Brandenburg Court Records
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They are administrative records dealing with the freiwillige and niedere Gerichtsbarkeit (jurisdiction). Manor lords and villagers both were interested in clear cut property terms. To accommodate this wish the Schöppenbücher or also known as Gerichtsbücher were created. Their modern equivalents would be the land and mortgage records. Schoppenbücher existed into the 19th century. They were replaced by land and mortgage records with the disappearance of the Patrimonialgerichte (lower courts run by jurists under authority of manor lords) in 1849.
After the 30 Years War the order of the village courts changed. The manor lords who were the local highest judges had appointed legal administrators, mainly men from the village, who had authority in matters of niedere Gerichtsbarkeit, police, raising interests and tributes. They were called Schulze/Scholze, Richter, Gerichtsälteste, Gerichtsverwandte or Schöppen (according to the author Bernhard Hinz these terms mean one and the same thing: authority to act as a legal administrator in the realm of niedere Gerichtsbarkeit. See Die Schoppenbücher der Mark Brandenburg, 1964, page 18). The basis for making judgments was the common law as embedded in Saxon law. A scribe was appointed from among the villagers, such as the local pastor, the sexton or the school teacher who did this job on the side. When jurists with their Roman law training found their way into the realms of niedere Gerichtsbarkeit, the village court lost its importance. The Schöppenbuch becomes the “Gerichtsprotokollbuch”, containing entries of more than one village, sometimes the records of the whole Amtsbezirk (administrative jurisdiction). The installing of Schöppen was banished. The local court became more a documenting entity and was concerned with legal safeguarding rather than legal realization. The village court yielded to the state courts. Where before the village court only dealt with non contentious matters such as changes in property or exchanges in property (according to the old laws litigation was avoided when possible and settlements preferred) the courts now dealt with all matters of the lower jurisdiction.
Contents of Schöppenbücher
They provide the researcher with an extensive picture of the rural population and their possessions in the Eastern parts of Brandenburg since the middle of the 16th century. Contracts of all kinds allow a glimpse about living conditions and habits which can differ from place to place. Most entries into a Schöppenbuch deal with changes of possessions in one form or another. “Erbkaufverträge, Kaufverträge and Annahmebriefe” bear witness of such actions.
A contract starts out with the names of the parties and the property in question. Later the exact location is added with mention of neighbors. Villages belonging to ecclesiastical manorial systems also have a religious preamble, such as “Im Namen Gottes” or “Im Namen der Dreifaltigkeit” (in the name of God or in the name of the Godhead). Then follows an insert that the sale of the property is condoned by the respective authorities (manor lords, who are the actual owners of the land in question). Then various items are listed:
The price of the purchase (estimated according to yield)
The deliveries the new owner will have to provide to the manor lord
A list of an annual or semi-annual installment plan
Provisions for inheritances, dowries and retirements
Debts which encumber the property
A down payment
The contract is signed by several officials serving as witnesses.
Sales which have become redundant are crossed out.
A Schöppenbuch also contains “Erbgeldlegungen”. The sale of Erbgeld (inheritance) is taxable.
“Verzicht” is another documents contained in a Schöppenbuch. Legal heirs register that they have received their portion of an inheritance and no longer extend any claims. If the owner of a property dies “Erbschichtung” has to be carried out. Other words for this action are “Erbteilung, Erbregelung, Erbsonderung, Erbvergleich or Erbrezeß“. All have to do with matters of inheritance and who is taking over the property. A widow can instigate a “Wiederverkauf”. This is a time restricted sales contract in which the buyer agrees to return the property at the sales price to the seller. The property also has to be returned to exact specifications as were documented.
The terms “Gunst- or Gönnergeld” can be found in Schöppenbücher. This means that the youngest son, who is the rightful heir of the parental property (Anerbenrecht) will hand it over to his oldest brother or a brother-in-law. The new owner has to pay a Gunst- or Gönnergeld or deposit the money for an apprenticeship for the youngest son.
