In 1495, the Holy Roman Empire established the Reichskammergericht, the Imperial Supreme Court as the highest civil court in the Empire. The court was seated in Speyer, but in 1689, during the War of the Palatinate Succession, the court fled from the advancing French troops and after 1693 was housed in Wetzlar. it remained, with its support staff of 1000 people, until the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. Wetzlar was a dirty little medieval free city, all steps, half-timbered houses, and cess pits, some said to been growing for as long as the backlog of cases at the Imperial Supreme Court. The Court was very expensive — the fee alone for injuring an appeal was 1,500 guilders — and slower by far than Dickens’s Chancery: in the middle of the 18th century around 1750, there were over 16,000 cases still outstanding.
The presence of the Reichskammergericht not only brought prestige of the town, but also famous legal minds and other visitors. None more famous than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In mid May 1772 Goethe, later to become Germany’s most famous author, took lodgings in Wetzlar, thirty-two miles north of Frankfurt and close to the Hessian university town in Giessen, in order to carry out that part of his father’s educational scheme which saw him widening his legal experience at the Imperial Cameral Court. Goethe seems, despite his hymn to the architect of the Strasbourg cathedral, to have paid no attention to the fine Gothic cathedral in Wetzlar. The population of Wetzlar was a mere 5,000, and the Imperial Court, with all its attached representatives of the litigant powers within the empire, accounted for a further nine hundred. Three hundred more officials arrived from 1766 onwards after the reforming co-Emperor Joseph II had ordered a visitation of the court to investigate its appalling delays and the prevalent rumors of corruption — during the summer of 1772 however the visitation itself was temporarily suspended, and go to saw nothing of its operation, though he caught something of the atmosphere of fear and injury which he created and felt more retail than ever by the practice of law. The ordinary business of the court was conducted entirely in writing, but all documents, including all submissions of evidence, had to be read out loud and some cases were of more than two centuries standing. A few lectures and practical classes were put on for the benefit of the matriculated university legal students, of whom there were eighteen, including Goethe during his stay, but the main purpose of a spell in Wetzlar for the wealthy are nobly born young lawyers who could afford it was to become acquainted, not only with the details of the Imperial constitution, but with one another, for they were the rising generation of Germany’s diplomats and state officials.