The Sachsenspiegel (German: ['zaksnpi:?l?] ; Middle Low German: Sassen Speyghel; modern Low German: Sassenspegel; all literally "Saxon Mirror") is the most important law book and custumal of the Holy Roman Empire. Originating between 1220 and 1235 as a record of existing customary law, it was used in places until as late as 1900. It is important not only for its lasting effect on later German law but also as an early example of written prose in a German language. The Sachsenspiegel is the first comprehensive law book not in Latin, but in Middle Low German. A Latin edition is known to have existed, but only fragmented chapters remain.
The Sachsenspiegel was one of the first prose works written in the Middle Low German language. The original title is Sassen Speyghel, Sachsenspiegel being a later Standard German translation. It is believed to have been compiled and translated from Latin by the Saxon administrator Eike of Repgow at the behest of his liege lord Count Hoyer of Falkenstein in the years 1220 to 1235. Where the original was compiled is unclear. It was thought to have been written at Burg Falkenstein, but Peter Landau, an expert in medieval canon law, recently suggested that it may have been written at the monastery of Altzelle (now Altzella).
During the 14th century, Johannes Klenkok opposed the Sachsenspiegel with a writing known as the Decadicon because he considered several articles of the law book to contradict the Corpus Juris Canonici. Following a written debate, Klenkok turned to his former disciple, French canonist, and cardinal of the Curia in Avignon, Pierre de la Vergne. In the end, Pope Gregory XI condemned 14 articles with his papal bull Salvator Humani Generis that was issued in 1374, but this did not reduce the success of the Sachsenspiegel.
The Sachsenspiegel served as a model for law books in German (Middle High German) like the Augsburger Sachsenspiegel, the Deutschenspiegel, and the Schwabenspiegel. Its influence extended into Eastern Europe, the Netherlands, and the Baltic States.
In Prussia, the Sachsenspiegel was used until the introduction of the Allgemeines Landrecht für die preußischen Staaten in 1794. In Saxony, it was used until the introduction of the Saxon Civil Code in 1865. In Anhalt and Thuringia, the Sachsenspiegel was not replaced until the introduction of the German Civil Code in 1900. Its precedents continued to be cited as pertinent case law as recently as 1932 by the Reichsgericht (Supreme Court of the Reich) (RGZ 137, 373).
The influence of the Sachsenspiegel, or at least parallels with it, can still be found in modern German law, for instance in inheritance law and the law of neighborly relations (Nachbarrecht; e.g., nuisance, party walls, etc.).
The Sachsenspiegel contains two branches of law: common law and feudal law.
Saxon customary law, or Landrecht, was the law of free people including the peasant sokemanry. It contains important rules and regulations concerning property rights, inheritance, marriage, the delivery of goods, and certain torts (e.g. trespass, nuisance). It also treats criminal law and the composition of courts. In other words, it deals with criminal and civil law.
Feudal law, or Lehnrecht, determined the relationship between different states and rulers, for example the election of emperors and kings, feudal rights, etc. Though it has no modern equivalent, it encompasses what one would call today public law.
The Sachsenspiegel acquired special significance through its exposition of the seven Heerschilde or "shields of knighthood":
Manorial tenants and burgesses (inhabitants of a borough) were not mentioned.
Four (of the original seven) illuminated manuscripts copies are still extant. They are named after their present locations: Heidelberg, Oldenburg, Dresden, and Wolfenbüttel, and date from 1295 to 1371. In total, over 400 versions of the manuscript exist today.
The Dresden manuscript has been described as the "most artistically valuable" by the World Digital Library. It is located in the collection of the Saxon State Library and was created between 1295 and 1363 around Meissen, Germany. This version has 924 illustrations on 92 pages. The illustrations depict about 4,000 people. It suffered water damage after the Bombing of Dresden in World War II and underwent restoration in the 1990s.
Some German proverbs date from the Sachsenspiegel:
Mit dem Sachsenspiegel] schuf Eike von Repchow nicht nur eines der ersten deutschen Rechtsbücher neben dem Mühlhäuser Rechtsbuch nach des Reiches Recht, sondern das erste deutsche Prosawerk überhaupt.