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From market rights to a widespread municipal law:

The city of Magdeburg, famed well into the early modern period as the birthplace of the influential Magdeburg law whose reach extended deep into the eastern part of Europe, first finds mention in written sources in the year 805 CE, in the Capitulare of Diedenhofen (Thionville) issued by Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814. Named as ‘magadoburg’, it was to serve as one of a number of checkpoints to be established along the rivers Elbe and Saale for the purpose of suppressing the trade in arms to the Slavic regions.

More than a century passed hereafter before Magdeburg next appeared in sources preserved for posterity; King Otto I (reigned 936–973) founded a Benedictine monastery there, dedicated to Saints Innocent, Peter and Maurice, on 21 September 937, and endowed it richly in the years that followed. As the medieval empire had no capital, the German Holy Roman Emperor effectively exercised a peripatetic dominion, constantly riding through its regions. Magdeburg, located at a ford across the midstream Elbe and therefore at an interface to the Slavic world, became Otto’s preferred base.

Written sources record the presence of a ‘palatium’ belonging to Otto in Magdeburg; the term signifies one or more representational buildings in which he conducted the affairs of his office – initially as king, from 962 onward as Holy Roman Emperor -, received deputations, issued privileges and pronounced judgement. This is indicative of architectural development at an early stage in Magdeburg’s existence. In the year 968, Otto succeeded in having the Pope elevate Magdeburg to an archbishopric, whose inaugural archbishop, Adalbert of Magdeburg (in office 968-981), ruled over the newly established suffragan bishoprics of Merseburg, Meissen and Zeitz, alongside those of Havelberg and Brandenburg. Among the areas covered by the new archdiocese were vast territories east of the Elbe, in many of which Christianity was yet to gain any foothold. Magdeburg was now of nominally equal rank to Trier, Mainz, Cologne, Salzburg and Hamburg-Bremen, the Empire’s traditional archdioceses.

Hard on the heels of this meteoric rise came a long-drawn-out period of decline for Magdeburg, when, in the summer of 983, a Slavic rebellion reversed a great deal of the region’s achievements east of the Elbe; the bishoprics in Brandenburg and Havelberg were lost, as was dominion over the associated territories, which saw the young archdiocese suffer a painful contraction. The years that followed loosened Magdeburg’s royal association, and the late Ottonian period inflicted a further loss of eastern influence on Magdeburg in the shape of the establishment under Otto III (reigned 983-1002) of the Archdiocese of Gniezno. The conflictual policies towards Poland pursued by the subsequent Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (reigned 1002-1024) led to Merseburg replacing Magdeburg as the preferred royal base in eastern Saxony. The ascendancy of the Salian dynasty only made matters worse for Magdeburg, which now saw Goslar attain the position of Saxony’s premier city under the emperors Conrad II (reigned 1024–1039) and Henry III (reigned 1039–1056).

Beginning in the eleventh century’s second half, conflict between the emperors Henry IV (reigned 1056–1105) and V (reigned 1105–1125) and Saxony’s nobility strained royal relations with Magdeburg’s archbishops. The area around the Ore Mountains was frequently the site of the ensuing hostilities, with the effect that Magdeburg was often ‘close by’ the king, yet simultaneously, due to the involvement of the city and its archbishops in the troubles, distinctly removed from him. The consequence was further loss of influence, territory and favour for the church in Magdeburg. A brief rapprochement took place in the reign (1125–1137) of Lothar III, who arranged for the appointment of Norbert of Xanten as the city’s archbishop (an office he held from 1126 to 1134); yet Magdeburg’s difficulties resurfaced under Conrad III of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (reigned 1138–1152) because the city had taken the side of the rival house of Welf. It was not until Wichmann of Seeburg, who had been transferred from Naumburg to Magdeburg at the instigation of Frederick Barbarossa (reigned 1152–1190), took the archbishop’s throne (1152/54-1192) that the conflicts abated and Magdeburg began to rise to renewed glory.

