Hamburg Court Records
Land records (Grundbücher) are being kept by the individual Bezirke in Hamburg. Note: There are seven of them (see http://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Hamburg Older records are kept in the State Archive Hamburg.
are one of the oldest records which tell us among others about personal relationships in medieval times. They are not abundantly available because only testators of the elevated population were able to pass on self-obtained goods. Inherited property was not to be bequeathed. Poor people were usually not in a position to pass on anything. Last wills were drafted by a notary and documented by the Ratsherren (city administrators) in medieval times. One copy went to the testator or his executor, another copy remained with the city officials.
The Staatsarchiv Hamburg published its oldest testaments ranging from 1351 to 1400 in 1970 by Hans-Dieter Loose and are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT on the International floor under the title Hamburger Testamente 1351 bis 1400 call number 943.515/H1 B4v volume 11. The book is organized by years and names and is written in Latin, later in the vernacular of the time.
Wills of the lower court of Altona now accessible
In 2011 the wills of the Amtsgericht (lower court) of Altona were opened up for historians. There are approx. 5,000 documents of Altona citizens, deposited or opened between 1868 and 1905 which are housed in the State Archive Hamburg.
Wills could be very short, ranging from a few words, such as "so and so shall be my sole heir" to documents drawn up before a notary public or the lower court (Amtsgericht) in the presence of witnesses. A testament typically contains regulations or paragraphs expressing what is to happen to the property or possessions of the deceased. For example: In the presence of witnesses written instructions of a testator and his spouse make sure that the surviving spouse and children, then parent/s, then further relatives will inherit. Such instructions are then signed by all parties after the testator/s has/ve reinforced their intentions with a loud "yes" to signify that such is their last will, indeed.
The will is then registered at the court and a copy handed to the testator. After the testator's demise the survivor or a representative hands the testament to the court where it will be declared open. The will is then read and pronounced legal (or not, if there should be questions). The heir is authorized to use the property or possessions as he sees fit. In the Altona wills one seldom finds a listing of possessions, but gets an estimate of their value.The case is then closed as far as the court is concerned. If the heir dies, the case is re-opened and the children now become heirs.
Not only do the wills give the family historian names and dates but offers a glimpse of Altona's society in the late 1800s. Not only does one find the wills of famous families, jews and pilots, but also the wills of soldiers who were stationed in Altona during the French-German War (1870/71), and the wills of inhabitants from the island of Helgoland which came under the jurisdiction of the Amtsgerich Altona in 1890.
The wills are alphabetized in an archival register (Findbuch) for quick retrieval.
Anke Hönning. Testamentsakten im Bestand 424-111 Amtsgericht Altona verzeichnet. Archivjournal Hamburg Heft/2012 .