Rare Books

Codex Altemberger

Medieval Period
15th century
wood covers, covered with leather, protected with strong rivets made out of metal, veal parchment, gold leaf, textile material, cinnabar (red mercury sulphate), red lead oxide, iron gall ink and coloring substances.
calligraphy, binding, forging, drawing miniatures, polishing, flattening, stamping
L = 36 cm; W = 25 cm


    Texts: Dr. Ginel Lazăr; photo: proiect Manuscripum

    Inv. no.: 47606. Material: wood covers, covered with leather, protected with strong rivets made out of metal, veal parchment, gold leaf, textile material, cinnabar (red mercury sulphate), red lead oxide, iron gall ink and coloring substances. Technique: calligraphy, binding, forging, drawing miniatures, polishing, flattening, stamping. Dimensions: L = 36 cm; W = 25 cm. Dating: 14th century, 1481 (the colophon). Place of print: German space (manuscript); the Town Hall of Sibiu (the last two pages). Commissioned by: Thomas Altemberger commissioned the writing and decorating with miniatures of the last two parchment pages (the biblical scene, the text of the oath, Sibiu’s coat of arms and the colophon dated in 1481). Copyist: unknown. Beneficiary: Sibiu’s Town Hall and the local community. Historical research: Dr. Ginel Lazăr. Non-destructive investigation of materials: Dr. Irina Petroviciu, Drd. Cristina Carșote, Dr. Migdonia Georgescu.


    THOMAS ALTEMBERGER (1431-1491)

    Thomas Altemberger was born in Sibiu in 1431, in one of the largest Saxon aristocratic families. He completed his university studies in Vienna, where he was awarded important diplomas in several fields. Back in Sibiu, he got involved in the public life of the city, and became an alderman in 1469 and even mayor of the city in 1471. For two decades he was “primus inter pares” (among the Saxons) and was noticed and rewarded by the Hungarian Royalty. He then became royal judge in 1481. Due to his high station, Sibiu received the goods and possessions of the Cârta Monastery. At the same time, Altemberger succeeded in getting king Matthias Corvinus to acknowledge the traditional privileges of the Saxons. According to a royal account from 1475, the Altemberger family was one of the richest and influential in Sibiu, and at the same time Thomas Altemberger was a successful real estate entrepreneur in the Alba and Târnave counties, the owner of the precious metals exploitations in Abrud and later lessor of the Transylvanian royal customs.

    His best work is, without a doubt, the precious manuscript entitled The Altemberger Codex. With the enactment of city laws, Altemberger’s political and commercial authority gained new dimensions According to the Codex’s legislation – with the amendments that adapted it to Transylvanian realities - a series of changes were brought to the aspect of the city and to the lives of its citizens. Among other things, Dominican monks received permission to rebuild their convent within the enclosure walls of the city. Currently, the church of the monastery is known as the Ursulines' Church. At the peak of his career, the illustrious mayor built himself an aristocratic house - the pride of his family - which was perfectly integrated into the town's defensive system and later became the centuries-long building of Sibiu's town hall. Currently, it hosts The History Museum, which is part of the National Brukenthal Museum.

    Thomas Altemberger was contemporary with Vlad Tepes, being both born the same year, but fate placed them on opposite sides, the conflict between them being mainly fueled by the endless intrigues which the inhabitants of Brasov directed against the Wallachian ruler.  Under one form or another, the reasons of discord were diverse, such as territorial disputes, custom debts, the commercial privileges granted in Wallachia to the Transylvanian Saxons from the Seven Saxon Seats and those received in Transylvania by their Wallachian homologues. Another adversity towards Vlad Tepes was related to him expanding the princely right of juridical arbitration of conflicts between his subjects to the Romanians living in the Saxon seats, which were sometimes invaded, when, of course, the Romanians in Transylvania were wronged or abused by the Saxons. At Matthias Corvinus’ initiative, the royal judge and the Wallachian prince collaborated as to get Vlad Tepes back on the Wallachian throne (1476). In wait of this moment, Altemberger hosted Vlad Tepes in Arghis, Alba County, and then in Balcaciu, Tarnavelor County, giving him a fixed sum set by the Hungarian King.

