Magdeburg law, a system of municipal rules with European-wide validity, has its origins in the municipal law of the eponymous commercial center on the Middle Elbe. Its provisions governing relationships between the spheres of influence of the city and its citizens and of the territorial lord and overlord of the city were models for development of craft trades and commerce.
The starting point of Magdeburg’s development and thus its legal constitution as well was the patronage of the city’s development by Ottonian monarchs, particularly Otto the Great (reigned 936−973) and his son Otto II (reigned 973−983). Numerous commercial, toll and travel privileges established the conditions for an urban merchant class to emerge in the mid-10th century. Their law, the ius mercatorum, in turn became the basis for the later municipal law, which essentially always remained mercantile law. Municipal law, which started being conferred on other cities such as Stendal, Leipzig and Jüterbog roughly around 1160, must have existed in Magdeburg by the mid-12th century at the latest.
Evidence of this is delivered by the oldest surviving written source on Magdeburg law. in this charter, the overlord of the city Archbishop Wichmann mandated formal simplifications in municipal legal proceedings, which pertained to nonlocals and nonlocal merchants in particular. Since the charter altered and expanded already existing municipal legal matters, a law significantly different from the Saxon customary law in force in the surrounding region must have already existed in the city before this time. Although this charter does not marks but the birth of Magdeburg law, it was a milestone in its continuous dynamic evolution.
A central element of Magdeburg’s municipal constitution was the lay judges’ bench, a tribunal of assessors with the duty of administering justice. It played a major role in refining Magdeburg’s municipal law. A city council responsible for governing the city also existed no later than 1244. Around the turn of the 13th to the 14th century, the city council finally laid claim to the administration of justice, lawmaking and municipal government and confined the lay judges to their role of administering justice on the lay judges’ bench – a development that can be traced in numerous daughter cities, too. A distinction was thus made between the lay judges’ bench and the court for the people of Magdeburg. The lay judges’ bench was edged out of its central role in the city and thenceforth primarily provided legal advice for other cities.
Generally, Magdeburg law evolved continuously and was adapted to local circumstances. Although the lay judges’ bench lost its preeminence as territorial sovereignty was consolidated and nation states slowly emerged, Magdeburg law remained in effect in many territories of Eastern Europe well into the 19th century.
Heiner Lück: Einführung: Das sächsisch-magdeburgische Recht als kulturelles Bindeglied zwischen den Rechtsordnungen Ost- und Mitteleuropas, in: Rechts- und Sprachtransfer in Mittel- und Osteuropa. Sachsenspiegel und Magdeburger Recht. Internationale und interdisziplinäre Konferenz in Leipzig vom 31. Oktober bis 2. November 2003 (Ivs saxonico-maidebvrgense in oriente, 1). Ed. by Ernst Eichler, Heiner Lück. Berlin 2008, p. 1 ff.
Heiner Lück: Sachsenspiegel und Magdeburger Recht. Europäische Dimensionen zweier mitteldeutscher Rechtsquellen (Adiuvat in itinere V). Hamburg 1998.