Armenian court.

It was likewise at this time that the Ruthenian elders of Lviv approached the king to protest against restrictions imposed on them with regard to the purchase of houses outside the Ruthenian quarter. The king confirmed their status as representatives of Lviv’s Ruthenian population, effectively establishing a Ruthenian self-administration in the city. A letter written in 1521 by the Council of Lviv to the administration of Poznań, calling for the expulsion of the Jewish population in the kingdom’s municipalities, did not find a positive response; the great fire which engulfed Lviv in 1527 and the subsequent rebuilding efforts pushed the ongoing conflictual issues among the various population groups down the agenda. What remained was the institutionalised self-administration exercised by the Armenian, Jewish and Ruthenian communities in the city, each of which continued, as the sixteenth century progressed, to appeal to the king and his officials in their endeavours to resist the civitas’ attempts to seize hegemony.

By Jürgen Heyde


[1] Privileji mista L’vova XIV – XVIII st. [Privileges of the city of Lviv, 14th – 18th centuries], ed. Myron Kapral’, L’viv 1998, no. 1, pp. 27–32.

[2] Pryvileji nacional’nych hromad mista L’vova = Privilegia Nationum Civitatis Leopoliensis. (XIV – XVIII saec.) [Privileges of the national groups in the city of Lviv (14th – 18th centuries)], hg. v. Myron Kapral’, L’viv 2000, no. 108, pp. 381–388.

[3] Ibid., no. 40, pp. 130 f.

[4] As note 1, no. 31, pp. 90–94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cf. Jürgen Heyde: Transkulturelle Kommunikation und Verflechtung. Die jüdischen Wirtschaftseliten in Polen vom 14. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert (Quellen und Studien/Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau 29), Wiesbaden 2014, pp. 126–137.



Privileji mista L’vova XIV – XVIII st. [Privileges of the city of Lviv, 14th – 18th centuries], ed. Myron Kapral’, L’viv 1998.

Pryvileji nacional’nych hromad mista L’vova = Privilegia Nationum Civitatis Leopoliensis. (XIV – XVIII saec.) [Privileges of the national groups in the city of Lviv (14th – 18th centuries)], ed. Myron Kapral’, L’viv 2000.

Further reading

Jürgen Heyde, Ethnische Gruppenbildung in der spätmittelalterlichen Gesellschaft. Die Armeni in Lemberg und das Armenische Statut von 1519, in Sławomir Gawlas/Michał T. Szczepański (eds), Historia społeczna późnego średniowiecza. Nowe badania [New research on the social history of the late Middle Ages], Warszawa 2011, pp. 387–403.

Jürgen Heyde, Transkulturelle Kommunikation und Verflechtung. Die jüdischen Wirtschaftseliten in Polen vom 14. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert (Quellen und Studien/Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau 29), Wiesbaden 2014.

Andrzej Janeczek, Ethnische Gruppenbildungen im spätmittelalterlichen Polen, in Thomas Wünsch/Alexander Patschovsky (eds), Das Reich und Polen. Parallelen, Interaktionen und Formen der Akkulturation im hohen und späten Mittelalter (Vorträge und Forschun­gen/Konstanzer Arbeitskreis für Mittelalterliche Geschichte 59), Ostfildern 2003, pp. 401–446.

Andrzej Janeczek, Die Modernisierung der Städte Rutheniens. Die Reformen des 14. – 16. Jahrhunderts, in Mühle 2011, pp. 355–371.

Christian Lübke, Außenpolitik im östlichen Mitteleuropa: Expansion und Hegemonie am Beispiel Polens und des Landes Halič-Volyn’ (bis 1387), in Wünsch/Patschovsky 2003, pp. 21–58.

Heiner Lück, Anfänge der Stadtverfassung nach Magdeburger Recht in Ostmitteleuropa: Kulm (1233), Thorn (1233), Krakau (1257), Lemberg (1356), in Thomas Großbölting (ed.), Landesherrschaft – Region – Identität. Der Mittelelberaum im historischen Wandel. Festschrift für Prof. Dr. Mathias Tullner (Studien zur Landesgeschichte 20), Halle (Saale) 2009, pp. 18–37.

Aleksandr Osipian, The »Invitation« of the Armenians into the Galician Rus’ in the Renais­sance Historical Imagination: Sources and Their Interpretations in Late 16th – Early 17th Century Lemberg, in Tamara Ganjalyan, Stefan Troebst and Bálint Kovács (eds), Armenier im östlichen Europa. Eine Anthologie (Armenier im östlichen Europa 1), Vienna 2018, pp. 231–245.

Christophe von Werdt, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft im multikonfessionellen spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Lemberg, in Carsten Goehrke and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker (eds), Städte im östlichen Europa. Zur Problematik von Modernisierung und Raum vom Spätmittelalter bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, Zürich 2006, pp. 85–102.

Cite as:

Jürgen Heyde, Lviv / Lemberg: One city, four municipalities, 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. 252–255.