Magdeburg law

Magdeburg law. The legal code adopted in medieval times by the city of Magdeburg and copied by many municipalities in Germany and Eastern and Central Europe, including Ukraine and Belarus. The code was based on the compilations of Germanic law (the Sachsenspiegel) and showed little influence of Roman law. It combined norms of customary law with various municipal regulations.

Magdeburg law (ML) was brought to Ukraine by German colonists (see Germans). King Danylo Romanovych and his successors granted them the right to establish their own judicial and administrative institutions and to use their own law. When Ukrainian territories were annexed by Lithuania and Poland, the right to use ML was granted by Polish kings or Lithuanian grand dukes. The first cities to receive ML included Volodymyr-Volynskyi (before 1324), Sianik (1339), Lviv (before 1352), Kamianets-Podilskyi (1374), and Brest (1390). In the 15th and 16th centuries several towns of Right-Bank Ukraine received it, including Kyiv (1494). Originally, ML applied only to the German inhabitants of the town. It was extended to all the residents of a town for the first time in Sianik, by Yurii II Boleslav.

Initially, the appointed viit (mayor) held much power in cities under ML, but eventually the cities purchased his power for themselves. The magistrat from then on was composed of an elected viit, two burmistry (see Burmister), and a body of raitsi (see Raitsa). New members of the magistrat were co-opted. In a few instances the viit and lava court members were elected, and then the magistrat members were chosen from among the court members. Judicial authority was shared by the magistrat and lava court: their powers were not always distinctly defined. The lava courts were usually responsible for criminal matters. The magistrat’s unrestricted power often led to an abuse of power by the city oligarchy. To protect the public against abuses, the king sometimes set up competing bodies representing the interests of the general population; eg in 1577 King Stephen Báthory established the izba gminna in Lviv to represent the broad spectrum of city residents and to advise the magistrat.

According to the first royal charters, the magistrats in towns governed by ML were to be composed of both Polish (Catholic) and Ukrainian (Orthodox) representatives. The Poles, however, often pushed the Ukrainians out of the city councils. In Kamianets-Podilskyi there were three separate national jurisdictions: Ukrainian, Polish, and Armenian. Only a few Ukrainian cities, including Lviv, Kyiv, and Kamianets-Podilskyi, enjoyed the full rights of ML. Most towns had only partial rights; eg, their viit or starosta remained independent of the magistrat. In these towns, magistrat and burmistry were elected. The Lviv magistrat acted as an appellate court for other cities of Galicia.

The Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 guaranteed the rights of the Ukrainian cities governed by ML. The following cities in the Hetman state enjoyed ML: Kyiv, Chernihiv, Pereiaslav, Starodub, Nizhyn, Oster, Kozelets, Pohar, Pochep, Mglin, Novhorod-Siverskyi, and Poltava. Most of them received ML during the Polish-Lithuanian period, and the hetmans confirmed their rights. The rest obtained ML from the hetmans or the Russian tsars. The cities of the Hetman state usually had only some of the rights of ML: appeals of the decisions of city courts were heard by regimental courts and from 1730 by the General Military Court, and the regimental starshyna interfered in municipal affairs and limited the autonomy of the cities. However, some towns without ML acquired certain trappings and privileges of ML. Municipal self-government declined at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, as Ukraine lost its autonomy and was absorbed into the Russian Empire. In 1831, the tsar finally abolished ML in all the cities except Kyiv, where it remained in force until 1835. In Western Ukraine it was abolished by Joseph II in 1786.

The institution of ML in Ukraine promoted the formation of a distinct social estate out of the urban population (see Burghers). Although its influence was not as strong as in Western Europe, ML did introduce certain characteristics of Western city life into Ukraine and played an important role in bringing Ukrainian culture and law closer to European developments.

The main sources of ML in Western Ukraine and the Hetman state were 16th-century Polish translations of German and Latin codes done by P. Szczerbic and B. Groicki. In the second half of the 17th and in the early 18th century these codes were translated into Ukrainian. City courts relied not only on these codes but also on the Lithuanian Statute and on local customary law. The Code of Laws of 1743 provided for municipal self-government based on ML, but it did not come into force. ML was increasingly replaced by the Lithuanian Statute in the 18th century.

Many historians and jurists have studied ML in Ukraine, including Volodymyr Antonovych, Mikhail Vladimirsky-Budanov, Oleksander Kistiakovsky, Oleksander Lazarevsky, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Dmytro Bahalii, Mykola Vasylenko, Fedir Taranovsky, Dmytro Doroshenko, and Andrii Yakovliv. In general, Hrushevsky and Vladimirsky-Budanov pointed to the negative consequences of ML, while Antonovych, Bahalii, and Yakovliv noted its positive influence on Ukraine's legal and social traditions. From the 1930s Soviet historians paid little attention to ML and were usually critical of its influence on the development of Ukrainian cities. (For further bibliography, see also Germanic law.)

Rozvidky pro mista i mishchanstvo na Ukraïni-Rusy v XV–XVIII vv., 2 vols (Lviv 1904)
Klymenko, P. ‘Misto i terytoriia na Ukraïni za chasiv Het’manshchyny (1654–1767 rr.),’ ZIFV, 7–8 (1926)
Padokh, Ia. Mis’ki sudy na Ukraïni-Het’manshchyni pislia 1648 r. (Munich 1948)
Kul’chyts’kyi, V. Kodyfikatsiia prava na Ukraïni u XVIII st. (Lviv 1958)
Tkach, A. Istoriia kodyfikatsiï dorevoliutsiinoho prava Ukraïny (Kyiv 1968)

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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