A “Manifestationseid”, an oath, is listed in a Schöppenbuch confirming that a list of inventory is correct which had to be established after the death of a property owner or his widow. The surviving children receive the “patrimonium” or the “matrimonium”, meaning the goods of either father or mother. This process is especially important if the surviving spouse wants to remarry. Children under age (24 years is the legal age) are represented in court by sworn in guardians (“curator litis”).
In some villages “Eheverlöbnisse” (engagements/prenuptial agreements) are recorded at the village courts. By the way, interfaith marriages is discouraged. From the time of the Reformation to the end of the 17th century, nobody is to adopt the Lutheran faith.
Many property owners will have a “Disposition” entered into the Schöppenbuch in order to avoid later inheritance disputes.
Farm hands, “Gesinde”, are usually not found in Schöppenbücher because this section of the population had no land to cultivate.
Contentious litigations and criminal cases are rare finds in Schöppenbücher. Most disputes concerned property and inheritance. Disputes about these issues usually ended in a settlement. Disputes occurred also from insults, defamations, scraps . Sometimes Schöppenbücher contain matters of empty marriage promises.
Brandenburg has kept Schoppenbücher. They are more common in the South East part, in the Cottbus district. The above mentioned book by Bernhard Hinz lists the Schöppenbücher for the Province of Brandenburg according to villages in alphabetical order with the time frame such books were kept. Die Schoppenbücher der Mark Brandenburg is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. See www.familysearch.org , call number 943.15 P2h.
Actual records can be retrieved through the Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv for the Kurmark, Neumark and Niederlausitz under the subject “ältere Gerichtsbehörden” (bis 1849) and Signatur numbers 1.1.2, 1.2.2 and 1.3.2
Kammergericht Berlin, the highest appellate court for Brandenburg-Preussen
The Kammergericht is the oldest court still in existence in Germany. It is located in Berlin. The first trace of it was found in documents in 1468. The court served as highest appellate court in Brandenburg-Prussia.
The political development of Brandenburg-Prussia brought about independence from the jurisprudence of the German Empire. In 1748 the Kammergericht was consolidated and had the function of a lesser court before it became the highest court for the entire monarchy in 1782.
Before 1740 the King of Prussia was also the ‘law’ and therefore able to intervene in making judgments. After 1740 some drastic changes occurred. Judges, who were not really trained in jurisprudence were released and a status consciousness among judges made it so that the Kammergericht became an elite court. Judges saw their responsibility toward the law and judgment in a new light. What was in casu right, the judge derived from his scientifically schooled legal sense and conscience. Hence, the apparent authoritarian judgment of the sovereign, formerly accepted unhesitatingly, was now interpreted by the judiciary with debasement.
Times had changed and new ideas evolved to which Frederick the Great was partial. From 1748 on by self-decree he was never to interfere again in civil court matters. He supported the idea that the three levels of jurisprudence were sufficient and the highest level’s sentences were legal, and that neither he nor his ministers had the right to interfere with this court’s judgments. Before this was really put into practice, several incidences occurred where the king felt he had to interfere.
According to scholarly research the most remarkable achievements of the Kammergericht came about in the 18th and 19th centuries which were not only trend setting in Brandenburg-Preussen but set guidelines for a legal constitution and administration of justice in Germany at large.
Otto Büsch, Wolfgang Neugebauer. Moderne Preußische Geschichte 1648-1947. Walter de Gruyte & Co, 1981.
FamilySearch has a substantial collection of the above court’s sentences. This collection can be retrieved through the Family History Library Catalog. Films contain registers of names. Cases will state names and relationships as well as place names, especially if there is a dispute among relatives. Reading these cases can be helpful when the place of origin is not known for an ancestor. Remember, the court served as an appellate jurisdiction, meaning that cases were worked on which had been sent from courts around the state of Brandenburg.