Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources


Magdeburg Law 1261
Northern Germany

In the thirteenth century a thick chain of cities in what is now Germany and middle-east and central Europe adopted a set of laws which in large part remained in force even up to the 19th century. The merchant families of these growing prosperous centers were obviously concerned with property rights, including marriage settlements. The model they drew upon was the one drawn up in Magdeburg in 1261.

1. When Magdeburg was founded the inhabitants were given such a charter as they wished. They determined that they would choose aldermen every year, who, on their election, should swear that they would guard the law, honor, and interests of the city to the best of their ability and with the advice of the wisest people of the city ....

14. If a man dies leaving a wife, she shall have no share in his property except what he has given her in court, or has appointed for her dower. She must have six witnesses, male or female, to prove her dower. If the man made no provision for her, her children must support her as long as she does not remarry. If her husband had sheep, the widow shall take them.

15. If a man and woman have children, some of whom are married and have received their marriage portion, and the man dies, the children who are still at home shall receive the inheritance. Those who have received their marriage portion shall have no part of [the inheritance]. Children who have received an inheritance shall not sell it without the consent of the heirs ....

18. No one, whether man or woman, shall, on his sick-bed, give away more than three shillings' worth of his property without the consent of his heirs, and the woman must have the consent of her husband.

55. 'When a man dies his wife shall give [to his heirs] his sword, his horse and saddle, and his best coat of mail. She shall also give a bed, a pillow, a sheet, a tablecloth, two dishes and a towel. Some say that she should give other things also, but that is not necessary. If she does not have these things, she shall not give them, but she shall give proof for each article that she does not have it.

56. If two or more children inherit these things, the oldest shall take the sword and they shall share the other things equally.

57. If the children are minors, the oldest male relative on the father's side, if he is of the same rank by birth, shall receive all these things and preserve them for the children. When they become of age, he shall give them to them, and in addition, all their property, unless he can prove that he has used it to their profit, or that it has been stolen or destroyed by some accident without any fault of his. He shall also be the guardian of the widow until she remarries, if he is of the same rank as she is.

58. After giving the above articles the widow shall take her dower and all that belongs to her; that is, all the sheep, geese, chests, yarn, beds, pillows, cushions, table linen, bed linen, towels, cups, candlesticks, linen, women's clothing, finger rings, bracelets, headdress, psalters, and all prayer-books, chairs, drawers, bureaus, carpets, curtains, etc., and there are many other trinkets which belong to her, such as brushes, scissors, and mirrors, but I do not mention them. But uncut cloth, and unworked gold and silver do not belong to her.

From: Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar H. McNeal, eds., A Source Book for Medieval History Charles Scribner's, 1907. And in Peter Stearns, ed. World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader, New York Univesity Press, 1998.

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