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1278 - The Colmar civil rights charter

Koifhus ColmarA more arduous document than this charter, dated back to 29 December 1278, would be hard to find. It was signed by Rudolph of Hapsburg, who was in Vienna at the time. The initial impression is of a list of 44 prescriptions, without any logical order and drawn from penal law, private law and procedures. The document is, however, of prime importance for the history of the city. The Freiheitsbrief, laid down the laws to consolidate the city´s position and give some structure to the relations between the inhabitants. It was the first act to put the law down in writing and to go into detail on points which previously relied on prior privilege, but which had never been actually set out.

The document was written in German and aimed to strengthen the city´s autonomy. It made the burghers masters of their own destiny, with the right to draw up legislation in the interests of the city. The Schultheiss held executive power, but its incumbent had to be a burgher from Colmar and reside in the city of Colmar. This condition effectively removed any "foreign" takeover of the city, at least as far as the law was concerned.

The charter also gave the burghers of Colmar the right to own fiefs, which had previously been the exclusive privilege of the nobility, thereby removing a barrier between nobles and commoners. Any man, even a serf, could become a burgher. The lord had a year to lay claim on the serf and once the year was up, the serf became a free man, according to the adage Stadtluft macht frei. Noble burghers, serving the king, did not have to pay tax. Others, the Uzburger, or outside burghers, did not have to reside permanently in the city. The Council and the Schultheiss appointed two citizens of proven integrity, chosen from the bourgeoisie, to check weights and measures. This decision had a significant impact on the food (corn, flour, wine) and trade (gold, silver) sectors.

The penal provisions provide first-hand evidence of

the judicial and moral climate reigning in the city at

the time, with their archaic and sometimes genuinely violent undertones. Any murder within Colmar was to be punished by decapitation and the demolition of the guilty party´s house. Judicial duelling was common, but restricted to burghers. No one from outside the civic boundaries could challenge a burgher to a duel. "Lex talionis", or "an eye for an eye", was legally recognised. These are just a few examples from the document, which was considered so important that it was used as the basis for charters that the Hapsburg princes would grant to other towns and cities, such as Delle,

Ensisheim, Kaysersberg, Mulhouse, Munster and Turckheim and, outside Alsace, Aarau, Neuchatel, Petit-Bâle, Porrentruy and Fribourg in Brisgau.