Reichskammergericht (Imperial Chamber Court)

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by Filippo Ranieri

1. Institutional classification

Following its establishment in 1495 and until its dissolution in 1806, the Reichskammergericht (RKG) was, alongside the Reichshofrat (Aulic Council), the highest court of the Holy Roman Empire. After long negotiations between Emperor Maximilian I and the Estates of the Empire, in particular with their traditional leader, the Archbishop of Mainz and High Chancellor of the Empire, Berthold von Henneberg, the establishment of a supreme court, which would be independent from the Emperor was agreed upon at the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) of Worms in 1495. The court’s name was inspired by the already established Königliches Kammergericht (Royal Court of Justice), which had existed for over 100 years. It was, however, a new institution of the Empire. The establishment of the RKG represents the central point of an extensive but only partly realized reform agenda of the Holy Roman Empire. The establishment of the court mainly served as compensation for the abolition of the right of waging feuds (Fehdeverbot) and as a proclamation of an ‘eternal public peace’ (Ewiger Landfrieden) at the same Imperial Diet of Worms in 1495.

According to the original idea pursued by the reform agenda, half the judges were to be nobles and the other half legal experts. It quickly became apparent that the judges from nobility could not manage their tasks without having completed comprehensive legal studies. The original organization, inspired by the previous Königliches Kammergericht, was, in the following decades, expanded by successive imperial decrees (Reichsabschiede). The state which developed in the first half of the 16th century, after the vicissitudes caused by the Lutheran Reformation and the subsequent reconfigurations of the judiciary based on denominational parity, was essentially preserved until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. After changes in its location and interruption of its work in the first few years, in 1527, the court found its final seat in Speyer. At the end of the 17th century, the court members fled from Speyer due to the advancing French army of Louis XIV. After an interruption lasting a few years, the court found a new seat in the small imperial town of Wetzlar, where it remained until the end of the Holy Roman Empire. The last reforms, by an imperial decree from 1654 and following the last two Visitationen to the court (visitations or inspections by the Emperor and the Estates) in the middle of the 18th century, focused on procedure and the way in which the business was handled, rather than on the court’s institutional organization.

The judges’ legal education quickly became the only qualification requirement. They were appointed by the Emperor. In addition to that, in 1507, the Estates of the Empire were given the right and the duty to present appropriate candidates to the court. Once a vacancy became known, the Estates were required to nominate appropriately qualified candidates to the plenum of the court. From the middle of the 16th century onwards, the plenum of the court chose the new judge from those candidates, generally after having the applicants draft a legal opinion on a given case (Proberelation) to test their qualifications.

2. Jurisdiction and procedural law

The original task of the new court was to keep the public peace. In the case of a breach of the ‘eternal public peace’, the Reichsfiskal, representing the Emperor’s powers, could initiate a criminal procedure against the disturber of the peace. This right was also given to those who were affected by the incident.

Moreover, the RKG adjudicated as an appeal court in challenges against the judgments of territorial and municipal courts in civil matters. By these means, it soon began to control the jurisdiction of the territorial rulers. Furthermore, the RKG exercised its jurisdictional powers when lower courts refused or delayed a judgment or in cases of assertions of invalidity of judgments of territorial or municipal courts. Since the middle of the 16th century, the Emperor frequently issued ‘appeal privileges’ (Appellationsprivilegien) allowing certain subjects to appeal directly to him, which limited the jurisdiction of the court in its function as an appeal court. This did not however affect the actions in the described cases of invalidity, refusal or delay of a judgment. Thus, the court retained the possibility of subjecting even privileged Estates of the Empire to the control of the imperial judiciary. The importance of the court in the political and constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire lay especially in its neutral position over the territories and denominations. In this context one can understand the great constitutional and historical importance of the so-called Untertanenprozess. These generally lengthy proceedings often ended with settlements. They helped to confine territorial authorities to superior imperial law and limited the absolutistic power thereby enforcing the rule of law. The court, as a central institution of the Empire alongside the Reichshofrat, was of substantial importance for the constitutional order of the Holy Roman Empire.

The rules of the Kameralprozess (procedural law of the Imperial Chamber Court) were based on the common procedural law of the ecclesiastical courts. They grew step by step according to practical needs. The respective RKG regulations of 1500, 1521 and finally 1548/1555 are the most important milestones of this development. Essential aspects of procedural law, however, were not enacted in formal written laws but were left to legal practice or, alternatively, to the Gemeine Bescheide (common decrees) of the court. The procedure was exclusively in writing. It was governed by the Dispositionsmaxime (principle whereby the parties were free to decide upon the content of the claims), the Beibringungsgrundsatz (the duty to bring evidence before the court) and the rules of the Artikelverfahren (requiring the plaintiff to subdivide his contentions in specific ‘positions’). Moreover, to be allowed to present evidence, the parties had to include documented witness statements in the files. The procedural law of the Chamber Court had a strong influence on the German territorial court systems, which to some extent adopted the exact wording of the procedural principles developed by the court. In this regard the RKG also played an essential role in the implementation of the written common (gemeinen) procedural law in Germany.

