Medieval Maritime Law from Oléron to Wisby: Jurisdictions in the Law of the Sea

Medieval Maritime Law from Oléron to Wisby: Jurisdictions in the Law of the Sea

By Edda Frankot

Communities in European History: Representations, Jurisdictions, Conflicts, edited by Juan Pan-Montojo and Frederik Pedersen (Pisa University Press, 2007)

medieval cogs - British Library Harley 1319   f. 14v

Abstract: This chapter explores the history of medieval maritime law and its practice in Northern Europe. It argues that, contrary to the historiography, a common supra-territorial law of the sea did not exist in the Middle Ages in this region. Instead, Northern Europe was split up into several local, regional and national jurisdictions, each of which used varying laws. The chapter starts with an overview of written maritime laws from the Rôles d’Oléron to the Wisby Sea Law. Subsequently, the availability of these laws in five Northern European towns (Lübeck, Reval, Danzig, Kampen and Aberdeen) is examined, as well as their actual use in the town courts. In the final section, the administration of maritime justice is tackled. In this section, it is put forward that a common medieval law of the sea was an impossibility due to the absence of a supra-territorial jurisdiction which could implement such a law.

Introduction: In medieval Europe, trade was the main activity besides warfare and diplomacy which involved regular contacts between persons from different territories. Long-distance trade, which in Northern Europe was first and foremost conducted overseas, was by its very nature supra-territorial trade. It brought merchants, skippers and their crews from across the North and Baltic seas into contact and ensured that Western Europe was supplied with much-needed grain and other bulk products, in exchange for cloth, salt and wine.

In order to secure smooth relations between all involved in this trade as regards any problems occurring during sea voyages, maritime laws were formulated. Regulating shipping between different territories, these maritime laws were intrinsically supra-territorial. Or were they? Regulations regarding maritime law were recorded in compilations like the Rôles d’Oléron [Rolls of Oléron] and the so-called Wisby Sea Law, which in the past have been ascribed a wide-spread validity . The existence of various town laws including maritime regulations suggests, however, that the law of the sea was not shared between territories at all, but was divided across many small jurisdictions.

The conception of this section of the book that there existed different types of jurisdictions for various users, including a jurisdiction for maritime traders, therefore appearsto be inaccurate from the outset, at least with regard to the law of the sea. However, the fact remains that merchants and skippers involved in overseas trade did have special needs which were shared by all, for example with regard to gaining justice abroad. So how were these needs met? This chapter will try to prove that while a common supra-territorial law did not exist in Northern Europe, the special needs of maritime traders were cared for nonetheless. First of all, the spread of the written laws from Oléron to Wisby will be examined, giving an overview of the laws that came into existence between 1200 and 1500. Secondly, the availability of these laws at the Northern European town courts will be established, followed by an analysis of the use of the written laws at these courts. Finally, the administration of maritime justice will be looked at in order to establish which jurisdictions were competent in maritime matters, how merchants and skippers decided which court to go to, and why a common supra-territorial law did not come into existence.

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