Originally a Slavic settlement called Lipsk, Leipzig was chartered at the end of the 12th cent. and rapidly developed into a commercial center located at the intersection of important trade routes. A printing industry, which later became important, was started there c.1480. The city was the scene of the famous religious debate between Martin Luther, Carlstadt, and Johann Eck in 1519. In 1539 it accepted the Reformation. Three great battles of the Thirty Years War (two at Breitenfeld and one at Lützen) were fought near Leipzig.
The city was one of the leading cultural centers of Europe in the age of the philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz, who was born there in 1646, and of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was cantor at the Church of St. Thomas from 1723 until his death. The Univ. of Leipzig (founded 1409) became one of the most important in Germany. In the 18th cent. Gottsched, Gellert, Schiller, and many others made Leipzig a literary center; the young Goethe studied there in 1765. The city's musical reputation reached its peak in the 19th and early 20th cent. Felix Mendelssohn, who died there in 1847, made the Gewandhaus concerts (begun in the 18th cent. in a former guildhouse and still continuing) internationally famous. Robert Schumann worked in Leipzig, Richard Wagner was born there in 1813, and the Leipzig Conservatory (founded by Mendelssohn in 1842–43) became one of the world's best-known musical academies.
The battle of Leipzig, Oct. 16–19, 1813, also called the Battle of the Nations, was a decisive victory of the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian forces over Napoleon I. On Oct. 16 the Prussians under General Blücher defeated the French under Auguste de Marmont at Möckern, near Leipzig. A peace offer by the vastly outnumbered French army was rejected on the following day while the Allies closed in. On Oct. 18 the French were driven to the gates of Leipzig, and most of their Saxon and Württemberg auxiliaries (but not the king of Saxony himself) passed over to the enemy camp. Leipzig was stormed on Oct. 19, and Napoleon's forces began their flight across Germany and beyond the Rhine. It is estimated that 120,000 men (of both sides) were killed or wounded in the battle. Allied losses were heavier than those of the French. The battle is commemorated by a large monument in the city.
Until World War II, Leipzig was the center of the German book and music publishing industry, and the center of the European trade in furs and smoked foods. The city (including the book-trade quarter) was badly damaged in World War II. In Oct., 1989, Leipzig was the site of the largest demonstration against the East German government since 1953; the demonstration was instrumental in the downfall of the Communist government and the subsequent reunification of Germany.