Higher Court of German Law

In the 13th and 14th centuries, many Polish towns and villages were founded on German law. The political organization of Magdeburg was a particularly popular model. The towns founded on the Magdeburg law, including Cracow, were obliged not only to establish a self-governing body, but - first of all - to organize a judiciary that would comply with the Magdeburg legal system since any disputable matters were settled in the Magdeburg court, which functioned as the Court of Appeal. King Casimir the Great (1333-1370), who codified the Polish law and wanted to secure independence for the Polish municipal judiciary from the decisions taken in Magdeburg, established the Higher Court of German Law at the Royal Castle in 1356. It functioned as a Court of Appeal from the verdicts of municipal courts (the so-called liege court), particularly for the town and village administrators (the so-called wójtowie and sołtysi). It should be added that the Court of German Law had already existed as the royal court for several dozen years. Nevertheless, in 1356, after having the organization and range of its influence determined by the king, the Court acquired a new rank and it became the highest common court.

In practice, the influence of the court was restricted to Little Poland (Małopolska), though it occassionally reached beyond its borders. It must be mentioned that there were many eminent lawyers participating in the work of the Higher Court, who made their own contribution to the development and evolution of the municipal law in Poland.

The range of the court's influence became more limited with the passage of time, and its role noticeably diminished, until in 1791, after the Constitution of May 3rd and a new codification of laws was passed by the Seym (the Polish parliament), it ceased its activity altogether.

KJL

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The oldest stamp of the Higher Court of German Law at Wawel Castle. It comes from the 1350s and shows the Eagle, the emblem of the Polish state (APKr, ref. no T 91. Photo: RM)
"Farrago iuris civilis Maideburgensis", or a compendium of the Magdeburg Law from c. 1490; a manuscript written on hand-made paper decorated with beautiful initials (APKr, ref. no SWPM I-5. Photo: RM)