3. Influence on the reception of Roman law

From the beginning, the RKG, because of its legally skilled judges, played a central role in the reception of Roman law in the German territories. According to the theory of statuta, developed by Italian scholars in the late Middle Ages, the ius commune, however, was only of subsidiary application. The ius particulare, ie the body of rules particular to a territory was given priority. Under the terms of the 1495 Statute of the court elaborated in Worms, the judges were to adjudicate according to the common laws of the Empire, as well as to regulations, statutes and customs of the ius particulare, submitted to them. This meant that these latter rules, invoked and proven by the litigants, were to override the subsidiary ius commune. This burden of proof, however, worked to the detriment of the domestic laws which the court, moreover, applied restrictively according to the principle statuta stricte interpretanda sunt. Only ‘notorious’ legal customs and rules did not require proof. Conversely, parties referring to provisions of the Corpus Juris Civilis were regarded as having fundatam intentionem, which relieved them from proving the authority of the rule invoked. In light of this, one can understand why the procedural law regarding the burden of proof had a profound influence on the legal practice of the RKG and promoted the reception of Roman law in the German territories during the 16th century. Nevertheless, recent research has revealed that the RKG had an equally sound knowledge of the most important particular laws which it applied if necessary.

The technique and style of adjudication were shaped by the written form and indirect nature of the ‘common procedure’ (Gemeiner Prozess) as well as by the collegial structure of the Speyer Court. The main part of the judges’ work at the RKG consisted of drawing up a relatio judicialis or Aktenrelation from a procedural file. This was a legal opinion summarizing the relevant facts of a case and indicating a possible solution to it. The secretary of the court assembled the relevant documentation submitted by the parties into a case file when the case was estimated ready for decision by the plenum of the court. From these case files a judge, acting as relator, drafted a legal opinion which he would use when reporting to the plenum. The Kammergerichtsordnung (statute of the court) of 1500 already stipulated that in all matters at least two judges should study the relevant files and documentation in order to be able to draft two legal opinions which could then be presented to the plenum. In the Kammergerichtsordnung of 1555, the wording was even more explicit as the presiding judge was ordered to give the files to two judges who were to provide a relatio judicialis. The first statute of the court and even the rather more elaborate Kammergerichtsordnung of 1555 did not, however, contain provisions about the method of preparing of such a legal opinion. Only in the latest imperial decree of 1654 does one come across more detailed rules in §§ 143–150 which refer to these Aktenrelationen at the RKG. Yet even these norms only contained provisions regarding the steps to follow in the drafting of a legal opinion; the structure and style were left to legal tradition and practice.

By the 16th century, precise rules for the structure and style of an Aktenrelation were devised. Presumably, this body of rules was connected to the methodical traditions of the mos italicus as well as to common traditions of legal teaching at the time. Numerous written instructions concerning the drafting of an Aktenrelation soon appeared. In these works the pedagogic purpose was of paramount importance. Various printed collections of legal opinions had the same educational function. Their didactic role can be seen most clearly by the fact that sometimes Proberelationen were included. Proberelationen were legal opinions which had been drafted and presented by candidates for a judicial position in order to demonstrate their aptitude for judicial work. They were mostly based on actual cases. Examples of this didactic tradition can be found from as early as the second half of the 16th century. Later on, the number of written instructions became countless. Accordingly, in the following decades, the history of German legal education was strongly influenced by the above-described working method. Exercise courses on the structure and style of legal opinions were taught at Göttingen University from the middle of the 18th century. A similar tradition still prevailed (under the heading of ‘practical jurisprudence’) in 19th century German universities. The method of drafting legal opinions, developed by the court’s practice, lived on, particularly, in the Prussian practical legal training scheme (Referendarausbildung) of the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite material simplifications and modifications of the respective working methods, remnants of this tradition can still be discerned in German legal education today.


Bettina Dick, Die Entwicklung des Kameralprozesses nach den Ordnungen von 1495-1555 (1981); Filippo Ranieri, Recht und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter der Rezeption. Eine rechts- und sozialgeschichtliche Analyse der Tätigkeit des Reichskammergerichts im 16. Jahrhundert (1985); Bernhard Diestelkamp (ed), Recht und Gericht im Römischen Reich (1999); Peter Oestmann, Rechtsvielfalt vor Gericht. Rechtsanwendung und Partikularrechte im Alten Reich (2002); Erik Oliver Mader, Die letzten ‘Priester der Gerechtigkeit’. Die Auseinandersetzung der letzten Generation von Richtern des Reichskammergerichts mit der Auflösung des Heiligen Römischen Reiches deutscher Nation (2005); Peter Oestmann (ed), Der Zivilprozess am Reichskammergericht: Edition und Kommentar einer Gerichtsakte aus dem 18. Jahrhundert (2008); Filippo Ranieri, ‘Entscheidungsfindung und Begründungstechnik im Kameralverfahren’ in P Oestmann (ed), Zwischen Formstrenge und Billigkeit. Forschungen zum vormodernen Zivilprozess (2009) 165–90.


Kammergerichtsordnung of 1500, Tit 18; repeated in Kammergerichtsordnung of 1555, Part I, Tit 13, § 9; Kammergerichtsordnung of 1555, Part I, Tit 10, § 4; ‘Tractatus methodicus processi Camerae Imperialis’ in Symphorema Consultationibus, I, ‘methodus referendi causas in iudicio’ 70–72 (Frankfurt aM 1601); HE Rosencorb (Rosacorb), Syntagma observationum practicarum recentiorum in supremis Germaniae tribunalibus, ch 2, 2-4 ‘methodus referendi, seu vota concipiendi’ (Mühlhausen 1605, Frankfurt aM 1646).

Retrieved from Reichskammergericht (Imperial Chamber Court) – Max-EuP 2012 on 28 May 2024.

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