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22.09.09 Mikuła, Municipal Magdeburg Law (Ius municipale Magdeburgense) in Late Medieval Poland

22.09.09 Mikuła, Municipal Magdeburg Law (Ius municipale Magdeburgense) in Late Medieval Poland

In the Late Middle Ages, the kingdom of Poland saw the spread of a foreign legal system. This system, known as the Municipal Magdeburg Law, first appeared in German towns and was introduced by German immigrants. Akin to the introduction of a new species of plant or animal, the Municipal Magdeburg Law underwent adaptation and evolution to suit the environment in Poland. Maciej Mikuła seeks to trace and understand its development in his study Municipal Magdeburg Law (Ius municipale Magdeburgense) in Late Medieval Poland: A Study on the Evolution and Adaptation of Law. Mikuła’s book is a meticulously researched study which sheds light upon the reception of Magdeburg municipal law, or the Weichbild, in medieval Poland.  

Municipal Magdeburg Law (Ius municipale Magdeburgense) in Late Medieval Poland is an English translation of Prawo miejskie magdeburskie (Ius municipale Magdeburgense) w Polsce XIV-pocz. XVI w., albeit with some minor adaptations and revisions. In many ways this reads like a book which has been translated. The technical discussions which preoccupy most of the book defy a simple and smooth translation. Nevertheless, the translator--Andrzej Branny--must be commended for expending a huge amount of energy and time to allow this important work to reach an English-reading audience. While municipal Magdeburg law has been discussed by German and Polish academics for decades, there are few resources available in English. 

This book is the result of a tremendous amount of archival research. Mikuła’s examination of twenty-one Latin texts along with other German texts is a remarkable feat of precision and detail. Few scholars would have been so ambitious. For example, Mikuła’s discussion of eighteen manuscripts in chapter 1 is intricate and descriptive. Mikuła employs comparative textual analysis to uncover the relationships between manuscripts without the aid of computer software. This is an impressive feat considering that there are individual differences between each manuscript that complicate the evidence for textual transmission. There is virtually no straightforward example of textual transmission from one manuscript to another. This is partially a result of the nature of medieval law which could be quite malleable at the stage of transmission. This is observable in the texts of the Ius municipale Magdeburgense. The differences between individual texts are much more than just scribal errors. Some include other legal sources, like Magdeburg’s Legal Instructions for Wrocław of 1261 and 1265. Others contain both German and Latin versions of the law. The wide array of texts found in these manuscripts defy a simple explanation. 

The first chapter refutes the traditional narrative that Konrad of Opole’s compilation of the Magdeburg law gained widespread use in Poland. Rather, Mikuła suggests that a Weichbild version arose in Silesia around 1295-1308, spreading to Małopolska. There is no evidence to support the view that Konrad of Opole was the author of the Weichbild used in Poland. Mikuła logically calls this early group the Silesian-Małopolska compilation. It was heavily dependent uponMagdeburg’s Legal Instructions for Wrocław of 1261 and 1265. The texts in this compilation were either written in German or descended from German sources. They were fundamentally different than the Latin Weichbild texts which Mikuła examines in the next chapter.

Chapter 2 turns to the Latin texts of the Weichbild. Mikuła uses a quantitative methodology to illuminate relationships between different manuscripts. Mikuła divides the Latin manuscripts into three groupings based upon a series of shared similarities including organization of topics, translation peculiarities, and omission/inclusion of certain laws. Mikuła’s hypothesis is that the archetype of Group I was first composed before 1359 by Konrad of Sandomierz as an original Latin version of the Saxon-Magdeburg law. Konrad appears to have wanted to make the Weichbild more understandable and practical. Using Konrad of Sandomierz’s translation along with other German language sources, an anonymous author created the archetype of Group II sometime before 1368. He translated the Sachsenspiegel and sought to provide some coherence to German texts of the Silesian-Małopolska compilation. Ortyle (case law) were introduced, with Latin translations supplanting the original German. Group III is a hybrid created by the interaction of the texts with one another, with authors cobbling bits from Groups I and II together. With meticulous research, Mikuła makes a strong argument that there were two different attempts to translate the German-language Weichbild into Latin in fourteenth-century Poland, each giving rise to a series of related manuscripts. 

