The Golden Bull is an imperial code written in document form that was the most important of the “fundamental laws” of the Holy Roman Empire from 1356 onward. It mainly regulated the modalities of the election and coronation of the Roman-German kings and emperors by the electors until the end of the Old Empire in 1806.
The name refers to the gold-worked seals attached to six of the seven copies of the document; however, it did not become common until the 15th century. Charles IV, during whose reign the law, written in Latin, was promulgated, called it our imperial law book.
The first 23 chapters are known as the Nuremberg Code and were drafted in Nuremberg and promulgated on January 10, 1356, at the Nuremberg Court Day. Chapters 24 to 31 are known as the Metz Code and were promulgated in Metz on December 25, 1356, at the Metz Court Day.
The Golden Bull is the most important constitutional document of the medieval empire. In 2013, it was declared a World Documentary Heritage, with the corresponding obligations for Germany and Austria.
Originally, it was not the task of medieval rulers to create new law in the sense of a legislative process. From the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, however, the view increasingly prevailed that the king and future emperor was to be regarded as the source of ancient law and thus also had a legislative function. This resulted from the fact that the empire placed itself in the tradition of the ancient Roman emperorship (→ Translatio imperii, Restauratio imperii) and from the increasing influence of Roman law on legal opinions in the empire.
Accordingly, Louis IV (he was entitled to create law and interpret laws. Charles IV took this legislative competence for granted when he issued the Golden Bull. Nevertheless, the late medieval emperors largely dispensed with this instrument of power.
After returning from his campaign in Italy (1354-1356), Charles IV convened a court conference in Nuremberg. During this campaign, Charles had been crowned emperor in Rome on April 5, 1355. At the Court Day, fundamental matters were to be discussed with the princes of the empire. Charles was primarily concerned with stabilizing the structures of the empire after there had been repeated power struggles over the kingship. Such unrest was to be precluded in the future by a precise regulation of the succession to the throne and the election procedure. The emperor and the electors quickly agreed on this point. The rejection of the pope”s right to have a say in the election of the German king was also largely agreed. On other points Charles bought the agreement of the princes, but he was unable to push through several plans to strengthen the central power of the empire. On the contrary, he had to make concessions to the princes regarding their power in the territories and at the same time secured many privileges in his own center of rule, Bohemia. The result of the Nuremberg deliberations was solemnly proclaimed on January 10, 1356. This body of law, later called the “Golden Bull,” was expanded and supplemented at another court day in Metz at the end of 1356. Accordingly, the two parts are also referred to as the Nuremberg and Metz Codes, respectively.
However, the court did not reach decisions on all the issues that Charles wanted to regulate. For example, only a few decisions were made on the land peace issue, and the Rhenish electors were able to prevent a decision on questions of coinage, escort and customs.
On the whole, the Golden Bull did not create any new law in large part, but set down those procedures and principles that had emerged in the election of kings over the previous hundred years.
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Election of the king and emperor
On the one hand, the “imperial law book” regulated in detail the modalities of the election of the king. The right to do so lay solely with the electors. The Archbishop of Mainz, as Chancellor for Germany, had to convene the electors in Frankfurt am Main within 30 days of the death of the last king in order to elect the successor in St. Bartholomew”s Church, today”s cathedral. The electors had to take an oath to make their decision “without any secret agreement, reward or remuneration”. On the other hand, the elected person received all the rights not only of a king, but also of the future emperor.
Voting was by rank:
The rights and duties of the electors in the election of the king were sealed comprehensively and permanently. The election of the king was thus also formally detached from the consent of the pope, as already declared in the Electorate of Rhense, and the new king was granted full sovereign rights. An essential innovation of the Golden Bull was that for the first time ever the king was elected with the votes of the majority and did not depend on the consent of all (electoral) princes as a whole. However, in order to avoid the existence of a first- or second-class king, it had to be pretended that the minority abstained from the vote, so that in the end “all had agreed”. A king could be elected from among the electors with his own vote.
Although the ceremony of coronation as emperor by the pope was retained in principle, this actually took place last in the case of Charles V. His predecessor Maximilian I had already been calling himself “Elect Roman Emperor” since 1508 with the consent of the pope. Instead of the coronation in Aachen, from 1562, beginning with Maximilian II up to Emperor Francis II in 1792, almost all coronations took place in Frankfurt Cathedral after the election.
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Moreover, the Golden Bull established an annual assembly of all electors, where consultations with the emperor were to take place. The bull forbade alliances of any kind, with the exception of land peace unions, as well as stilt bourgeoisie (citizens of a city who possessed city rights but lived outside the city).
