GHDI logo

Constitution [Schwörbrief] of the Imperial City of Strasbourg (1482)

This text is the final revision (valid until 1789) of Strasbourg's fundamental law. It documents the settlement of a common problem in medieval German urban history: the struggle for dominance between urban nobles (called “patricians”) and the leaders of merchant and craft guilds. At Strasbourg, the law [Schwörbrief] trod a middle way between the path of Nuremberg, where the crafts (something less than guilds) had no role in governance, and that of Basel, where nobles and wealthy merchants were excluded from the magistracies. At Strasbourg in 1482, the number of guilds was reduced from 28 to 20, a move that reflected both the peace attained between the nobles and the guild elite, and the combination (for practical reasons) of two or more old guilds into one new guild. The nobles and the guild representatives held one-third and two-thirds of the magistracies, respectively. This kind of sharing between nobles and guild elites – made possible by the cessation of the medieval guild revolts – was common in Imperial cities of the southern German lands. Also noteworthy is the relatively great power of the privy councils (in Strasbourg the XV and the XIII), whose members were co-opted for life. Strasbourg’s Schwörbrief functioned as a kind of civic charter or constitution. As such, it includes language about the obligations of citizens to the magistrates, of magistrates to the citizens, and of both to the commune. Each year in January, the magistrates and the burghers, the latter ordered by the guilds, gathered before the cathedral to renew their oath to abide by this agreement.

print version     return to document list last document in previous chapter      next document

page 1 of 4

[1] In the name of God, Amen. We, the masters, magistrates, knights, squires, burghers, crafts, and commune, rich and poor, of Strasbourg approve and confirm with this charter that we are in unanimous agreement and have established a common judgment [geriht]. We have done this to the praise of God and his estimable mother Mary, to the honor and welfare of the city of Strasbourg, and for the guidance and improvement of the poor and the rich. And this is the judgment. Namely, the council shall consist of thirty-one persons: in the first place, 10 patricians* and an ammeister from the guilds;** furthermore, 20 persons from the guilds. And when, during the first eight days [of the new year], before the old councilors leave office and when an entirely new council and ammeister have been selected, so that the new council shall be aware and know about the business handled and dealt with by the old council, half of the council shall stay in office each year.***

[2] Each year half of the council and the ammeister shall be selected according to the ordinance as follows. The Schöffen**** of each guild of a departing councilor shall assemble in their guildhall early in the morning on the Thursday after Epiphany, and there they shall elect another honorable, honest man from their guild in place of the departing one. And they shall select from among themselves the one whom, in accordance with their oaths and the laws, they believe to be most able and useful to the city of Strasbourg. Then the whole old council, both the patricians and the guildsmen who have been sitting that year, shall gather in the large, old council chamber in city hall, and there they shall elect to the council, in place of the departing patricians, other pious, honest men from among the knights, squires, and burghers,***** whom, in accordance with their oaths, they believe to be most able and useful to the city of Strasbourg. And from among the same patricians they shall elect two stettmeisters from the patrician societies to join the two who remain from the old council, and each of them shall be stettmeister for a quarter of a year and not longer.

[3] And if among the same stettmeisters or other patricians or guildsmen who sat on the old council, one or more has died, left the city, or become unsuitable for some other reason, on the same aforementioned Thursday others shall be elected, and they shall sit and remain on the council for one year in the places of those who have died, left the city, or become unsuitable for some other reason. Thereafter, the ten continuing councilors from the guilds shall go into the back room to join the ten who have been elected to the new council that morning, making all together twenty. These twenty councilors from the guilds shall then elect an able, honest, wise, prominent man as ammeister, whom they, according to their oaths, believe to be most honorable and useful to the city and the commune of Strasbourg. He shall be a guildsman, but he may not come from a guild that already has an old ammeister, nor anyone who has been ammeister within the past five years.

* From the 16th century on, the Roman term "patricians" was used to denote the urban nobles [constofeler] of Strasbourg. They were usually members of old, prestigious families of the untitled or "lesser" nobility, among whom the possession of a purchased charter of ennoblement [from the emperor] was no guarantee of social acceptance. In most towns, the nobles, formerly the city's sole rulers, came to have a reduced (sometimes even minority) share of public offices – trans.
** The office of ammeister was introduced during the guild revolts of the 14th century, and all ammeister [also called ammann] had to be guild members. Five of them were in office at any one time; the position of ruling ammeister – de facto head of the regime – rotated among them. The ceremonial head of the regime was the stettmeister. An older office reserved for patricians, the position of stettmeister rotated among four persons every three months – trans.
*** This clumsy formulation means that half of the council was renewed each year for two-year terms, after which a former magistrate was ineligible for one year. In Strasbourg, they apparently were selected by the ruling court [Zunftgericht] of the guild – trans.
**** Each of the twenty guilds was governed by a council of fifteen senior masters, called “Schöffen” – trans.
***** In Strasbourg, the word "burgher" could have the usual, general meaning of a member of the commune, and it could also refer to wealthy non-nobles who stood socially somewhere between the patricians and the guildsmen, but who had been admitted to the patrician societies – trans.

first page < previous   |   next > last page