    At the Subsidiary of the National Archives in Sibiu can be consulted the Fund of the Brukenthal collection, where is found the Act H (6-9)/no. 26, 13th-18th century. In document no. 26, in the upper right side, are written in pencil the following biographical data: “Altemberger Familia Cibiensis. M. Thomas Altemberger”. On the document are drawn two coats of arms of the family: a lion with an up-right tail and three flowers at the bottom and a three-legged dragon. There follow a few information about biographical data of the family which are found in various works such as: „Mss. Georgii Isterii: Historia pleragne de Cibinio Aracdout in Bibliost. Cibinii Sochocuhciuiono, p. 29“. The next note, from 1486, states that Thomas Altenberger was also a chamberlain of Matthias Corvinus: “1486 Egregius Thomas Altenberger Comerarius Matia Regis“. In the same fund (the Brukental Collection), Act H (6-9), in the upper right side of  document no. 320 is written in pencil :”Bacalau. Procerator Oredionis Hungor in Acad. Viena. 1507“; “Michael Altenberger de Cibinio” was married to Margareta; „Bartololomeu Altenberger deceased in 1552“.




    “Crossing through the halls of the National History Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania, at a certain point you stumble across a narrow room with shut blinds and surrounded by cases with manuscripts and old books. Here, you are surprised to discover a thick book, with red leather covers and iron locks. It is the oldest Saxon code of laws, the so-called “The Altemberger Codex”. So begins the monographic study dedicated to the Altemberger Codex by historian and archivist Radu Constantinescu. The book was printed by the publishing house “Meridiane” in Bucharest, in 1988, and I have found it useful in clarifying to myself some legal matters.

    The Altemberger Codex is the “Bible” of the Saxons from Sibiu and its fate was tied to that of Thomas Altemberger, mayor of the city in the 15th century and buyer of the legal manuscript that later got to bear its name. The German and Romanian specialists who have examined the Codex throughout time have advanced various opinions regarding its paternity, character and authenticity. 

    Before entering the collections of the National History Museum of Romania (NHMR) the Saxons’ Codex was officially preserved in the library of the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu, according to the general inventory registers.

    In the 18th century, the Codex was preserved for a long time at the Town Hall of Sibiu, in an archival box. There, “where it had been deserted after the Austrian invasion of Transylvania which took place in 1689-1691”, it was rediscovered in 1782 by Johann Seivert, a historian from Sibiu. Since at the beginning of the manuscript the copyist claimed he had transcribed the laws of Nurnberg, Johann Seivert believed that he had come across a code compiled based on the legislation of Nurnberg (adopted by the Germans in 1479).

    Sievert’s idea was later embraced by all historians of the old German law. Moreover, in the late 18th century (1800) an anonymous archivist from Nurnberg believed that the Saxons who were colonized in Transylvania in 1143 had brought with them their urban laws.

    Following the publication in 1861 of the old legal regulations of Nurnberg, no laws with a content identical to those in Altemberger’s manuscript were discovered. 

    The mystery was finally solved when a specialist in the old German law, Ludwig von Rockinger, proved in 1894 that the copyist of the manuscript in cause had made a serious error with respect to the title “The Nurnberg Law”, which in such legal manuscripts was usually put before the last paragraphs (534-562) of the first chapter. Namely, “he had copied and unjustly placed the title of the last annex to the Mirror of the Swabians (Schwabenspiegel) at the beginning of his whole compilation, which led to the later confusion”.

    The Nurnberg Law, adopted in 1479, was applied and known in that sole German city, in whose Town Hall was kept the manuscript containing it. Subsequently, in 1484, it was printed by Anton Koberger and later spread to other places, including among the Saxons in Transylvania. A copy of this incunabulum dating from 1484 is today found at the Brukenthal National Museum, but the book belonged until the 19th century to a Saxon church. The Nurenberg law had several other old editions, such as the 1488 incunabulum, the 1522 post-incunabulum or the 1564 volume. Also, a copy of the mentioned manuscript could be found in the seventh decade of the 16th  century in the Black Church of Brasov. Today it no longer exists.

    Researchers claim that besides the civil law of Nurnberg, in the Saxon settlements from Transylvania was also brought, in the form of incunabula, the canonical law, which the Saxons effectively used. Both in Sibiu and Brasov are found several civil and canonical law books, printed in the eight decade of the century when the printing press was invented. Finally, within the covers of the compiled manuscript there are three codes of customary law. The first one is the above-mentioned “Law of Nurnberg”, the other the “Law of Magdeburg” and the third the “Slavonic Mining Law of Jihlava” (Iglau). The latter has several classical editions and was assumed by the city of Nurnberg after an original in Latin, Nurenberg being the only German city to ever use it.

    It was first presumed that the Altemberger Codex was written in Sibiu in 1481, in the chancery of mayor Thomas Altemberger. The colophon, calligraphed in Latin on the last page (p. 181) mentions the mayor’s name, Thomas Altemberger, his positions, the year and the place the manuscript was written (1481). „Hoc opus fecit fieri egregius Thomas Altemberger, magister civium et judex regius, necnon camerarius urbis Cibiniensis anno Domini MCCCCCLXXXI-o, dicti sui officii magistri civium anno 9-o“. “This work was commissioned by Thomas Altemberger, mayor of the city, royal judge and quartermaster of Sibiu, in 1481, the ninth year of his term”. 

