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The Oldenburg Mirror of Saxony
Fascinating miniatures about the history of German law
Hannover, Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung, Cod. pict. Old., Monastery of Rastede (Germany), 1336



Further Pictures


Available as Vol. 15 of the series "Glanzlichter der Buchkunst"

The group of ”Mirrors of Saxony” belongs to the earliest works of medieval legal literature. Among more than 400 manuscripts and fragments of this type, the Oldenburg Mirror of Saxony constitutes a particular rarity, as it is one of a very few illustrated manuscripts whose illustrations are condensed in a special picture column and the only example of an illustrated text on territorial and feudal law.
The significance of the Oldenburg Mirror of Saxony resides also in its immense value as a source of cultural history. Language, jurisdiction and popular culture, things that have been a part of our everyday lives, become tangible, showing plainly how our generation is rooted in a long gone past.
The Oldenburg Mirror of Saxony contains records of applied law which is no longer written in one of the classical languages of the educated classes, Greek or Latin, but in the vernacular. The text was transcribed by Eike von Repgov from an original Latin version (now lost) into Middle Low German and copied by the Benedictine monk Hinrik Gloyesten in 1336 on the initiative of count John III of Oldenburg in the Abbey of Rastede.

One of the earliest works of medieval specialist literature

When John III ordered the recording of law, he intended to counter the increasing tendency to uncertainty in legal matters in his country. The committing to paper of formerly unwritten Saxon customary law was meant to meet the need for securing law and order in this uncertain period. In this respect, the integration of concrete, customary norms into a universal Christian view of the world was a priority.
The fact that true Christian convictions were a matter of debate, is best exemplified in the Mirror of Saxony: in a bill of 1374, pope Gregory XI condemned 14 articles of the Mirror as heretical.
The title of ”Mirror” was chosen for this book of law because, like the mirror literature of the Middle Ages, it reflected part of the Christian conception of the world which had an exemplary character for a certain domain of life, in this case the legal domain.

A unique textbook

The Oldenburg Mirror of Saxony was destined for educational purposes and is of a didactic character, as its pictures and illustrations functioned as mnemonic technical aids. It describes all aspects of contemporary law, both the territorial and the feudal law in force at that period. The duties and rights of the individual within certain social circles, unmistakably phrased and enforced by religious and secular courts, form the starting point from which all further details are treated. The reader is thus instructed in legal matters in a very impressive manner.
The instructive contents are supported by illustrations which are executed with great craftsmanship to accompany the text in a previously laid out picture column. These are either lavishly coloured or simply outlined pen drawings. From folio 87, the illustration is interrupted and the picture strip remains empty whereas the text is decorated with numerous initials throughout.
The script used for the Oldenburg codex is a Gothic textura, which was common for manuscripts of quality decoration. The script is of good and regular quality over long passages, thus betraying the hand of an experienced and carefully working scribe. The text is in general very readable because of its broad ductus.
In an essential aspect, the illustrations go well beyond the text: besides the typological patterns from which all medieval picture compositions are derived, they contain a wealth of details concerning everyday life of that period. The faithful and detailed depicting of clothes, utensils, arms, exterior and interior architecture as well as the poses and gestures of the figures in this code of law offer an inexhaustible source for research into medieval everyday culture.

The commentary volume

A text volume encompassing the full transcription of the Middle Low German text and a translation by Werner Peters and Wolfgang Wallbraun accompanies the facsimile edition. It also comprises a codicological and palaeographic introduction by Wolfgang Milde. The comprehensive scholarly commentary was edited by Ruth Schmidt-Wiegand on the initiative of the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung, Hanover and contains articles by reputed researchers who explain the manuscript and its background in all detail.

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