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The Teutonic Order installs a legal order:

The city of Toruń (in German Thorn) came into being in close connection with the Teutonic Order’s ascendancy at the Baltic Sea coast, commencing in the year 1231, when a division of the Order’s knights crossed the Vistula and set about the conquest of the Chelmno (Kulm) region. At a ford through the Vistula, the Order built a castle which is located today in the village of Stary Toruń (‘Old Toruń’), and an urban settlement soon grew up alongside it. In the ensuing years, the Teutonic Order founded two further towns in the region, Chełmno (1232) and Rehden (1234), and established in Pomezania the settlements of Kwidzyn (1234) and Elbląg (1237) at the Vistula Lagoon. The land on which the castle and old Toruń had been built in 1231 was at risk of flooding, which led to the establishment in 1236 of a new town approximately ten kilometres to the east of the original site, on a knoll around 18 metres above the level of the Vistula; the construction of the Order’s castle followed some years later. On 28 December 1232 or 1233, Hermann von Salza (c. 1179–1239), grand master of the Order, and Hermann Balk (d. 1239), its Landmeister of Prussia and Livonia, issued a privilege – known as the Kulmer Handfeste – endowing Chelmno and Toruń with Magdeburg law. In the Order’s territories, elements of the laws of other jurisdictions supplemented Saxon and Magdeburg law. Some of the most significant changes thus effected included the introduction of Flemish laws on inheritance and the reduction of fines to half those levied in Magdeburg. Chelmno’s sovereign established an upper court of Magdeburg law, sitting in Chelmno, whose jurisdiction was to encompass the entire state of the Teutonic Order. The Kulmer Handfeste and the judgements handed down by the Chelmno upper court and by Magdeburg’s lay judges’ bench (Schöffenstuhl) were decisively influential factors in the emergence of Chelmno law, which comprised land law through Prussia. The Teutonic Order and the Prussian bishops conferred Chelmno law upon 88 urban settlements, numerous villages and manors.

Toruń’s spread unfolded in three phases. Circa 1236, the northern limits of the first phase of the town extended as far as the southern edge of what would later become the marketplace. The town’s central east-west thoroughfare was St Anna’s Street, leading from the Old Toruń Gate to the parish church and to the square beside it, which was reserved for erecting facilities for small-scale trading and selling. The second stage of Toruń’s expansion, at the beginning of the 1250s, saw the laying out of its rectangular marketplace, as the town swallowed up its erstwhile northern suburb. A third phase involved the establishment in 1264 of the new town in what had been the castle’s outer bailey. The castle and its inner bailey dominated the area on the banks of the Vistula between the two towns.

In the urban settlement’s early days, an alderman (Schultheiß) was at the municipality’s head; the city’s foundational privilege directed that this be an office electable by the citizenry, with the Teutonic Order holding the right to affirm or veto the successful candidate. A municipal Council came into being circa 1250 and successively expanded its influence on the city’s governance. In Toruń, as in the other towns and settlements under the Kulmer Handfeste, the division of governance between the Council and the lay judges’ bench, as modelled by Magdeburg law, came to find general acceptance and application. The Council held supreme executive and legislative power alongside a degree of juridical authority. The court system’s principal institution was the lay judges’ bench, headed by the alderman serving as a judge. At the end of the thirteenth century, Toruń’s Council placed the office of sheriff under its authority and secured itself the right to appoint the lay judges. In 1346, the Grand Master of the Order ceded jurisdiction in greater and lesser legal matters in the suburbs and the manors and estates in the city’s possession to the Council and the citizenry.

Like the councils of other major towns and cities in Prussia, the Council of Toruń sought to attain the right to elect officials independently of the territorial sovereign and to set local ordinances and take decisions in their own right. It succeeded in 1338, when the Magdeburger Rechtsweisung für Kulm affirmed these rights.

In the fourteenth century, the Council of Toruń’s old city began to bypass Chelmno, referring those of its verdicts appealed by any party to the lay judges in Magdeburg. Subsequently, in 1458, the Council of Toruń assumed for itself jurisdiction over the administration of Chelmno law in greater legal matters, retaining it until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Toruń received requests for legal opinions from municipalities in Royal Prussia and Warmia, as well as those in Kujawy and Masovia. One witness to the contemporary practice of pronouncing judgement in legally doubtful cases is the book established circa 1400 by the city clerk Walther von Bunzlau, which recorded the requests for legal opinion directed to Magdeburg and the responses of its lay judges’ bench. Toruń’s new city had a legal order modelled on that of the old city and on Chelmno law. Its lesser economic power as compared to the old city and its lack of an influential mercantile class meant that it took until the mid-fourteenth century to succeed in asserting its authority over the office of judge.

Around the turn of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century, approximately 11,000 people lived in Toruń’s urban area, including that of its castle. The old city, together with its suburbs, had a population of about 7,500, and an approximate further 2,500 were resident in the new city. The differences between the two Toruńs, thus apparent in the numbers of their populations, extended likewise to their social structure. Merchants formed the most significant occupational group in the old city; figures from the year 1395 indicate that 30 per cent of its taxpayers (868 individuals) were of the mercantile class, a wealthy group engaged in trade with distant regions and lands, and the class from which those of formal influence in the municipality originated. In new Toruń, meanwhile, most residents made their livelihoods from manual trades, and the town councillors ranged from craftsmen to shopkeepers and brewers.

