The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
The Law (En)acted: Performative Space in the Town Hall of Lüneburg
Charles G. Nelson and Madeline H. Caviness, Tufts University

There was no tradition of dedicated space for law courts before the fourteenth century, indeed they were often situated in church porches or even outdoors. It is a predictable coincidence that the phase of textualizing the law (as in Eike’s Sachsenspiegel), and of imaging it in sumptuous books that might have been used for demonstration purposes, coincided with the provision of fixed interior spaces for legal hearings. Apart from practicalities, these are parallel advances in the formation of a discourse of authoritative law.

The building history and records of use for the Town Hall of the Hanseatic city of Lüneberg have received a good deal of attention from historians, yet closure on the question whether any spaces were planned and used for legal hearings has not been a pressing issue for other scholars. We base our conclusions on a through reconsideration of the records, comparison with other sites, and a notion of the law court as performative space.

A large vaulted chamber, variously known in modern times as the old Council Chamber (Ratsaal) or Court Room (Gerichtslaube), has three spectacular windows of about 1400 with the “Nine Worthies,” prophets, and local arms. There is a record of payment in 1434 for glass for “unser heren zale”-- our dignitaries’ room -- at which time additions were made to the glazing. The decoration was again supplemented in the fifteenth century by a Last Judgment flanked by the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, painted on the vaults of the bays that form a narthex opening into the chamber. A chimneypiece gives a palatial aura to the room, an amenity suitable for court or council, and similar seating arrangements could be used for hearings of either kind. Opening off this chamber is another heated room, an intimate paneled chamber with shelves, benches and a single window, that seems to have been used as a place to consult written authority. This room was added in 1491 and glazed with portraits of four burgomasters of the time (hence called the Bürgermeister-Körkammer).

It is notable in this secular setting that all the inscriptions in these various pictorial programs are in Latin rather than the mother tongue, and that this is emphatically a man’s world. If legal hearings took place in the “heren zale” of Lüneburg, the sequential layers of decoration of the room would have inflected the performative aspect of the law. They develop a dialogic relationship with the prefaces to the Sachsenspiegel, an imposing manuscript of which is in fact preserved in the town archives of Lüneberg. Whatever business was conducted against this backdrop was surely in the vernacular, but it derived its authority from the setting. Similarly, we believe Eike von Repgow had tried to overcome the stigma of compiling the law in German by employing the topos of a (fictional) Latin source. The Nine Worthies are comprised of three Christian leaders, three ancient heroes, and three kings from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Overall, Jewish figures are present in sufficient numbers in the glass to provide any Jew called before the court with a dignified performative identification, whereas women and the poor would find themselves “unrepresented.”

The history of the buildings that comprised the town Hall of Lüneburg is complex, and late records refer to a market court that was in use for trial of the most severe crimes. At Breslau in 1343-47, a squarish court room was added in the angle between a long burgher’s hall and a smaller council room, communicating with the latter by a narrow door; apparently it enclosed the space in the market square where an open-air court had sat. It had three windows on the market side, and since it was close to ground level it had its own door with steps down to the square. It seems that the courtrooms of fourteenth-century Germany were not entirely removed from the streets to palatial settings in the piano nobile of the town halls, but such chambers provided an alternative that was at once decorous and imposing. Hearings concerning matters such as inheritance or control of herds could proceed calmly, beyond the hurly-burly of the street. The market court, on the other hand, was not only proximate to the mud and mire of the market, but criminals would be subject to the stares and derision of a mob, if one chose to form.

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