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Bamberg Criminal Code of 1507 – Pic of the Week

The first striking image in a 1508 Mainz edition of the Bamberger Halsgerichtsordnung [Photo by Donna Sokol]

On Monday, I had the pleasure of assembling a display of rare books for guests attending the 2017 Burton Awards ceremony held at the Library of Congress.  Created by Williams C. Burton, the awards acknowledge, celebrate, and reward outstanding achievements in the legal field, including for legal writing, regulatory reform and public service. The display included a number of sixteenth century books, all of them heavily illustrated. One of the items that appeared in the display is the subject of this post, the Bamberger Halsgerichtsordnung, the Bamberg Criminal Code of 1507.

The Bamberger Halsgerichtsordnung was an important milestone in the history of German criminal law. It represented an advance in the direction of the rule of law in a number of respects. It included a clear statement of substantive criminal law along with a precise account of the specific penalties that were appropriate to each crime. It also presented in concise language the rules for criminal procedure. Both of these features were crafted so that judges who were not trained lawyers would easily be able to understand and apply the rules in the book. (The author of the work, Johann Freiherr zu Schwarzenberg (1463-1528)—although a rising star in the management of the bishopric of Bamberg—was also not a trained lawyer). By combining both of these features in a single slim volume, the work considerably reduced the chance for arbitrary proceedings and punishments. The author also took great care to establish clear rules for the use of evidence. Physical evidence was not sufficient to sustain a conviction. The prosecution was obliged to introduce the testimony of a private person, someone not employed by the state. Confession remained the most important evidence for securing a conviction, but torture, which was the method typically used to extract a confession, could only be used under certain narrow, predetermined circumstances; and confessions obtained by torture could be rendered invalid if the defendant recanted within twenty-four hours.

An interrogation underway in an illustration from a 1508 Mainz edition of the Bamberger Halsgerichtsordnung [Photo by Donna Sokol]

As the use of  torture evidently suggests, the work was not an advance toward humane treatment of criminal defendants. Nevertheless, its excellence and convenience attracted interest all over the Holy Roman Empire. It served as a model for the 1516 criminal code for the principality of Brandenburg-Ansbach which in turn saw many later editions. It was also used as the basis of Emperor Charles V’s reformed criminal code, the 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, which became the first code of criminal law and criminal procedure to be applied uniformly throughout the empire.

The Bamberger Halsgerichtsordung was first printed in Bamberg in 1507 by Hans Pfeil. Additional editions soon followed, with three editions produced in Mainz in 1508 (one of which is depicted in the images in this post) and others in 1510, 1531, 1538, 1543 and 1580. The revised edition of 1580 was reprinted in 1694 and 1738. In Mainz, the Bamberger Halsgerichtsordung was published three times in 1508, then again in 1510, 1531, 1538 and 1543. In 1580, a revised edition followed in Bamberg, which was reprinted in 1694 and 1738. Modern facsimile editions are also available.

A view of a sixteenth century murder investigation [Photo by Donna Sokol]


[Photo by Donna Sokol]

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