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A Small Town, which is Older than We Thought

Vetschau, which is located in the Spree Forest, does not exactly offer a multitude of sources that allow a precise tracing of the town’s legal history in the Middle Ages and beyond. This circumstance led to striking misconceptions within the history of the town, which have not been entirely dispelled to this day. The development of the marketplace Vetschau to a town, as far as the available sources allow it, is hereby illuminated anew.

Within the local history of Vetschau, the year 1548 is gaining increasing importance as the date of the supposed receipt of municipal rights. The basis for this is a document rediscovered[1] in 2005 issued by the Roman-German King Ferdinand, who was also King of Bohemia and thus also Margrave of Lower Lusatia. The powerful ruler granted Vetschau a new coat of arms after a previously suffered fire together with the right to hold a fair, which was to take place from now on Sundays after Ursula (October 21). It is an illuminated document, which contains in the middle a drawing of the coat of arms described in the text, but it is not quite accurate. This document, severely affected by bad storage, has been interpreted in the history of the town and the country as a municipal legal privilege, which is said to have taken place in 1548.[2]

Research in the current main statutes of Vetschau, among others, points to another year, namely 1543, in which Vetschau is supposed to have received the “formal town right”.[3] This information, however, lacks any source basis and is probably due to an error in the Historisches Ortslexikon für die Niederlausitz (Encyclopedia of Historical Places of Lower Lusatia). Here the mentioned document of Ferdinand is brought in connection with this date.[4] However, the editor of the work, Rudolf Lehmann, probably did not intend this because, in the contribution to Vetschau in the Handbuch der historischen Stätten (Handbook of Historical Places), which he also edited a little later, he does not repeat the year 1543. At this point, Lehmann rather affirms that Vetschau had assumed “town character” under the rule of the von Zabeltitz family in a period between the beginning of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century.[5] This is another serious difference to the statement reproduced above that the granting of town rights had taken place in 1548.

The contradiction between a rather process-like becoming of a town on the one hand and the unique act of granting town rights, on the other hand, can be resolved with a view to a document-critical contribution by Werner Heegewaldt. On the occasion of the rediscovery of the already mentioned document of King Ferdinand, he pointed out that it was a “misinterpretation” to understand the coat of arms letter of Ferdinand as a privilege of town rights.[6]  This judgment has to be agreed with because the text of the document does not refer in any way to a town right which the citizenry of Vetschau was supposed to make use of. Usually, in known grants of town rights, various individual rights, comparisons, specifications or deviations from adopted regulations of other municipalities are also addressed. Such remarks are also not found in the Vetschau document.

Vetschau’s emergence as a town must rather have developed gradually over a more extended period of time in the sense of Lehmann. This can be concluded from the coat of arms privilege of King Ferdinand himself. Thus, the text of the document already assumes an existing council and an existing municipality.[7] Municipal structures typical of a town were, therefore, already in place. However, Heegewaldt correctly pointed out that the term “town” is avoided in the document. Instead, the royal chancellery used the term “market”, which was widespread, especially in southern Germany, to designate the legal status of Vetschau.[8] Nevertheless, town-like structures can by no means be ruled out. Settlement forms designated as market usually had distinctive community structures and organs arising from them, such as a council, sheriffs or elders, who formed a legal community through appropriated privileges. This settlement type, which is related to towns, differs from villages but often had a lower degree of rights and autonomy than towns and was also smaller than them.[9]

These criteria apply to medieval Vetschau. Since its earliest mention at the beginning of the 14th century, the place was part of a noble landlordship, whose owners changed quite frequently and had their seat in Vetschau, among other sites. At that time, the appearance of the settlement was probably made up of village structures.[10] However, Vetschau’s location on the busy road running between Magdeburg, Cottbus and Breslau may have contributed to an economic boom. In 1371, a dispute arose between the local residents and the remote town of Calau over the course of this route, also known as the “Salt Road”, as the latter attempted to direct trade traffic to itself.[11] In this context, it was affirmed that the route to and from Magdeburg had to lead via Vetschau, not Calau, among others.

Without a doubt, this influenced the further development of Vetschau, where in the course of the 15th century, a respectable market traffic must have prevailed. This favored the establishment of local trades, the earliest traces of which date back to 1414, when Vetschau cobblers and tanners were granted the right to purchase raw leather and calfskin.[12] This provision secured the sales and market traffic operated by both trades, most of which may have taken place directly in Vetschau. However, the loss of meaningful medieval sources does not allow any closer conclusions. But the fact that Vetschau developed into a small town with corresponding legal customs within the 15th century is undisputed on the basis of various indications and evidence. Rudolf Lehmann already mentioned the contacts between the Luckau aldermen’s office and Vetschau. Specifically, this concerned two legal disputes connected with Matthias Starasta, a native of Vetschau whose surname betrays a Sorbian origin. Both cases date from the end of the 15th century and concern matters of inheritance law.[13] In this case, it is crucial that the Luckau aldermen were very likely asked by the Vetschau council for help in these inheritance law matters.[14] According to the “Luckoschen rechte” (“Luckau law”), which was related to the Magdeburg law, they made their judgments and summarized them in writing. In addition, the Luckau aldermen refer to the Vetschau “stat felde” (“town field”) and the “stat gericht” (“town court”). They also mention a “stat büch zcu Fetczschow” (“town book of Vetschau”) which is lost today and which could have proved the claims of both parties to the dispute.[15] All in all, these facts prove typical urban structures in Vetschau and a local orientation towards Luckau law, which means that the market town can be assigned to the circle of municipalities constituted according to Magdeburg legal customs.

