The Sachsenspiegel (lit. "Mirror of the Saxons"; Low German: Sassenspegel, Middle Low German: Sassen Speyghel) is the most important law book and legal code of the German Middle Ages. Written ca. 1220 as a record of existing law, it was used in parts of Germany until as late as 1900, and is important not only for its lasting effect on German law, but also as an early example of written prose in a German language, being the first large legal document to have been written in (Middle Low) German, instead of Latin. A Latin edition is known to have existed, but only fragmented chapters remain.
The Sachsenspiegel was one of the first prose works in Low German (Middle Saxon) language. The original title is Sassen Speyghel, Sachsenspiegel being a later German translation. It is believed to have been compiled and translated from Latin by the Saxon administrator Eike von Repgow at the behest of his liege lord Graf Hoyer von Falkenstein in the years 1220 to 1235. Where the original was compiled is unclear. It was thought to have been written at Burg Falkenstein, but Peter Landau, an expert in medieval canon law, recently suggested that it may have been written at the monastery of Altzelle (now Altzella).
The Sachsenspiegel served as a model for law books in German (Middle High German) like the Augsburger Sachsenspiegel, the Deutschenspiegel, and the Schwabenspiegel. Its influence extended into Eastern Europe, the Netherlands, and the Baltic States.
In Prussia, the Sachsenspiegel was used until the introduction of the Allgemeines Landrecht für die preußischen Staaten in 1794. In Saxony it was used until the introduction of the Saxon Civil Code in 1865. In Anhalt and Thuringia the Sachsenspiegel was not replaced until the introduction of the German civil code, the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch in 1900. Its precedents continued to be cited as recently as 1932 by the Reichsgericht (Supreme Court of the Reich) (RGZ 137, 373).
The influence of the Sachsenspiegel, or at least parallels with it, can still be found in modern German law, for instance in inheritance law and the law governing disputes between neighbors.
Branches of Law
The Sachsenspiegel contains two branches of law: common law and feudal law.
The common law, or Landrecht, was the law of free people including farmers (known as "legal persons"). It contains important regulations concerning property rights, inheritances, matrimonies, the distribution of goods and the regulation of various legal disputes (e.g. between neighbors). It also regulates the criminal law and the constitution of the courts. In terms of modern legal systems it can be thought of as including criminal and civil law.
The feudal law, or Lehnrecht, determined the relationship between different states and rulers, for example the election of emperors and kings, feudal rights, etc. Though it has no modern equivalent, it can be compared to what one would call today constitutional law.
The Sachsenspiegel acquired special significance through its exposition of the seven Heerschilde or "shields of knighthood":
- Ecclesiastical princes
- Lay princes
- Free lords (freie Herren)
- Schöffenbarfreie, liegemen (Lehnsmänner) of free lords, ministeriales
- Vassals of Schöffenbarfreie etc.
Farmers and town burghers were not mentioned.
Four (of the original seven) illuminated manuscripts copies are still extant. They are named after their present locations: Heidelberg, Oldenburg, Dresden, and Wolfenbüttel, and date from 1295 to 1371. In total, over 400 versions of the manuscript exist today.
The Dresden manuscript has been described as the "most artistically valuable," by the World Digital Library. It is located in the collection of the Saxon State Library and was created between 1295 and 1363 around Meissen, Germany. This version has 924 illustrations on 92 pages. The illustrations depict about 4,000 people. It suffered water damage after the Bombing of Dresden in World War II and underwent restoration in the 1990s.
Some German proverbs date from the Sachsenspiegel:
- "Wer zuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst" (First come, first served, literally: "Who comes first, grinds first"), which is a rule for the order for grinding of corn by a miller.
- "Wo der Esel sich wälzt, da muss er Haare lassen.", lit: "Where the donkey rolls, there it sheds hair." This is a rule for the jurisdiction of courts.
- Germanic tribal laws
- Pleading in English Act 1362, English law mandating use of English instead of French in oral argument in court
- Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, 1539, French legislation mandating use of French in law, in place of Latin
- Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730, British law mandating use of English instead of Latin in court writing
- Dieter Pötschke (2002). "Utgetogen Recht steiht hir. Brandenburgische Stadt- und Landrechte im Mittelalter". In Dieter Pötschke. Stadtrecht, Roland und Pranger: zur Rechtsgeschichte von Halberstadt, Goslar, Bremen und Städten der Mark Brandenburg [Stadtrecht, Roland und Pranger: zur Rechtsgeschichte von Halberstadt, Goslar, Bremen und Städten der Mark Brandenburg]. Harz-Forschungen (in German) 15. Lukas. p. 135. ISBN 3-931836-77-0. "Mit dem Sachsenspiegel] schuf Eike von Repchow nicht nur eines der ersten deutschen Rechtsbücher neben dem Mühlhäuser Rechtsbuch nach des Reiches Recht, sondern das erste deutsche Prosawerk überhaupt."
- Some sources give the period during which the Sachsenspiegel was written as 1220 to 1230, but 1220 to 1235 is given by others, such as sources at the Library of Congress (), the European Court of Human Rights () and Tufts University ()
- The suggestion that the Sachsenspiegel was written at Altzelle was made in a paper given by Professor Landau at the Deutscher Rechtshistorikertag 2004 and later published in an article (Landau, Peter: Die Entstehungsgeschichte des Sachsenspiegels: Eike von Repgow, Altzelle und die anglo-normannische Kanonistik; Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 2005, Vol 61, No. 1, pp 73-101), cited at the German Wikipedia article on Kloster Altzella and http://www.rechtsbuchforschung.de.
- "Mirror of the Saxons". World Digital Library. 1295-1363. Retrieved 2013-08-13.