Magdeburg’s development from the eleventh century onward thus appears in a contradictory duality of ecclesiastical and imperial political decline and internal, architectural and urban progress. As early as the end of the tenth century, Magdeburg had acquired a mercantile settlement holding market rights, reaping the benefits of its favourable location on the eastern edge of the highly fertile Magdeburger Boerde plain on the banks of the Elbe, itself a key north-south transport route which brought the city lucrative trade from river shipping. Otto I had endowed St Maurice’s monastery in the city with the revenues from tolls and minting in the years 937 and 942, reconfirming its right to the income from this mercatus in 965 and thereby transferring to it his dominion over the market and its residents. These rights passed to the archbishop in 968, making him lord of the city; he additionally received the Königsbann (royal rights) over Magdeburg and the right of jurisdiction over the city’s Jews – in the first mention of this group in written sources – and the remaining resident merchants. Otto II confirmed and extended these endowments in the years 973, 975 and 979, additionally granting the merchants resident in Magdeburg relief from all civic dues and road, bridge and river tolls. The chronicles of Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (in office 1009–1018) record for the year 1016 optimi civitatis, that is, the existence of a privileged stratum within the city. Conrad II, renewing privileges of the city in 1025, emphasised that Magdeburg’s citizenry had permission to conduct trade in the Holy Roman Empire and in the barbaricis regionibus (barbarian regions)[1], a concession which exerted enduring uplift on Magdeburg’s civic and economic development. The sources of this period provide outlines of Magdeburg’s further urban and legal advancement, noting the existence in the eleventh century of the office of a monastic reeve who, in the context of the archbishop’s authority over the city, exercised jurisdiction in higher criminal matters, including capital cases, and held military command.

Sources mention the existence in Magdeburg in the year 1100 of a lower reeve of the civic court, later to become the sheriff (Schultheiß). It is at this time that we find the first written records relating to the citizenry, the cives urbis, who later served alongside the sheriff as lay judges known as Schöffen (‘Schöppen’). By this time at the latest, Magdeburg had an urban municipality with its own jurisdiction over lower matters, albeit dependent on the archbishop as possessor of supreme authority over the city. Sources bear witness to guilds for specific trades (tanners and shoemakers, tailors, ornamental painters known as Schilderer) in the twelfth century’s second half, indicating the emergence of an increasingly diverse range of trades and crafts in Magdeburg. In the first half of the thirteenth century, a city Council came into being which came to run the city’s internal affairs, liaising – on occasion conflictually – with the archbishops, who had retained nominal authority. Magdeburg had joined the Hanseatic League and the league of cities in Saxony towards the end of the thirteenth century. The city’s various attempts to attain the status of a Free Imperial City failed, despite the successive slackening of its ties to the archbishopric and the eventual departure, in the early sixteenth century, of the archbishop’s seat to the Moritzburg in the city of Halle.

Magdeburg’s rise from the twelfth century onward drew on the dual influence of the city’s trade with distant regions and the development of its law. In this period, social conditions had undergone a transformation from those dominant in the tenth century, in the wake of the grand process of change, sparked by climatic, political and social shifts, that had commenced in Europe in the eleventh century’s second half and encompassed numerous facets of contemporary life. Responding to these transformations and to local exigencies, Archbishop Wichmann presided over a series of improvements in the legal rights of Magdeburg’s merchants and citizens in order to bolster their position. A charter issued by him in 1188 bears witness to some of these reforms. It abolished the principle by which a formal error in a case before court automatically led to its being thrown out. Further, it released fathers from liability for unlawful acts committed by their sons, replacing the principle of guilt by association that had been in force until that point with the modern precept, valid to this day, of the individual criminal responsibility of each person. The charter also annulled the statute of limitations for serious crimes. Finally, and not least among these reforms, it restricted legal possibilities for unduly protracting court proceedings. The applicability of these favourable provisions to both locals and those from outside the city is testament to Wichmann’s visionary foresight in that it boosted Magdeburg’s appeal as a mercantile city. This ‘Magdeburg law’ or ‘Magdeburg rights’, as it was soon called, was very much a mercantile legal code, yet it subsequently developed into a new civic and municipal law, supplemented by provisions protecting assemblies of citizens and enabling these to take their place as instruments of civic political and legal decision-making.