However, this by no means guaranteed per se the same degree of freedom, self-government and autonomy as other towns in Lower Lusatia, such as Luckau, Beeskow or Guben, had. In contrast to these, the mediate Vetschau possessed a noble town lord until the 19th century, who integrated it into his landlordship and could undoubtedly intervene in the affairs of the municipality. This lordly framework is expressed, for example, in a feudal charter of the Brandenburg Margrave Friedrich from 1450, which he issued in the role of a bailiff of Lower Lusatia to the brothers Christoph and Hans von Zabeltitz zu Vetschau. Here Vetschau is distinctly called “stettichen” (“small town”), around which noble property extended, which also included the villages Lobendorf and Suschow as well as rights in the Lübbenau Spree Forest and in Weißagk.[16]

A strong dependence of this kind on the town lord is also reflected in the document of King Ferdinand from 1548, mentioned at the beginning of this article. The driving force behind the issuance of this document was Eustachius von Schlieben, who purchased Vetschau from the von Zabeltitz family in 1540. As Heegewaldt comprehensibly describes, von Schlieben used the diplomatic negotiations between Brandenburg and Bohemia in the context of the Schmalkaldic War, which he influenced, to ask King Ferdinand in an indeterminable way for the issuance of the Vetschau coat of arms privilege.[17] His influence even went so far that he himself determined the shape of the Vetschau coat of arms. Against the background of his marriage with Katharina von Schapelow, it incorporated parts of the coats of arms of both spouses: a bar in a blue and silver chess pattern as a sign of the von Schlieben family as well as a greyhound with a golden collar for the von Schapelow family. Of course, this served the prestige of the town lord, whose family symbols became, as it were, those of the town. In an original and impressive way, Eustachius von Schlieben knew how to record the memory of his person and rule locally. In doing so, he took advantage of unique situational opportunities, which did not initiate Vetschau’s becoming a town, but were always based on older communal structures.

Author: Sascha Bütow
(English translation: Uli Nickel)



[1] Destinata Literaria Et Fragmenta Lvsatica, series 1, vol. 8, Lübben 1738, no. V, pp. 815–822. On the rediscovery cf. Sensationsfund auf Boden in Vetschau, in [last retrieved 10.08.2020].

[2] Some representative examples are Wilhelm Braunsdorf, Aus der Vergangenheit der Stadt und Herrschaft Vetschau, in Der Gebirgsfreund 18 (1906), pp. 7–11, here p. 10; Gertraud-Eva Schrage, Vetschau, in Städtebuch Brandenburg und Berlin, edited by Evamaria Engel et al. Berlin 2000, p. 529; Manfred Niemeyer (ed.), Deutsches Ortsnamenbuch, Berlin/Boston 2012, p. 652.

[3] This is how it is formulated, for example, on the town’s website: [last retrieved 10.08.2020]; similarly also at [last retrieved 10.08.2020]. The main statutes of the town of Vetschau also use this date as the date of the attainment of the town law.: “§ 1 Gemeinde

(1) Die Gemeinde besitzt seit dem Jahr 1543 das Stadtrecht und führt ab dem 01.01.1997

den Namen ‘Vetschau/Spreewald’”. The main statutes are published online and can be accessed at: [last retrieved 12.08.2020].

[4] Rudolf Lehmann (ed.), Historisches Ortslexikon für die Niederlausitz, vol. 1, Marburg 1979, p. 390.

[5] Rudolf Lehmann, Vetschau, in Handbuch der historischen Stätten, vol. 10, Berlin and Brandenburg, edited by Gerd Heinrich, 3rd edition, Stuttgart 1995, p. 385.

[6] Werner Heegewaldt, Ein ungewöhnlicher Dachbodenfund – Das Wappenprivileg König Ferdinands I. für Vetschau 1548, in Brandenburgische Archive 24 (2007), pp. 5–11, here p. 9.

[7] Destinata Literaria (same as note 1), p. 817.

[8] Heegewaldt (same as note 6), p. 9.

[9] On the legal distinction between a marketplace and a town cf. Albrecht Cordes and Alexander Krey, Marktflecken, in Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, vol. 3, Konfliktbewältigung – Nowgorod, 2nd edition, Berlin 2016, col. 1319–1320.

[10] Lehmann (same as note 5), p. 385.

[11] Woldemar Lippert, Cottbus als Knotenpunkt von Handelsstraßen im 14. Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Verkehrs in der Niederlausitz, in Niederlausitzer Mitteilungen 3 (1893/94), pp. 73–85, here no. 3, pp. 80–84.

[12] Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv, rep. 37, Vetschau no. 250.

[13] Rudolf Lehmann (ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Niederlausitz, part 2, Cologne/Vienna 1976, p. 13.

[14] Ibid., no. 67 a, pp. 94–95.

[15] Ibid., no. 68 a, pp. 95–96.

[16] Lehmann (same as note 13), part 1, Cologne/Vienna 1972, p. 225.

[17] Heegewaldt (same as note 6), pp. 9–11.


Cite as:

Sascha Bütow, Vetschau: A Small Town, which is Older than We Thought, in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 02/07/2024,