    The colophon and its dating in 1481 created a lot of confusion around the Altemberger Manuscript. According to paleographic criteria, specialists place the Codex long before 1481. In 1885 Gustav Linder from Cluj, the editor of the codicil, believed that it must be dated according to the criteria of 15th century medieval requirements for writing. “Through the execution and iconography – including the characters’ garments – the miniatures of the manuscript surely belong to the Italian tradition of the early 16th century”.

    What misled specialists were the last two pages, copied later, in 1481. The penultimate page contains the canonical miniature of the “Crucifixion of Jesus Christ”, the oath that had to be taken by every mayor at his investiture ceremony and, underneath, the city’s coat of arms; on the last page there was only the colophon, in the upper part. The opinion of specialists who date the manuscript prior to 1481 is confirmed by a note on the title page of the second cover, that reads “March the 1st (incursion Marcii) 1453 (A.D)” .

    Historian Radu Constantinescu believes that the manuscript was bought by Thomas Altemberger in his youth, while he was studying in Vienna. The known archivist bases his assertion on the fact that the examples of juridical practice found in the Codex are  strikingly similar to the juridical activity exerted by Vlad Tepes in Wallachia, Fagaras and the surroundings of Sibiu between 1453- 1469. Thus, the legendary ruler seems to have taken his inspiration from the harsh and violent German law, having been influenced by the German model through his education. It is presumed that the anecdotes and accusations about the cruelties of Vlad Tepes which appear in Saxon printings and manuscripts were also extracted from the jurisdiction of the Altemberger Codex. Therefore, the German stories that incriminate the Wallachian ruler, his practices and cruelties, are nothing but explicit German law provisions found in the Altemberger Codex.

    Impaling was a common punishment in Central Europe. The legislation of German states allowed the impaling of women for infanticide, poisoning or witchcraft. In the “Swabian Mirror” from the Codex there are punishments such as the beheading of burning at the stake of women guilty of poisoning or witchcraft. In Transylvania, both men and women were impaled for adultery and infanticide. In the case of adultery, both accomplices were first hanged in a public place and then impaled and immediately buried in a hole especially dug near the place of execution.

    Nowadays those Saxon exaggerations which spread in the Orient and the Occident in the second part of the 15th century must be treated with discernment and attributed to the misunderstandings between Vlad the Impaler and the Saxons, caused by commercial and territorial disputes. The alleged cruelty of Vlad the Impaler and especially his exigency in terms of punishments, which were based on his country’s law, must be seen as the influence of the Saxon Law on his role as dispenser of justice, despite his complex education that implied knowing the Byzantine and Ottoman law, which were more permissive and less harsh that the juridical practice of Transylvanian Saxons. Next, Radu Constantinescu focuses his study on the analysis of the Codex because “it has an overwhelming importance since it entirely exonerates Tepes from the unjust accusations that revolved around him for centuries”. Although this imperative research of the author of the book about the Altemberger Codex is highly commendable, he should have focused more on the scientific and technical contents that are usually neglected during such an approach.

    Contrary to the assumptions of Radu Constantinescu, we believe that the mayor of Sibiu came into possession of the manuscript later than 1453. We have a hard time believing that the fundamental book of the Saxons, allegedly bought in 1453, was only used as legislative source starting with 1481, nine years after the mayor’s investiture, given that he was an alderman in 1469. In 1481 he was appointed royal judge by Matthias Corvinus, residing first in Sibiu, and then in Buda between 1486 and 1491.

    There is no evidence, according to the data we have at present, that Altemberger bought the manuscript in 1453, or that the code of laws exclusively inspired Vlad Tepes in the enforcement of law. In our opinion, Vlad Tepes could have known the harsh German Law from other sources than the Altemberger codex. The rigorous ruler had spent some time in the German world and in Transylvania and was familiar with the Western practices regarding civil law, which he used in dispensing princely justice. In general, the dispositions applicable to the executory jurisdiction of the Codex were similar to those which existed in the entire German space and that were obviously found in Transylvania too, especially in the counties corresponding to the Seven Saxon Seats.

    Most likely, the Codex was bought in 1481. That same year, Thomas Altemberger commissioned the copying of the last two pages of the manuscript (which have been previously described), for his remembrance and that of his juridical work, which was fundamental for the Saxons’ official juridical practice. 

    This work (the opus) “was commissioned by Thomas Altemberger”, a phrase which refers to the biblical miniature, the text of the oath, Sibiu’s coat of arms and the colophon, and not to the copying of the entire text of the Codex.

