Women's Bodies, Women's Property German Customary Law Books Illustrated in the Fourteenth Century

About the Books

The Sachsenspiegel Lawbook

The Sachsenspiegel or Mirror of the Saxons (1220-35) is a collection of customary laws compiled by Eike von Repgow (1180-1235). Encouraged by his overlord, Hoyer von Falkenstein, from Saxon high nobility, he produced a German version of his own (lost) Latin original. Their purpose was to textualize, and thus to stabilize what up until the 13th century had been a long oral tradition of regional jurisprudence. The Sachsenspiegel is divided into two parts, one concerned with laws regarding the management of fiefs, the Lehnrecht, and the other with more general laws, the Landrecht, or regional law. The Landrecht is concerned with the space occupied by the landowning lord and the landworking peasant. In a totally unsystematic style the book touches on a score overlapping legal interests, among them the administration of the laws themselves, penal law, inheritance law, marriage law, property law, and laws governing the herding, keeping, and hunting of animals. Written for those charged with administering the law, it saw wide dissemination, especially in North, Central, and Eastern Germany, but also beyond German borders. It was translated into Latin, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian.

Of an original seven illustrated manuscripts, four remain, named after their present locations: the Heidelberg (1300), the Oldenburg (1336), the Dresden (1350), and the Wolfenbüttel (1350-70). Dates are approximate. 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 in these recensions.

Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel

Heidelberg University Library

MS. cod. pal. ger. 164.

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. Landrecht II, 63, 1 states that no woman can be an advocate in court or plead for herself except through the agency of a guardian. This situation results from the behavior of one "Calpurnia," the Carfania of Justinian's Digest, 3,1,1,5 who "impudently demanded her rights and thus caused the ban," an account embellished in the Schwabenspiegel (Landrecht 245), an earlier lawbook based on and earlier Sachsenspiegel text, which has her scolding the king and showing him her "hindere scham," i.e. her "rear pudenda." In register 4 on fol. 10v, right half, the illustrator does his best to represent this event with decorum. The extended 5th register on fol. 11r appears literally to support the text (Landrecht II, 66, 2) with an array of Christian subjects. These serve to fix in visual memory days named in the text--Thursday through Sunday--on which no litigation can take place in court and on which it is a crime to feud. From left to right, for Thursday, the Ascension, Friday the Creation and Crucifixion, Saturday Christ in the grave," on Sunday clerics who teach Christianity are blessed . "

Eike von Repgow

Hoyer von Falkenstein

Burg Falkenstein

Eike von Repgow 1180?-1235?, (Reppichau, a village near Dessau just north of Halle/Saale) is attested as a witness in six documents between 1209 and 1233. He was very possibly a freeman and also vassal to Count Hoyer von Falkenstein, the Stiftvogt (a protector/administrator of a religious foundation) in Quedlinburg and closely connected to the Anhalt court. For a layman Eike was well educated, probably in a cathedral or monastery school. He had Latin, some knowledge of the Bible, canon law, German and Latin literature. Whether or not he was a Schöffe (juror), he was well acquainted with regional legal practices. He tells us of the territory he covered in Landrecht III, 62: the Duchy of Saxony, County of Brandenburg, County of Thuringia, the Marches of Meissen and Lausitz, the (royal) residence cities and bishoprics of Saxony. This translates roughly to today's Sachsen-Anhalt between the Saale and Elbe in the former East Germany.

The connection between the castle and the Sachsenspiegel is a tenuous one. Hoyer's name is carried in the list of owners with the dates 1211-1266. In the rhymed preface, possibly in a mix of rhetoric and truth, Eike mentions Hoyer as the initiator of the project to translate the original Latin version into German. And once, Eike's and Hoyer's names appear as witnesses on the same document. Over the centuries confusion ensued as to who the true author of the lawbook was. In the 19th century, largely in the interest of exploiting the appeal of the family castle for tourism, Hoyer is touted as the author, and Burg Falkenstein becomes the place where it was actually written. While the claims have been withdrawn, the Sachsenspiegel continues to play a role in the castle's cultural and commercial life. There is a permanent exhibition of artifacts and facsimiles of documents associated with Eike and Hoyer as historical persons, as well as photographs of folios from the text-only and illustrated manuscripts.

The Nazis, Eike, and the Sachsenspiegel

Falkenstein became a Mecca for legal historians, Sachsenspiegel scholars, and interested laypersons. Less mundane political interests involved requests to provide shelter for a to-be-kidnapped Kaiser Wilhelm II faced with extradition from exile in Holland after WW I, and to house the artillery for an entire division before the right-wing Kapp-Putsch in 1920. In 1933 Burg Falkenstein again became the focus of political attention, this time specifically because of the Sachsenspiegel. Within months of the Nazis' coming to power in 1933, a delegation led by the local Gauleiter erected a monument to the memory of Eike von Repgow with this inscription:

To Eike von Repgow

Authority and Herald of German National Law

And the To the Friend and Patron of His Work

Count Hoyer von Falkenstein


Association of National-Socialist

German Jurists

Naumburg District


They needed and created in the Sachsenspiegel a symbol for the promotion of the idea of an ethnically German law growing out of German soil, a law they were about to (re)write in order to give the appearance of legality to measures they would take toward the establishment of dictatorial powers. The photograph is of the residing Count Friedrich with his dated Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) from the Second Reich confronting, (resisting?) morosely it seems, Gauleiter Jordan in his Third Reich uniform. He refused permission to mount the plaque on the castle wall. From 1945 until the reunification of Germany in 1989, the castle was in the East Zone. The communists allowed the monument to stand but filed off the lines identifying the sponsors.

