Magdeburg rights

The Magdeburg Rights (or Magdeburg law) were the laws of the Imperial Free City of Magdeburg during many centuries of the Holy Roman Empire, and possibly the most important set of Germanic medieval city laws.

Among the most advanced systems of old Germanic law of the time, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Magdeburg rights were copied to more than a hundred cities, especially new cities founded in the north and east towards Russia, including Schleswig, Bohemia, Poland, especially in Pomerania and Province of Prussia, where they were known as German or Teutonic law. Since the local tribunal of Magdeburg thus also became the superior court for these towns, Magdeburg, together with Lübeck, practically defined the law of northern Germany and Poland for centuries, being the heart of the most important "family" of city laws. This role remained until the old Germanic laws were successively replaced with Roman law under the influence of the Reichskammergericht, in the centuries after its establishment during the Imperial Reform of 1495.

As with most medieval city laws, the Rights were primarily targeted at regulating trade to the benefit of the local merchants and artisans, who formed the most important part of the population of many such cities.

Jews and Germans were always competitors in those cities, and as the Jews lived under special privileges and were not considered a part of the native population, not only were they excluded from participating in the benefits of the Magdeburg law, but their condition usually was rendered worse wherever it was introduced. One of the most interesting provisions relating to Jews was that a Jew could not be made Gewährsmann, that is, he could not be compelled to tell from whom he acquired any object which had been sold or pledged to him and which was found in his possession. This effectively amounted to permission to buy stolen property.

External merchants coming into the city were not allowed to trade on their own, but instead forced to sell the goods they had brought into the city to local buyers, if any wished to buy them.

Being a member of the Hanseatic league, Magdeburg thus was one of the most important trade cities also, maintaining commerce with the west (towards Flanders), with the countries of the Baltic Sea, and the interior (for example Braunschweig).

See also:

  • Lübeck law

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