Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung.

Bamberg, Johann Wagner, 1580.


Folio, ff (iv) 72 (xx). Gothic letter, title in red within very ornate, almost baroque border, the Episcopal arms in centre, 21 full or nearly full page woodcut illustrations depicting various stages of the legal process from the swearing in of the court, the questioning including the torture of the prisoner (one plate depicts the variety of legal ‘implements’), trial and execution, as well as ancillary matters such as the recovery of goods, inventory of a fugitive and the assessing of court costs; the illustrations are detailed, lively and in good strong impression. Large woodcut initials, ornate woodcut ornaments. Fore-edge of title page a bit frayed and dusty, slight age yellowing and marginal foxing, a few marginal tears without loss. An excellent copy, clean and wide margined on high quality paper (rare for this era of German printing) in contemporary vellum over boards, painted original orange/pink, 2 c.20 bookplates on front pastedown, first joint cracking within, but sound.

Beautifully illustrated edition of Bamberg’s first codification of Criminal law with one full page woodcut by Jost Amman and the remainder by Wolf Traut. The woodcuts are remarkable in their composition and in the thoroughness with which they tell their story; they must be the most compelling in any lawbook of the c.16th. Compiled and promulgated by Hofmeister Johann von Schwarzenberg for the Prince-Bishop George III, the first edition appeared in 1507.

The present thoroughly revised version, first published here, became the definitive text and remained the standard reference work on Bamberg’s criminal law until the suppression of the Prince-Bishopric under Napoleon. It was clear, comprehensible and legally accurate, an unusual combination. The Halsgerichtsordnung’s success was such that its fame was not confined to Bamberg, but its provisions formed the basis of the Imperial legal system of Charles V ‘the Carolina’, still referred to by legal historians as “a milestone and turning point in German criminal law development”. This 1580 edition was also produced with the convenience of the legal practitioner in mind. The folios are numbered in Arabic, each paragraph in Roman and the 40 page alphabetical table of contents at the end provides the reference to both, for each entry.

Despite the gory depictions of the judicial torture chamber, the work is modern in recognising that even the most serious crimes were rarely the fruit of inherent vice or seduction by the devil but the result of the protagonist being put into an impossible position by circumstances out of his control and making the wrong but almost inevitable choice.

BM.STC Ger p.64, cf. Fairfax Murray, German Bks vol II, 457 with 3 reprods.


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