Wolfenbüttel Sachsenspiegel

Herzog August Library

MS. Cod. Guelf. 3.1 Aug. 2o

Eike's prologue is on the left (fol. 9v) and the text of the Landrecht begins on the right (fol.10 r). These folios offer telling and typical examples of the complex dynamics between text and image. Paraphrasing the text: Eike invokes the Holy Spirit to guide his understanding, declares God to be the beginning and end of all things, creator of heaven and earth and humankind whom he placed in Paradise; God's command was broken, we went insane, like sheep without a shepherd until we were redeemed by his crucifixion. God and the Law are synonymous. Now that we are converted and accepted by God, we keep his commandments which his prophets and pious clerics have taught and also obey the laws the Christian kings, Konstantin and Charlemagne, made for the Saxons. Reading down, the images show the story differently. Secular power and authority precede. A marginalized Eike, despite his dove of holy inspiration, is attending to royal pronouncements. The king accepting the judicial sword, thus establishing the divine source of royal authority, precedes Genesis. Salvation history is omitted altogether. Male figures predominate throughout. This is demonstrated in the most unusual exchange between the serpent and Adam at the foot of the verso. Law is male. The world of the Sachsenspiegel reflects male privilege and control. In the construction of masculinity, transgression by the male (Adam instead of Eve) is the event which merits attention. On the recto two swords are given to church and state illustrating Eike's "God left the earth two swords for the protection of Christianity, the clerical one for the Pope, the secular one for the Emperor" apparently as peers. He then writes of the Emperor holding the Pope's stirrup in the familiar topos that would show the pope as the lord here, going on to interpret this bizarrely as signifying separate but equal jurisdictions. Because of the power of this most familiar image in feudal culture, it completely overrides Eike's explanation.

Oldenburg Sachsenspiegel

State Library

MS. CIM I 410.

This manuscript stands apart from the others in several respects, two of the principal ones being its language, Low instead of Middle German, and the size of the figures. Additionally, the women appear monumental and therefore more powerful in this recension, as here on the right page, fol.16r, registers 1-3, when compared to the same registers in the others. Landrecht I, 20, 1-4 describes what constitutes a Morning Gift, the husband's gift to his wife after their wedding night, and jumps immediately to laws limiting a widow's rights to property of various kinds upon her husband's death. If she does not own the land on which the dwelling stands, she must quit it within six weeks of the "Thirtieth," (on the 30th day after a death a requiem mass is said), leaving the land in good condition. If, after an appraisal, an offer to sell the building (her Morning Gift) is refused, she may plow if she leaves the land level [tillable]. She and any heirs may live in the house with no distribution of property; when they separate, her rights are limited to the value the estate had at her husband's death. If she lives in her children's house before distribution, upon her son's marriage, her rights are further limited in favor of the next generation. In the first register, the widow stands, a dominating figure, in the center foreground with her right hand connecting her to an elegant, castle-like building, while with her left she calls for the appraisal. In the second register she dines in a spacious inner courtyard, extending a bowl to an heir symbolizing, along with the goblet on the table, and the animals behind her, that the division of property has not yet occurred. In register three she is living with her sons, one in the doorway, the other two now serving her, and the goblet gone; the property has been divided. In general the illustrations show a widow more in control than do the harsher tones of the text. [See Group II for comparative folios]

Rechtsbuch der Stadt Herford

Municipal Archives

Msc. 1

This Lawbook of the City of Herford is a compendium from about 1370 of privileges, contracts, judgments, and Saxon customary law similar to Eike's book. Its particular interest is to give expression through its content and decoration to the idea of Herford's unmediated accountability as a municipality to imperial authority (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) based on the unity of Stift und Stadt (convent and city). It departs from the arguments and iconography of the Sachsenspiegel deriving legitimacy from God, Constantine, and Charlemagne. Instead it cites, elaborates on, and interprets Cicero, Cato, and Aristotle on the virtues city fathers, communities of citizens, and the advantages of city life, all for the purpose of legitimizing the lawbook.

Fol. 1v recalls the content of the Prologue with the topos of the elder wise man, the scholar, seated under an arcade topped by a tower against a mosaic background. He is framed by a scroll on which he address the burghers of Herford, "O my worthy citizens, be peaceable, for peace among the burghers is the city's strength." Resting on him and this sentiment is the solid city which caps the page. His gaze is to fol. 2r (on his left) which depicts a Vogtgericht (in imperial cities and foundations, a court presided over by a Gaugraf, a count from the local Gau or district--note the reinvocation of the term "Gau" by the Nazis. A Gauleiter or governor presided at the dedication at the Falkenstein above). The presiding judge is identified by his central position, swearing the required oath. The presence of the reliquary and the judicial sword indicate that this is the highest court with jurisdiction over capital crimes. The Schöffen or jurors, who decide guilt or innocence, stand on either side of the judge. The initials S and H on the scribe's garment, the smaller figure at bottom center, identify him as Siffridus Hanteloye, the likely redactor of this recension of the lawbook.