German Legal Antiquities

A few of the investigators that are mentioned on this website have referred to ancient Germanic law, mostly based on the book of Jacob Grimm (1785-1863). I have had the two books in my library for years, so I decided to check it for references and put some quotes in one text. That makes quite a remarkable piece of information!

Grimm’s book has the beautiful title Deutsche Rechtsalterümer which is hard to translate to English. Wikipedia uses the translation that I made title to this little text. The work is two times 700+ pages! The bibliography alone is 70 pages. Imagine that and then think of the other works that Jacob Grimm and his brother wrote.

The first book and the first half of the second book are mostly laws, violations, punishments, etc. From the “Sechstes Buch” (‘sixth book’) of volume II Grimm is talking about “Gericht”, the court itself and then things start to become interesting.

Just as offerings, court meetings (“das recht”) took place under the open sky, where justice was spoken in the presence of free men. (II p. 351/2)

The fact that those present should be free is repeated several times, for example on page II 357, in a note Grimm gives some old terms for ‘good of birth’. Note must perhaps be made about the fact that the German word is “Männer” which does not just mean “humans”, but humans of the male sex.

On page II 359 Grimm says that it seemed that the judges were also priests, so they both offer and speak justice and they speak justice both on worldly and on religious matters. There was a connection between religion and law which may explain how legal practices may have survived in the (semi-)religious practices of for example guilds and this Freemasonry.

A minor, yet amusing, little fact can be found on page II 374 where Grimm says that the judge sat on a chair (contrary to the other people present) and the chair “was often hewn from stone”. Later we will learn where the chair was positioned.

On page II 377 Grimm mentioned that the judge had two wardens. I have to bend the meaning a little here. The word is “Boten” (plural), which means something like “messenger” but not entirely, since they don’t just carry messages. They also received and announced the judges and had a role in the hearings, etc. The role seemed to be not much different from our current wardens, but I realise that this translation is somewhat ‘read in the text’.

A function that we know that is mentioned is the “orator” or “dingman” (p. II 382), the person who actually spoke the verdict.

As we saw, the court was mostly held under the open sky, often near water (p. II 419) or “in tiefen und gruben” (‘debts and dales’) which makes me think of the strange description of a “perfect lodge” which is some “Old Charges” is describes as being in the: “Lowest Valley of the world without the crow of a Cock or the bark of a Dogg” (Sloane, also see Chetwode and Edinburgh Register House). The place was not just picked at random. They were already sacred places, so they became places both for offerings, worship and (divine) judgement. (p. II 411) It is interesting that whereas most purely religious places were destroyed during Christianisation, places of law were often spared. (p. II 411)

Now we come to another interesting point, the “anordnung der gerichtsfïtzung”, the arrangement of the court (p. II 430). The judge sits “himmelsgehend” (‘going to heaven’, so with his back to the rising sun, hence in our words: in the East).
To the left and right of the judge sat the jury, a little lower than the judge. Then we had the prosecutor (actually, the person who had the complaint) to the right and the defendant to the left, “the one against the south, the other against the north” (p. II 432) That seems to mean that there were benches or something standing quite like how we sit in lodge.

The form of the court was initially round, but it became oval and eventually “ein längliches viereck”, a strange way of saying rectangle, the exact words that are used today in lodge “oblong square”.

Just as with religious sites, the place was fenced with hazel and a cable was put around the field (p. II 434).

The first question of the judge to those gathered was, if it was the right time of the day to open court. (p. II 438)

Wonderful in this regard is a note on page II 486 which is hard to translate. The judge asks his aldermen (“Schöpfen”) if it is the right time. If all functions are occupied, etc. A common question is if peace reigned the court.

Then follow many regulations that courts were opened at sunrise and had to be closed before dawn. Some special meetings were opened with the sun at its highest (p. II 439). Sometimes significance was ascribe to climbing and waning sun, so before and after noon. (p. II 439) Rarely a court was held at night.

Something similar we see with the moon. New or full moon was favorable, waxing moon not so. So this was used to plan the day of the court (p. II 447)

in the village courts of Upper Hessian (‘Oberhessen’) the “Schultheiß” (??) holds in his right hand a judicial staff (“Gerichtsstab”), with which he beats on the table […] asks for silence and holds it up in the air, thereby opening the court. (p. II 485, Grimm’s emphasis)

“In old days the peoples gatherings always ended with festivities and trinkgelag.” The last word is hard to translate, but it is a meeting with drinking and toasting (and of course eating). That is pretty much like our “meal of brothers”. And these old Germanic drinking parties traditionally contained toasting, boasting and story-telling.

As you can see there are some odd similarities to some odd Masonic practices. This approach to ancient law customs has not been well investigated, maybe because the primal source of information, Grimm’s Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer is written in German. Hopefully an investigator more qualified than myself and with a better mastering of German will pick up that glove some time. More details can be given I’m sure.

Until that time, I advice English speaking readers to pick up Fort.

One thing annoys me. I’m quite certain that one or two authors quote Grimm saying that court meetings were opened by lighting fire. I haven’t found that passage in Grimm not have I found the references that I thought there were. Hopefully I’ll remember or find them soon. This would be very interesting with regards to our lighting of the Three Lights. Also it wouldn’t be strange, since fire was an import symbol in the old days.

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