Magdeburg law served as a model for numerous other towns and cities, particularly in the east of Central Europe, where many localities equated it with ‘German’ law per se. Magdeburg remained in contact with some of the municipalities endowed with its law – which totalled around one thousand – for a period of centuries. Where disputes arose around a case, it was common to turn to Magdeburg and ask for a legal opinion; this practice was known, roughly translated, as ‘taking the law to Magdeburg’ or, more literally, a ‘legal procession to Magdeburg’ (‘Rechtszug nach Magdeburg’). Magdeburg’s lay judges’ bench, as its law’s ‘upper court’ (Oberhof), thus retained interpretive authority and in this way an emphatic influence over the law’s evolution which endured for centuries.

The period following these developments brought Magdeburg a golden age which radiated across a wide region. Its urban area increased notably, numerous ecclesiastical and religious institutions came into being, and the city received its famous topography of sacred buildings. These included its cathedral, the first in medieval German lands to take Gothic forms, built from 1209 onward; the monastery of Our Lady, erected in the twelfth century; the market and Council church of St John; the parish church of St Peter; and further monasteries, including those of the Franciscans and Dominicans. The well-known statue of the ‘Magdeburg Rider’ joined the ensemble in 1240. By the late Middle Ages, a small settlement had blossomed into one of the contemporary German regions’ major cities.

By Stephan Freund


[1] Diploma issued by Conrad II, no. 18, of 4 February 1025, in Die Urkunden Konrads II. mit Nachträgen zu den Urkunden Heinrichs II., ed. Harry Breslau, with contributions from Hans Wibel and Alfred Hessel, Hanover/Leipzig 1909, p. 21.



Die Urkunden Konrads II. mit Nachtragen zu den Urkunden Heinrichs II., ed. Harry Breslau, with contributions from Hans Wibel and Alfred Hessel, Hanover/Leipzig 1909.

Further reading:

Matthias Becher, Die Auseinandersetzung Heinrichs IV. mit den Sachsen. Freiheitskampf oder Adelsrevolte?, in Vom Umbruch zur Erneuerung. Das 11. und beginnende 12. Jahrhundert. Positionen der Forschung, ed. Jörg Jarnut and Matthias Wemhoff (= Mittelalter Studien des Instituts zur Interdisziplinären Erforschung des Mittelalters und seines Nach­wirkens 13), Munich 2006, pp. 357–368.

Helmut Beumann, Theutonum nova metropolis. Studien zur Geschichte des Erzbistums Magdeburg in ottonischer Zeit (= Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte Sachsen-Anhalts 1), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2000.

Caspar Ehlers, Vom karolingischen Grenzposten zum Zentralort des Ottonenreiches. Neuere Forschungen zu den frühmittelalterlichen Anfängen Magdeburgs (= Magdeburger Museumshefte 24), Magdeburg 2012.

Stephan Freund, Die Gesta archiepiscoporum Magdeburgensium, in Literatur in der Stadt. Magdeburg in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (= supplements to Euphorion 70), ed. Michael Schilling, Heidelberg 2012, 11–32.

Brigitta Kunz, Siedlungsentwicklung im Umfeld des Domes. Magdeburg im 8. – 14. Jahrhundert (= Veröffentlichungen des Landesamtes für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt. Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte 71), Halle an der Saale 2017.

Matthias Puhle (ed.), Otto der Große, Magdeburg und Europa, 2 vols., Magdeburg 2001.

Matthias Puhle (ed.), Aufbruch in die Gotik. Der Magdeburger Dom und die späte Stauferzeit, vol. 1 (Essays), Mainz 2009.

Matthias Puhle, Magdeburg. Kleine Stadtgeschichte, Regensburg 2018.

Matthias Puhle and Peter Petsch (eds), Magdeburg. Die Geschichte der Stadt 805–2005, Dössel 2005.

Cite as:

Stephan Freund, Magdeburg. From market rights to a widespread municipal law, 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. 190–194.