Municipal law—those laws relating to a city, as opposed to a state, nation or many nations— can be traced to medieval times. As far as we can ascertain the city of Freiburg im Breisgau was one of the first urban areas in Europe to institute municipal laws. These laws pertained to the people’s rights to inherit as well as their personal liberties as merchants and citizens of the city. Municipal law was concerned with both the administration and protection of these rights. Prior to the establishment of municipal law in Europe, those not in power were ruled by the codes of serfdom.
Greek and Roman governments relied on taxes
The Greek city-states were always in need of labor and taxes. Taxes were based in large part on the census. When the coloni (sharecroppers) moved about, it was difficult for the rulers to extract taxes. The difference between a Roman slave and a serf was that a slave was owned and serfs were bound to the land they occupied, typically generation after generation. If the land was sold, the serfs went to the new land owner.
Some scholars believe that there was little difference between the two, as the Social History article by David Martin Luebke describes. The Roman leader Diocletian (284-305) increased the land tax and incurred a poll (per-head) tax. The tenant farmers had to pay more and more and lost their rights as time went on. By the time Justinian came to power (527-565) these workers were little more than serfs, bound to the land, and “owned” by whomever owned the land they farmed.
A serfdom primer
There were two types of serfs: those who could own things and move freely about (the free coloni), and those who could not own anything and could not move about without express permission from the land owner (the coloni adscripticii). The free coloni leased the land and paid taxes. The coloni adscripticii had no money and no possessions. They did not lease the land but were considered a part of the land. So they paid no taxes, those were paid by the landowner. Both types of coloni were known as peasants.
As Roman slavery gave way to serfdom, serfdom gave way to the rise of monarchies and towns. Thus, arose the need for a new set of laws to protect the townspeople who were no longer slaves or serfs, but were a new kind of paid-labor peasant. Plus, the serfs did at times revolt.
The founding of Freiburg im Breisgau
The town of Freiburg was chartered by the dukes of Zähringen in 1120. It was the first free market town; “frei” in German means free, “burg” means city. Residents were allowed to own things, had freedom of movement, did not pay farmstead taxes and could vote for the pastor. The new merchant class had a need to hold markets and protect their wares, which led to city councils and municipal courts. These have been evolving ever since.