Toruń’s felicitous location on the boundary between the Kingdom of Poland and the state of the Teutonic Order made it a locality of importance to trade between Europe’s western and northern regions and its eastern and central parts; it stood at an intersection of the Vistula trading route with the land-based routes to Masovia, Kujawy, Ruthenia and Silesia. Aa early as the mid-thirteenth century, Toruń attained trading privileges in Kujawy, Masovia, Greater Poland and Pomerelia. In the course of that century’s second half, Toruń’s merchants established trading relationships with their counterparts in Flanders, Kraków and Wrocław. Their cooperation with merchants from Westphalia enabled the expansion of Toruń’s influence in trade in the Netherlands region during the fourteenth century. Toruń’s old city had trading links to the south that extended as far as Wolodymyr-Wolynskyj, L’viv and Upper Hungary (present-day Slovakia). Competition from the city of Gdańsk saw Toruń’s merchants successively lose direct access to sea routes and markets in western Europe from the early fifteenth century onward, a development which restricted them primarily to contacts in the regions of Poland and Silesia. Wood, wax, copper from Upper Hungary, and especially cereal crops were crucial export goods, while import business revolved around luxury wares such as cloth, spices and wine, alongside salt and fish.

Toruń’s involvement in the Hanseatic League and its mercantile activities required it to lend its voice to the association’s political and diplomatic business. In 1280, the Council of Toruń’s old city made its debut in Hanseatic politics by supporting Lübeck’s efforts to have staple rights moved from Bruges to Aardenburg. Between 1356 and 1410, delegates from Toruń’s Council took part in 60 Hanseatic Days (annual meetings called Hansetage) and Hanseatic negotiations. The crisis experienced by Toruń’s interregional trading activities saw the Council’s interest in relationships with the League decline; representatives from Toruń attended only 18 Hanseatic assemblies during the fifteenth century’s first half. Toruń, as yet cut off from direct access to the Vistula, founded its economic advancement primarily on more local trade and craftsmanship.

The old city of Toruń is one of the group of Prussian cities and major towns – including Chelmno, the old town of Elblag, Gdańsk’s Glówne Miasto, the old city of Kaliningrad, Kneiphof and Braniewo – distinguished both by the economic potential attained by involvement in Hanseatic mercantile relationships and their political position of privilege over smaller municipalities. Starting in the first half of the fourteenth century, Council representatives from larger towns and cities took part in the meetings convened by the Grand Master for decision-making on matters of the overall territory and the Hanseatic activities of Prussian towns and cities. Toruń was one of the most active participants in the political life of the Teutonic Order’s state. Up to and including the year 1454, its old city’s councillors had been in attendance at a total of 329 conventions of towns, cities and estates. From the 1430s onward, the old city’s leaders worked with the Chelmno region’s knights to form the opposition of the estates to the Teutonic Order; 1440 saw the foundation, at a convention in Kwidzyn (Marienwerder), of a confederation, known as Preußischer Bund, whose purpose was to defend the interests of the knights and the municipalities against their masters. Toruń was the meeting-place of a privy council which carried out the activities of the Preußischer Bund from 1453 onward and had the task of preparing a rebellion against the Order. Initially, the new city of Toruń joined the confederation of the Prussian estates, but its Council, ceding to pressure from the Order’s local commander, subsequently left it again.

The seizure of Toruń’s castle by its citizenry on 8 February 1454 sparked a revolt against the Teutonic Order across Prussia. On 6 March of that year, in Kraków, the delegates of the Preußischer Bund joined the mayor of Toruń’s old city in paying homage to Poland’s king Casimir IV, who subsumed Prussia under the Polish crown. The Council of the old city of Toruń made use of the new political dispensation to eliminate the constitutional particularity pertaining hitherto to the new city, issuing, on 8 March 1454, an act of incorporation that abolished the new city’s Council and retained only a special lay judges’ court for its citizenry. The incorporation of Prussia into the Kingdom of Poland ignited the Thirteen Years’ War of Poland and the Prussian estates against the Teutonic Order. The Peace of Toruń, which ended the conflict in 1466, directed the annexation of the Teutonic Order’s western territories – Royal Prussia with its major cities of Toruń, Gdansk and Elblag – to the Kingdom of Poland. Chelmno law remained in force in Toruń until the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, when Toruń became part of the Kingdom of Prussia.

By Roman Czaja



Historia Torunia [History of Toruń], vol. 1: W czasach średniowiecza (do 1454 r.) [In the Middle Ages to 1454], ed. Marian Biskup, Toruń 1999.

Krystyna Kamińska, Sądownictwo miasta Torunia do połowy XVII wieku na tle ustroju sądów niektórych miast Niemiec i Polski [Jurisdiction of the city of Toruń until the mid-seventeenth century, compared to the constitution of the courts of some German and Polish towns/cities], Warszawa/Poznań/Toruń 1980.

Krzysztof Mikulski, Przestrzeń i społeczeństwo Torunia od końca XIV do początku XVIII wieku [Spatial and social aspects of Toruń from the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century], Toruń 1999.

Janusz Tandecki, Szkice z dziejów Torunia i Prus w średniowieczu i na progu czasów nowożytnych [Essays on the history of Toruń and Prussia in the medieval and early modern periods], Toruń 2008.

Cite as:

Roman Czaja, Toruń. The Teutonic Order installs a legal order in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 14/12/2020, toruń/

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. 208–212.