1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Golden Bull

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GOLDEN BULL (Lat. Bulla Aurea), the general designation of any charter decorated with a golden seal or bulla, either owing to the intrinsic importance of its contents, or to the rank and dignity of the bestower or the recipient. The custom of thus giving distinction to certain documents is said to be of Byzantine origin, though if this be the case it is somewhat strange that the word employed as an equivalent for golden bull in Byzantine Greek should be the hybrid χρυσόβουλλον (cf. Codinus Curopalates, ὁ μέγας λογοθέτης διατάττει τὰ παρὰ τοῦ βασιλέως ἀποστελλόμενα προστάγματα καὶ χρυσόβουλλα πρός τε Ῥήγας, Σούλτανας, καὶ τοπάρχους; and Anna Comnena, Alexiad, lib. iii. διὰ χρυσοβουλίου λόγου; lib. viii., χρυσόβουλον λόγον). In Germany a Golden Bull is mentioned under the reign of Henry I. the Fowler in Chronica Cassin. ii. 31, and the oldest German example, if it be genuine, dates from 983. At first the golden seal was formed after the type of a solid coin, but at a later date, while the golden surface presented to the eye was greatly increased, the seal was really composed of two thin metal plates filled in with wax. The number of golden bulls issued by the imperial chancery must have been very large; the city of Frankfort, for example, preserves no fewer than eight.

The name, however, has become practically restricted to a few documents of unusual political importance, the golden bull of the Empire, the golden bull of Brabant, the golden bull of Hungary and the golden bull of Milan—and of these the first is undoubtedly the Golden Bull par excellence. The main object of the Golden Bull was to provide a set of rules for the election of the German kings, or kings of the Romans, as they are called in this document. Since the informal establishment of the electoral college about a century before (see Electors), various disputes had taken place about the right of certain princes to vote at the elections, these and other difficulties having arisen owing to the absence of any authoritative ruling. The spiritual electors, it is true, had exercised their votes without challenge, but far different was the case of the temporal electors. The families ruling in Saxony and in Bavaria had been divided into two main branches and, as the German states had not yet accepted the principles of primogeniture, it was uncertain which member of the divided family should vote. Thus, both the prince ruling in Saxe-Lauenburg and the prince ruling in Saxe-Wittenberg claimed the vote, and the two branches of the family of Wittelsbach, one settled in Bavaria and the other in the Rhenish palatinate, were similarly at variance, while the duke of Bavaria also claimed the vote at the expense of the king of Bohemia. Moreover, there had been several disputed and double elections to the German crown during the past century. In more than one instance a prince, chosen by a minority of the electors, had claimed to exercise the functions of king, and as often civil war had been the result. Under these circumstances the emperor Charles IV. determined by an authoritative pronouncement to make such proceedings impossible in the future, and at the same time to add to his own power and prestige, especially in his capacity as king of Bohemia.

Having arranged various disputes in Germany, and having in April 1355 secured his coronation in Rome, Charles gave instructions for the bull to be drawn up. It is uncertain who is responsible for its actual composition. The honour has been assigned to Bartolo of Sassoferrato, professor of law at Pisa and Perugia, to the imperial secretary, Rudolph of Friedberg, and even to the emperor himself, but there is no valid authority for giving it to any one of the three in preference to the others. In its first form the bull was promulgated at the diet of Nuremberg on the 10th of January 1356, but it was not accepted by the princes until some modifications had been introduced, and in its final form it was issued at the diet of Metz on the 25th of December following.

The text of the Golden Bull consists of a prologue and of thirty-one chapters. Some lines of verse invoking the aid of Almighty God are followed by a rhetorical statement of the evils which arise from discord and division, illustrations being taken from Adam, who was divided from obedience and thus fell, and from Helen of Troy who was divided from her husband. The early chapters are mainly concerned with details of the elaborate ceremonies which are to be observed on the occasion of an election. The number of electors is fixed at seven, the duke of Saxe-Wittenberg, not the duke of Saxe-Lauenburg, receiving the Saxon vote, and the count palatine, not the duke of Bavaria, obtaining the vote of the Wittelsbachs. The electors were arranged in order of precedence thus: the archbishops of Mainz, of Trier and of Cologne, the king of Bohemia, qui inter electores laicos ex regiae dignitatis fastigio jure et merito obtinet primatiam, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony and the margrave of Brandenburg. The three archbishops were respectively arch-chancellors of the three principal divisions of the Empire, Germany, Arles and Italy, and the four secular electors each held an office in the imperial household, the functions of which they were expected to discharge on great occasions. The king of Bohemia was the arch-cupbearer, the count palatine was the arch-steward (dapifer), the duke of Saxony was arch-marshal, and the margrave of Brandenburg was arch-chamberlain. The work of summoning the electors and of presiding over their deliberations fell to the archbishop of Mainz, but if he failed to discharge this duty the electors were to assemble without summons within three months of the death of a king. Elections were to be held at Frankfort; they were to be decided by a majority of votes, and the subsequent coronation at Aix-la-Chapelle was to be performed by the archbishop of Cologne. During a vacancy in the Empire the work of administering the greater part of Germany was entrusted to the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony being responsible, however, for the government of Saxony, or rather for the districts ubi Saxonica jura servantur.