The Golden Bull regulated the immunity of the electors as well as the inheritance of this title. In addition, an elector received the right to mint coins, customs rights, the right to exercise unlimited jurisdiction, and the duty to protect the Jews against payment of protection money (Judenregal).
The territories of the electors were declared indivisible territories in order to avoid that the electoral votes could be divided or had to be increased, which implied that the successor in the electoral dignity among the secular electors was always the first-born legitimate son. The actual aim of this bull was to prevent succession feuds as well as the installation of counter-kingdoms. This was finally achieved.
The second part of the bull, the “Metz Code,” dealt in particular with protocol issues, tax collection, and penalties for conspiracies against electors. According to it, the sons and heirs of the electors were to be taught the German, Latin, Italian and Czech languages.
The Golden Bull documents, formalizes and codifies a practice and development towards territorialization that had developed over centuries. The establishment of both secular and ecclesiastical sovereignties from about the 11th to the 14th century and, in parallel, the gradual loss of power of the king in the course of territorialization are codified. Norbert Elias speaks with regard to this long-term development of the conflict between “central power” and the “centrifugal forces” in the course of the development from the feudal association of persons to the administrative-legal state.
The privileges of the electors, which had evolved over time and had become established in quasi customary law, were codified:
Due to the extensive sovereignty of the individual territories, no central state arose in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, as for example in England or France, which rules from a powerful monarchical court and thus a political and cultural center. There is no linguistic uniformity and standardization, but the respective territories retain their regiolects and develop largely autonomously. The territories build their own universities, which teach independently and have an important function in bringing in special “provincial officials.” Territorialization progresses in the following centuries; in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the division of Germany into independent territories is sealed, and the central power loses even more authority until it is also formally ended in 1806.
To this day, Germany is a federal state in which the Länder exert considerable political influence.
Usually bulls are made of lead, only on very special occasions and in small numbers there are bulls made of gold, which therefore represent an extraordinary importance and preciousness. The obverse and reverse of the 6 cm wide and 0.6 cm high bulls are made of gold plate. The obverse shows the emperor enthroned with orb and scepter, flanked by the (single-headed) imperial eagle on the right and the Bohemian lion on the left. The inscription reads: + KAROLVS QVARTVS DIVINA FAVENTE CLEMENCIA ROMANOR(UM) IMPERATOR SEMP(ER) AVGVSTVS (Charles IV, By the Grace of God, Roman Emperor, at all times Major of the Empire). In the seal field is written: ET BOEMIE REX (and King of Bohemia). The reverse shows a stylized image of the city of Rome, on the portal is written: AVREA ROMA (Golden Rome). The circumscription reads: + ROMA CAPVT MVNDI, REGIT ORBIS FRENA ROTVNDI (Rome, the head of the world, directs the reins of the earth”s circle).
Seven copies of the Golden Bull are preserved today. There is no evidence that there were any other copies beyond these. All copies consist of two parts: the first, consisting of the chapters 1-23 decided at the Nuremberg Diet, and the second with the laws of Metz in chapters 24-31. Due to the volume, the copies do not have the appearance of documents, but are bound libellae. It is noteworthy that the Saxon and Brandenburg electors, probably for lack of money, have waived their own copy.
The Bohemian copy is now in the Austrian State Archives in Vienna, Department of House, Court and State Archives. It comes from the imperial chancellery, whereby only the first part is a sealed copy with a gold bull; the second part is an unsealed copy of an earlier second part of the Bohemian copy, which, however, was probably only a concept. Already between 1366 and 1378 the copy was bound together with the first part.
The Mainz copy is also in the Austrian State Archives in Vienna, Department Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv. It comes from the imperial chancellery. The gold seal and the sealing cord no longer exist.
The Cologne copy is in the University and State Library of Darmstadt. The scribe is unknown, perhaps it was a contract scribe.
The Palatine copy, also from the imperial chancellery, is now in the Bavarian Main State Archives.
In the case of the Trier copy in the Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart, which comes from the imperial chancellery, the bull with the remains of the silk cord is only loosely enclosed.
The Frankfurt copy is a copy of the original Bohemian copy, so the second part has the same original as the second part of the present Bohemian copy. It is located in the Institute of City History in the Carmelite Monastery, the former Frankfurt City Archives. It is a copy at the expense of the city, since the latter, in connection with the rights guaranteed to it in the election of the king and the first Imperial Diet, had an interest in a complete copy. Although it is a copy in character, it had the same legal status as the other copies.