In chapter 3 Mikuła examines the Weichbild’s final stage of evolution with the printing of Jan Łaski’s Statutes in 1506. As with the manuscript versions of theWeichbild, Mikuła provides an in-depth analysis of Łaski’s Statutes. He finds that Łaski used both the Sandomierz and Cracow versions for his publication.Statutes was not an entirely new creation, but merely the most comprehensive revision of the Silesian-Małopolska compilation. Mikuła then examines several topics (urban administrative law, criminal law, family law, and debt law) in order to discern the changes to legal practice caused by Łaski’s Statutes.  He suggests that the amendments to the Weichbild by Łaski were practical changes also meant to bring clarity to matters of uncertainty. Mikuła views Łaski’sStatutes as the “high point of the evolution of the medieval Weichbild in the Kingdom of Poland” (159). He also describes the work as “a legal text that is both complete and authoritative” (186).

Chapter 4 examines the glosses, annotations, and additions made by later readers to the manuscripts and copies of the Weichbild. The number of markings and annotations made by later readers varies widely from manuscript to manuscript. Several of the manuscripts contain glosses that share some commonalities. Some glossaters included Polish equivalents of Latin words. Others included legal maxims from Joannes Andreae’s Regulae iuris. The most common alterations to the main text by readers were to correct mistakes, compile indices, and cross-reference sources. Ultimately, the evidence indicates that readers of the Weichbild used it for practical purposes in legal practice. 

In addition to his meticulous presentation of evidence, Mikuła includes four appendices meant to shed more light on the evolution of the Latin Weichbild in Poland. They are the data underpinning Mikuła’s conclusions. The first appendix is a concordance of laws from several manuscripts that enables readers to see which laws were included/omitted by certain manuscripts. The second appendix contains divergences in the texts of the Latin manuscripts with the text printed in Łaski’s Statutes. The third appendix compares three Latin Weichbild texts (Gniezno MS, Baworowscy BN 12607, and the Działyńscy Codex IV) with their German language counterparts in order to assess the accuracy of the translations. The fourth appendix contains a transcription of the Weichbild text found in the Gniezno manuscript (Archdiocesan Archives of Gniezno, Gn. 104).

Mikuła is a thorough researcher who is well-versed in the minute details of his texts. The wide array of manuscript sources he consulted, as well as the careful analysis of the text in each manuscript, are extraordinary. Mikuła’s project is ambitious and, fortunately, has uncovered information which might have gone unnoticed. Mikuła carefully demonstrates the evidence which led him to his conclusions, painstakingly tracing and tabulating all the evidence held within the manuscripts. Yet the tremendous technical analysis is, at times, a hindrance to seeing the overall picture. While Mikuła does attempt to provide readers with summations considering the overall importance of his findings, long stretches of the book focus on small differences between manuscripts. These differences are important to Mikuła’s argument, but they require the reader step back in order to see the larger picture. 

Mikuła provides numerous tables throughout the book. They are important in helping the reader comprehend the nuances and distinctions between manuscripts. For example, some tables demonstrate the divergences between manuscripts. Others are included to demonstrate the small differences in the texts of manuscripts. It is easy to get lost in the midst of so many manuscripts and the tables are a useful tool in orienting readers.

It is rare to find an academic monograph on the Middle Ages at an affordable price. Fortunately, this book is available to the world on Brill’s website thanks to Open Access publishing (  Due to the high price of physical copies ($173), it is likely that the physical copies of this book will be consulted far less than the digital copies.

Overall, Mikuła’s work is a meticulously researched study of a topic which has received little attention from scholars in the Anglophone world. However, the careful and technical analysis of the Weichbild texts is a barrier to general readers. This is a study for specialists. Legal historians studying medieval Germany and Poland will profit from it. It is unclear whether fields of study outside of those niches will as well.