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The Wolfenbüttel Mirror of Saxony
The most signifigant law book from the German Middle Ages
Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Library, Cod. Guelf. 3.1 Aug. 2°, Upper Saxonia, 3rd quarter of the 14th century

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. CXI

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The Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel (Mirror of the Saxons) is dated from the third quarter of the 14th century and is the youngest of four preserved illuminated manuscripts representing the most important German law book from the Middle Ages; the Sachsenspiegel. Only a small number of Codices come close to the outstanding quality of painted-drawings and the extensive breadth of traditional text found in the Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel. None the less even these Codices can not compare with the perfect preservation of intense colours and gold contained in these hand-painted pictures. With the finest text tradition and rich colour-endowed paintings, the Wolfenbütteler is without question, the most precious example of illustrated Codices of the Sachsenspiegels.

"Spegel der Sassen"

No other book has influenced the history of German law as much as the Sachsenspiegel. After centuries of being passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth alone, the deep rooted common laws of the Middle-Ages were finally placed for the first time in writing; thus was the birth of the Sachsenspiegels.
The author, Eike von Repgow wrote his work, not in the usual language of the educated peoples of the Middle-Ages (which was either greek or latin) but rather in the language of his native homeland in lower Germany. In so doing, he not only created the most important and lasting effectual work that remains today unsurpassed but also a work which represents the first prose written in the German language.
Eikes' masterpiece was able to counter the ever-growing feeling of legal insecurity of the times; the power struggles between the Staufern and Welfen families, between Kaiser and Pope and all played against a background of German colonisation in the Slavic settled areas. Given the enormity of social and political unrest, the only chance for peace and order was to have a written recording of all law that every person was to abide by. This was the driving force behind Eike von Repgows' recording; a written documentation of age-old norms passed down by the forefathers to ensure their preservation for future generations to come.


A Milestone in the History of German Law

Eikes text had an enormous spreading out of Saxony and it laid the foundation for the emergence of the "Deutschenspiegel" (Mirror of the Germans) and the "Schwabenspiegel" (Mirror of Schwabians) in southern Germany. These collections that were translated into Latin, Danish, Polish, Tschechenian, and Russian were then brought to the lower Rhine Valley, the Netherlands and spread as far as middle and eastern Europe.
This work had a powerful territorial effect covering an enormous time span and was, for this reason, held as the authoritative law book for the next seven centuries. By the end of the 19th century it was replaced by the Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch (Civil Law Book). As a source of law and also because of its' European dimension, the Sachsenspiegel has not to this day, lost its' fascination for the world.

Content of the Sachsenspiegel

The law book "Sachsenspiegel" addresses the knightly and rural populations of the Saxons and contains the laws of the land as well as laws of ownership i.e. the martial law of knights that had an enormous importance during the Middle-Ages.
In the prologue, the author conjures up the godly origins of the law – "God is the Law, this is why he holds it dear" – and all the people were called upon in his writing to not be led astray from this law "neither for love nor sorrow, rage nor gifts".
Following the prologue, the laws are separated into three books comprised of 255 articles pertaining to laws governing villages, neighbours, the family– and inheritance laws, constitutional laws, criminal law, constitutional laws of the court and procedural law.
The second main part of his work is contained in one book with 86 articles dealing with norms of ownership i.e. proportional ownership between feudal lord and his vassals (feudal system).

The Four Illustrated Manuscripts of the Sachsenspiegel

Over 450 preserved manuscripts and fragments in existence today show the extreme importance of the Sachsenspiegel in peoples public life during this time. Among them are found four especially brilliant pictorial codices with text throughout accompanied by splendid pictures that help to clarify the given text. The countless wealth of information about the rural and knightly daily life and the enormity of details regarding their everyday routine make these manuscripts a virtually inexhaustible source of knowledge for cultural history in general and also in particular during the Middle-Ages. The four codices derive their name from the places where they were stored. The Heidelburger illustrated manuscript dates from around 1300 - it is an assortment of 30 pages with 310 pictures and is maintained only in fragments. The Oldenburger Sachsenspiegel dated 1336, offers the most complete text of the four codices but still only 44 of the 578 hand-painted pictures remain preserved with intact colours. The rest contain only colourless outlines of figures and objects. However from an especially artistic point of view and value, the other two manuscripts are the most important. Both the Dresdner Codex (dated from the mid-14th century) and the Wolfenbüttleler Sachsenspiegel (emerging a short while later) containing hand-painted pictures of the highest quality depicting real-life scenes with animated facial expressions and gestures of figures as well as a rich amount of gold found throughout.

A Colourful Panorama of Middle-Age Life

776 painted pictures are laid out over 86 pages and unfold to the reader a splendid, colourful Panorama of the laws for everyday life in the 14th century. The paintings can be found on every page, on the left-hand side or beneath text where room allows. Since part of the painting envelops the first word in an accompanying text, the correlation between text and picture is easy to follow. Additionally the pictures are more than beautiful illustrations but also help to clarify and give a better understanding of the text.
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.


A Law Book as Luxurious Manuscript?

The extraordinary and gorgeous illuminations found on every page, richly-endowed with gold, the high quality lettering and majuscules (capitals) and the meticulous and consistent gothic text-design make the Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel a truly luxurious manuscript. However its main purpose was application of its content. This can be shown as well by the presence of holes, tears and irregularities found in the manuscript indicating the fact that use of the highest quality parchment was not of concern. In addition, the many darkened pages show repeated and frequent use of the book. We can therefore only assume that the Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel was intentionally made for a very important person who used the manuscript to serve its cause.


History of the Manuscript

The Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel most likely originated in the third quarter of the 14th century in upper Saxon. Sponsors writers and illuminators are not known, which is the case with most codices of the Middle-Ages. After the completion of the Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel and for the next 300 years, the fate of the manuscript remained and continues to remain a mystery. After this point it was acquired by Herzog August, the youngest son of the Braunschweig-Lüneburg family and the founder of the second and permanent library in Wolfenbüttel. The first caught mention of the elaborate manuscript is in Herzog Augusts hand-written "Bucherrad Katalog" (book catalog). The Herzog August Library remains to this day the permanent resting place of the original Wolfenbütteler Sachsenspiegel.

   
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