The Nuremberg copy, which is kept in the Nuremberg State Archives, is sealed only with a wax seal and not with a gold seal. It is a copy of the present Bohemian copy and was made between 1366 and 1378.
In addition to these seven originals, there are numerous copies (also in German) and later prints, each of which is based on one of these originals. Particularly noteworthy is the magnificent manuscript of King Wenceslas dating from 1400 (see picture above), which is now in the Austrian National Library.
It was possible to locate 174 copies of the Golden Bull from the late Middle Ages and at least twenty other textual witnesses from modern times, which increase the number of copies named in the latest edition by more than a quarter. Most of the Latin copies follow the Bohemian copy of the Golden Bull. The others follow for the most part the Palatine version; only a few pieces can be attributed to the Mainz or Cologne versions and only very isolated copies to the Trier version. The background for this is, first, the Roman-German kingship and emperorship of the Luxembourg and Habsburg dynasties; second, the long-standing claims of the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty to the electoral dignity, which had passed over in violation of the internal Wittelsbach house treaty of Pavia; and third, the fact that the copies for Frankfurt and Nuremberg are diplomatic copies of the Bohemian version and thus indirectly contributed to its wider distribution. The copies come from the Rhineland, the southwest, Franconia and later Switzerland, from the Wittelbach and Habsburg south and the Bohemian southeast, as well as from the Margraviate of Brandenburg, Prussia and Livonia, and cities in Saxony, Thuringia and Westphalia. Other duplicates come from the chancery of the French kings, from the Kingdom of Norway and the Margraviate of Moravia, from the port city of Venice and from the Roman Curia.
Most of the copies were made between 1435 and 1475. The first Latin duplicates were made in the late 14th century in the chancelleries of the Electors of Cologne, Mainz and Bohemia and the Burgraves of Nuremberg. The well-known splendid edition for King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia was produced shortly after 1400. It was followed in the 15th century by copies for the Duke of Brabant, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Archbishop of Trier and the Habsburg Emperor. Duplicates can also be expected for the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty, the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order and the Saxon Wettins. Other recipients of Latin editions were high clerics such as the bishops of Eichstätt and Strasbourg or prominent members of the Roman Curia. The lower clergy and the patriciate are also found to be users of Latin collections.
Bilingual copies existed mainly on the Middle and Upper Rhine, but also in Franconia. All French versions originate from the imperial city of Metz. They can only be traced back to the end of the 15th century. Much younger is the only Spanish translation, which belongs to the 18th century. Translations into Dutch and Italian date from the printing age. A Czech translation probably does not exist because there was already no need for it in Bohemia in the 15th century.
A total of five phases of reception can be distinguished. During the reign of Charles IV, the empire and the territories were at the forefront of interpretation. The Golden Bull was primarily understood as a collection of privileges or even as an overall privilege. Provisions on feud and the immunity of the Courland were caught in the crossfire of criticism. During the Great Western Schism, the Golden Bull was usually interpreted as an imperial decree. The text was now interpreted with regard to the election of the king in Frankfurt, which was understood as an imperial elevation without taking into account the papal claims to approval. The competing claims to power of the kings Wenceslas and Ruprecht represented the current political background for this. Under Ruprecht, not only the emperor but also the electors were taken into consideration, since the Golden Bull was seen as a warning to the electors. This corresponded to their increased share in imperial affairs. In the reign of Sigismund, the Golden Bull became the focus of interest as an imperial law. At the latest since the Council of Constance, the quaternions presented all estates as full members of the empire, thus modifying the dualism of emperor and electors. During this phase, the emperor was seen primarily as the highest judge, peacemaker, bailiff of the church and protector of the law. The historical background for this was the reform of the church and the empire.
After the election of Frederick III, the Golden Bull became increasingly synonymous with imperial law, but the imperial coronation also regained importance for the Habsburgs. The cure at Frankfurt, which was to have a decisive influence on the modern view of the Golden Bull, and the mutual relationship between the two universal powers, on which the Protestant debate about the Golden Bull in particular was ignited, even became the subject of university teaching for the first time. Canon law and Roman law entered into completely new connections, for which the Golden Bull represented an essential node.
To mark the 650th anniversary of the Golden Bull, the Federal Republic of Germany issued a stamp worth 1.45 euros on January 2, 2006. On the same occasion in 2006
UNESCO has included the “Golden Bull” in the “Memory of the World” register as a joint German-Austrian nomination. The decision on inclusion was made at a conference in the South Korean city of Gwangju on June 18, 2013.
Digitized copies of the individual specimens
Note: There is no digital copy of the Nuremberg copy on the web yet, only a CD-ROM available at the Nuremberg State Archives.