The chief result of the bull was to add greatly to the power of the electors; for, to quote Bryce (Holy Roman Empire), it “confessed and legalized the independence of the electors and the powerlessness of the crown.” To these princes were given sovereign rights in their dominions, which were declared indivisible and were to pass according to the rule of primogeniture. Except in extreme cases, there was to be no appeal from the sentences of their tribunals, and they were confirmed in the right of coining money, of taking tolls, and in other privileges, while conspirators against their lives were to suffer the penalties of treason. One clause gave special rights and immunities to the king of Bohemia, who, it must be remembered, at this time was Charles himself, and others enjoined the observance of the public peace. Provision was made for an annual meeting of the electors, to be held at Metz four weeks after Easter, when matters pro bono et salute communi were to be discussed. This arrangement, however, was not carried out, although the electors met occasionally. Another clause forbade the cities to receive Pfahlbürger, i.e. forbade them to take men dwelling outside their walls under their protection. It may be noted that there is no admission whatever that the election of a king needs confirmation from the pope.

The Golden Bull was thus a great victory for the electors, but it weakened the position of the German king and was a distinct humiliation for the other princes and for the cities. The status of those rulers who did not obtain the electoral privilege was lowered by this very fact, and the regulations about the Pfahlbürger, together with the prohibition of new leagues and associations, struck a severe blow at the cities. The German kings were elected according to the conditions laid down in the bull until the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. At first the document was known simply as the Lex Carolina; but gradually the name of the Book with the Golden Bull came into use, and the present elliptical title was sufficiently established by 1417 to be officially employed in a charter by King Sigismund. The original autograph was committed to the care of the elector of Mainz, and it was preserved in the archives at Mainz till 1789. Official transcripts were probably furnished to each of the seven electors at the time of the promulgation, and before long many of the other members of the Empire secured copies for themselves. The transcript which belonged to the elector of Trier is preserved in the state archives at Stuttgart, that of the elector of Cologne in the court library at Darmstadt, and that of the king of Bohemia in the imperial archives at Vienna. Berlin, Munich and Dresden also boast the possession of an electoral transcript; and the town of Kitzingen has a contemporary copy in its municipal archives. There appears, however, to be good reason to doubt the genuineness of most of these so-called original transcripts. But perhaps the best known example is that of Frankfort-on-Main, which was procured from the imperial chancery in 1366, and is adorned with a golden seal like the original. Not only was it regularly quoted as the indubitable authority in regard to the election of the emperors in Frankfort itself, but it was from time to time officially consulted by members of the Empire.

The manuscript consists of 43 leaves of parchment of medium quality, each measuring about 101/8 in. in height by 71/8 in breadth. The seal is of the plate and wax type. On the obverse appears a figure of the emperor seated on his throne, with the sceptre in his right hand and the globe in his left; a shield, with the crowned imperial eagle, occupies the space on the one side of the throne, and a corresponding shield, with the crowned Bohemian lion with two tails, occupies the space on the other side; and round the margin runs the legend, Karolus quartus divina favente clementia, Romanorum imperator semper Augustus et Boëmiae rex. On the reverse is a castle, with the words Aurea Roma on the gate, and the circumscription reads, Roma caput mundi regit orbis frena rotundi. The original Latin text of the bull was printed at Nuremberg by Friedrich Creussner in 1474, and a second edition by Anthonius Koburger (d. 1532) appeared at the same place in 1477. Since that time it has been frequently reprinted from various manuscripts and collections. M. Goldast gave the Palatine text, compared with those of Bohemia and Frankfort, in his Collectio constitutionum et legum imperialium (Frankfort, 1613). Another is to be found in De comitiis imperii of O. Panvinius, and a third, of unknown history, is prefixed to the Codex recessuum Imperii (Mainz, 1599, and again 1615). The Frankfort text appeared in 1742 as Aurea Bulla secundum exemplar originale Frankfurtense, edited by W. C. Multz, and the text is also found in J. J. Schmauss, Corpus juris publici, edited by R. von Hommel (Leipzig, 1794), and in the Ausgewählte Urkunden zur Erläuterung der Verfassungsgeschichte Deutschlands im Mittelalter, edited by W. Altmann and E. Bernheim (Berlin, 1891, and again 1895). German translations, none of which, however, had any official authority, were published at Nuremberg about 1474, at Venice in 1476, and at Strassburg in 1485. Among the earlier commentators on the document are H. Canisius and J. Limnaeus who wrote In Auream Bullam (Strassburg, 1662). The student will find a good account of the older literature on the subject in C. G. Biener’s Commentarii de origine et progressu legum juriumque Germaniae (1787–1795). See also J. D. von Olenschläger, Neue Erläuterungen der Guldenen Bulle (Frankfort and Leipzig, 1766); H. G. von Thulemeyer, De Bulla Aurea, Argentea, &c. (Heidelberg, 1682); J. St Pütter, Historische Entwickelung der heutigen Staatsverfassung des teutschen Reichs (Göttingen, 1786–1787), and O. Stobbe, Geschichte der deutschen Rechtsquellen (Brunswick, 1860–1864). Among the more modern works may be mentioned: E. Nerger, Die Goldne Bulle nach ihrem Ursprung (Göttingen, 1877), O. Hahn, Ursprung und Bedeutung der Goldnen Bulle (Breslau, 1903); and M. G. Schmidt, Die staatsrechtliche Anwendung der Goldnen Bulle (Halle, 1894). There is a valuable contribution to the subject in the Quellensammlung zur Geschichte der deutschen Reichsverfassung, edited by K. Zeumer (Leipzig, 1904), and another by O. Harnack in his Das Kurfürsten Kollegium bis zur Mitte des 14ten Jahrhunderts (Giessen, 1883). There is an English translation of the bull in E. F. Henderson’s Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London, 1903).  (A. W. H.*)