German Law was a system of civic government that allowed the merchants and artisans of towns a degree of control in trade and town governance. There were three main types: Lübeck Law, Nüremberg-Vienna Law and Magdeburg Law or Magdeburg Rights.
Magdeburg Rights were a set of town privileges established by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I in the tenth century. The Rights were based on a combinations of various Germanic laws (Sachsenspiegel) with little input from Roman law. The Rights regulated the trade of local merchants and artisans. The geographic situation of Magdeburg made it a prime trading location especially in grain. Recognising this and the wealth that flowed from such trade Otto I supported the development of the city. This was welcomed by the Magdeburg Merchants Guild who worked with the emperor’s advisors to establish the code of Rights.
Once established in Magdeburg these rights were exported across the empire giving a degree of early standardisation of trading rights within town charters. Adoption of Magdeburg Rights allowed merchants and artisans to control both the trade in their towns and eased trade between towns. Some towns and cities outwith the empire started to adopt the Rights as they eased trade with German towns. The stability in trade and subsequent wealth generated by the Rights then helped further town development across central Europe.
Merchants and artisans comprised one of the most important sectors within towns and villages. Separate from but trading with and supporting the nobility and the church these merchants and artisans needed to be given a degree of autonomy by means of privileges in order to function well. However, these privileges needed to be regulated. Previously, privileges had developed in a haphazard manner dependent on the whim of the ruler. This dependency on the ruler’s personal character and interests meant that privileges could be altered at any time. While this seldom happened frequently it could, and the uncertainty created had a detrimental effect on long term trade. The development of Magdeburg Rights stabilised the situation for all concerned.
The Rights regulated trade in towns: how trade was conducted and who could and could not trade. Foreign merchants entering a town were not allowed to ply their own trade, but were forced to sell the goods they had brought to local traders. Jewish traders, even those who lived within a town, were controlled as to what they goods they could trade. While most Jewish merchants had poorer trade conditions than non Jews those condition were at least consistent. Many towns within the empire actively sought out Jewish traders for the wealth they created. The adoption of Magdeburg Rights allowed the town leaders to offer the Jewish traders consistent trading conditions which they supplemented with improved protection from persecution.
The Rights also regulated internal aspects of trade. The length and content of apprenticeships; the criteria for becoming a journeyman and the relationship between and apprentice or journeyman and his master. Permission for a journeyman to move to another master and even to marry were also regulated by the Guild. By regulating apprenticeships the Rights guaranteed that artisans were trained to the same level and thus producing goods of an equal standard. They also strengthened, relatively, the rights of apprentices to be taught their trade properly, to be treated fairly by their masters and to gain a degree of protection from abuse. The Rights strengthened the Guilds which oversaw their trade protecting guild members from competition from non guild members and gave some assistance in the event of ill health and accident.
The success of the Magdeburg Rights, the financial and social stability they created and wealth they generated, saw the Rights granted to over one hundred towns across Central Europe. By the 13th century Magdeburg Rights were incorporated across the German states, Schleswig, Bohemia, Pomerania, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldovia, Belarus and Poland.
This spread was greatly aided by the eastern migration of German traders across Europe.
As German merchants and traders started migrated to the Slavic lands of the east in the early 13th century. The Teutonic Knights, who controlled the lands along the banks of the Vistula River, introduced German Law to the towns under their control.
In addition to this spread German Law was incorporated into many towns in the upper Oder River valley. The Piast Dynasty allowed the development of German Law partly under pressure from the empire to allow the adoption of the law and partly in order to develop their economies. As part of these economic policies the Piasts also invited Jewish and German merchants to settle in several towns. As the development of towns in Poland improved trade and generated wealth rulers in Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary also seized the initiative and approached merchants and traders to migrate eastwards.
The Law of Magdeburg implemented in Poland differed from the original German form. It combined the existing Polish civil laws with planning based, to a degree, on the ancient Roman model. Some and owners started to use the location privilege known as ‘settlement with German law’ across their estates even when German settlers were not present. The economic benefits of German Law were such that the use of ‘settlement with German law’ when German settlers were not present became prevalent. At the same time most of the rural peasantry continued to live in accordance with common law.
The spread of German Law enabled the physical eastwards migration of settlers but also the eastward movement of trade on terms favourable to German merchants. Economic development increased across central and eastern Europe but at a greater rate in the central Germanic states. Even where large scale eastward migration did not take place lawyers, clerks and administrators versed in German Law were frequently requested by eastern areas to enable the implementation and subsequent administration of the Law. While this eased the implementation of the law it raised tensions with existing town elites who resented the imposition of foreign laws an customs. Even when the Laws created wealth and stability the status afforded to the foreign clerks and lawyers continued to cause tension as did the perceived wealth flowing out of eastern towns into the empire.