Saturday, May 16, 2009


The Saxon Mirror
Medieval German Law

Wer zuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst..

Dresden Sachsenspiegel duo

Dresden Sachsenspiegel duo a

Dresden Sachsenspiegel duo b

Dresden Sachsenspiegel illustration duo a

Dresden Sachsenspiegel k (detail)

The images above are from the Dresden Sachsenspiegel

Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel duo

Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel duo a

Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel duo b

Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel duo c

The images above are from the Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel

Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel duo

Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel duo a

The above two images are from the Wolfenbüttel Sachsenspiegel

Oldenburg Sachsenspiegel

Oldenburg Sachsenspiegel

The last two small images are from the Oldenburg Sachsenspiel

The Sachsenspiegel (lit. Saxon Mirror) is the original document of German jurisprudence in which the customary laws of Saxony, previously transmitted through an oral tradition, were given permanence and stability in written form.

It was composed in latin between 1225 and 1235 by Eike von Repgow at the direction of Count Hoyer of Falkenstein and was very soon after translated into Low German. That gives it the distinction of being the first prose work written in the German vernacular language.

Beyond religious canon and Roman law, the Sachsenspiegel was without doubt the most important legal text for all of late Medieval Central Europe. Within forty years of its first appearance, variants had been produced for the rest of the German speaking territories and its influence resonated in legal systems in Holland, Denmark, Russia and the Baltic States. It remained the legal authority for over three hundred years and its precedents were cited as late as 1932 by the German Supreme Court.

The book contains information on a wide variety of legal topics, including administrative, constitutional and penal law, laws concerning inheritance, dowries, and marriage, property law, and laws governing the keeping, herding and hunting of animals.
"Far from being strictly a set of legal rules, the Sachsenspiegel was built upon the interrelatedness of language, religion, literature, morality, and aesthetics; for this reason it re-created then as it does now the very structure of society. Consequently, this lawbook is unique because it opens a window onto medieval communities and the concerns of all their inhabitants, including serfs, free peasants, women, children, and ethnic minorities."
Of the several hundred extant manuscript versions of the Sachsenspiegel, four of them -- the so-called Codices Picturati -- feature prominent illustrations that serve to elaborate and clarify the at times meandering and convoluted text. Each of the four manuscripts bears the name of their present location: Heidelberg (written in about 1300); Oldenburg (1336); Dresden (1350) [badly damaged in WWII] and Wolfenbüttel (about 1360)
"At the right of each register of illustrations on these folios and throughout all the books sits a judge, often wielding a judicial sword, the symbol of his authority. The effect of the powerful seated figure before whom others must plead and be judged is one of lending the text authority; his sword and scepter point to it as if to say, "hear me, then read this." In the context of what may well have been a certain mistrust of texts in the late Middle Ages, these images could take on the function of reassuring users about the reliability of the book. While Eike's discursive, exception-ridden writing style is anything but reader-friendly, the scribes have made the book user-friendly. Throughout the entire text there are elaborate initials which are repeated in the image registers so that a user can quickly and without guessing associate the illustration with the corresponding specific language."
The 'mirror' in the title of the Sachsenspiegel functions as a metaphor in the sense that the text was intended to reflect regular daily activities under the ideal conditions of justice, against which a reader/viewer could measure their own life in order to remedy flaws. Or in Eike's words, in the Preface: "The book is called the Saxon mirror, since Saxon custom is given here in the same way that ladies observe their faces in a mirror."
"An important cultural and historical significance is the additional information found within the pictures themselves. The drawings depict individuals of differing social groups, interior and exterior architecture, weaponry, landscape, household belongings, aliments (foods) and jewellery, all of which offer an invaluable source for further study and exploration of everyday life in the Middle-Ages."
"The illustrations have a complicated functional rather than a decorative role. On the surface they contribute to indexical and mnemonic functioning. But, even as they point to "the letter of the law," they do much ideological work on their own, reflecting and establishing societal attitudes and controls with respect to matters of gender, class, and ethnicity; and visually their effect is to take precedence over the text" {see below}

This detail from a Dresden Sachsenspiegel manuscript page [at the top] shows a woman engaged in an affair with a dirty hippie musician (we know it's a musician - and not a knight or nobleman - because of the lute or guitar above the bed). In this case, the illustration operates more in the way of a visual indexing icon rather than being additive to the adjacent text. The corresponding legal commentary notes that although the woman's bedhopping practices might be regarded as deplorable or dishonourable by society (the Sachsenspiegel is also said to be reflective of religious ideals), unless the sexual tryst is linked to an actual crime, then her legal rights of inheritance are not impaired.
[this is paraphrasing an excerpt from GF Margadant, as listed above]


Timf said...

A fantastic resource, thanks for posting.

Kittybriton said...

W00T! So it's possible to sleep around without losing legal rights of inheritance. Although kleine liebchen might be a bit upset.

Karla said...

As is so often the case, Kittybriton has beaten me to it...

Anonymous said...

great synopsis. i enjoyed it, and will probably spend some more time digging through the linked resources ...

Anonymous said...

oh, and regarding zooming in

you have to click the "Lupe" link - Lupe is german for magnifying glass - and then select a region of the page to have it magnified.

it's still a little clumsy, but zooming is sort of supported.

peacay said...

Thanks for that tip xrotwang - I added a note (although, to be honest, I was never able to get a couple of those buttons, including 'lupe' to work at all in FFox. In I.Explorer and Chrome I can't even page down to see those links. That is one awful piece of web architecture in my view. (I presume the java base is the cause of the difficulties)

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