    Altemberger’s book is the first official legal work in the Romanian medieval space, an opus of urban laws that was compiled based on the regulations of other German cities. Based on the calligraphy, the genealogical miniatures which completely cover some of the pages, the marginal decorations and the grotesque figures in the initial cassettes, the manuscript’s copyist got his inspiration from the 13th and 14th century Italian and German tradition, completing his work in the 15th century; it is certain that in 1481 a second copyist executed, by order of the judge of Sibiu and for the use of the Saxon community, the last two pages, that were relevant for the oath taking ceremony of mayors, thus transforming the Codex into an important legal and historical source for Sibiu and a model for Transylvania. This Codex and the Bible represented the perfect combination, used each time someone invested with a public office took an oath. In addition, the miniatures in the Codex have powerful religious connotations, such as the “Crucifixion of the Lord”. The richness and warmth of the miniatures’ coloring, the depth of the Biblical message, the facial expressions and the realism of the historical context bring a note of authenticity to the customary law, which was an undisputable guideline for all those who occupied official positions in medieval Sibiu.

    The Codex was also used later, until the end of the 18th century, as “official code of the Saxons, together with the diplomas and privileges granted to Saxons by Transylvanian authorities”, as is the case with the text of the mayors’ oath which, in what regards the Church’s Saints and Virgin Marie, was adapted after Sibiu adhered to the Lutheran religion and reform (1536). The members of Sibiu’s administrative council, who had extended privileges and a large influence over the entire Saxon community from Transylvania, continued to swear to respect the Saxons’ rights on Altemberger’s book, the traditional authority in terms of legislation.

    From 1787, when the reforms of Joseph II definitively put out of use some “dispositions of this codex”, the book became a museum piece. The first collection in which the book was registered was the private one of Baron Samuel von Brukenthal, the governor of Transylvania; it then belonged to the Museum of Sibiu’s Municipality, opened in the Brukenthal Palace in 1817 and officially administrated by the Evangelical Church. In 1948, the Brukenthal Museum was nationalized by the Romanian government. Although it was listed in the registers of the Brukenthal Museum, the codex was transferred to an archive in Sibiu. According to the procès-verbal (with no. 44/ 1979) of the Codex’s transfer from the Brukenthal Museum to the National History Museum of Romania, the transfer was done per request of NHMR, based on the Disposition no.5 from 29 January 1973, which invoked the Law Decree no. 409/1955.

    Due to the centuries-long tradition of the Codex and to its importance, specialists who prepared the thematic of the National History Museum (created in 1970) considered it an item that should be included in the permanent exhibition of the museum. As a result, when NHMR was founded, the Altemberger Codex was transferred to Bucharest and displayed in a glass case in room 25, where it could be seen until 2002, when the permanent exhibition was closed in order to restore the historical building and prepare a new museologic conception. 

    “The volume is richly decorated: frames with vegetal decorative elements and religious scenes, some illustrations that occupy entire pages, initials and frames with true specific scenes, made with natural colors and gold leaf” (Dr. Lia Maria Voicu, according to the Expertise Report of the Altemberger Codex, dated 14th October 2010).

    The book is unique in Romania, the writing support is parchment, the font is “Gothica Libraria and the manuscript is decorated with miniatures. On each page of the Contents there are two columns of small cassettes with initials in uncial writing and decorated with human faces or gilt coloured flowers. In the beginning of each chapter there is a cassette with an initial and miniature and a text in Gothic black letters, on whose margins are added, in some cases, various drawings or symbols of human facture or inspired by the surrounding environment, that are related to religious rituals, daily practices and traditional beliefs. The written surface of the pages is 23 cm. long and 16.4 cm wide. Pages are divided into two columns (23 cm long and 8 cm wide) and red horizontal lines were drawn on them to facilitate calligraphic writing. The manuscript has a total of 181 pages, that are calligraphed and decorated with miniatures. The book covers are made of wood, are covered with red leather and rivets are fixed both on the obverse and the reverse, for protection and for keeping the manuscript on a shelf. The covers are not the original ones and were probably made in the 19th century, when the manuscript was restored; only the front sides of the original covers were preserved and were mounted above the new covers. Both at the beginning of the book as well as at the end of it, there are several round stamps from the early 19th century with the inscription: “Baron Brukenthal’sches museum in Hermannstadt“.

    The manuscript was fully photo-copied, at a high-resolution, through a project called “Manuscriptum”, initiated and coordinated by the General Director of the National History Museum of Romania, Dr. Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu. The total number of pages scanned through the project is 373. The book is packed in Japanese silk sheet with a neutral ph. and a layer of netex, is encased in antistatic and fireproof polyethylene foam and is stored in a special aluminum box, in a controlled microclimate.