Following the trail of criminals in Frankfurt

Sometimes finding a subject for a blog post resembles stumbling into a theme, an event or something else worth writing about. Looking again at the congress calendar of this blog suddenly the number of events in German-speaking countries struck me as impossible low. It seems I have overlooked some of the German websites with announcements of congresses, symposia, Arbeitsgespräche and similar events. A number of events is held yearly and I am happy to point you for them to the links collection of the committee for the legal history of Austria. A few weeks ago I added the Wiener Rechtsgeschichtliche Gesellschaft to my blog roll after removing the link to a blog of another German legal society because of its apparent sleeping state. I leave it to your own discretion to figure out which society seems to have no time for blogging. The events organized at the Max-Planck-Institute für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main has a prominent place on the page of the congress calendar because of its continuity and variation. However, on this Frankfurt page you will not find anything on the subject I bumped into today, although this, too, happens on the borders of the Main.

Surely Frankfurt is not the only European city which organizes activities concerning legal history, and it is not completely new that such activities tend to focus on criminal law. Long ago I visited York and of course I passed the spot where tourists can join the daily Murder Mystery Trail. Back to Frankfurt: Frankfurt Stadtevents organizes in May 2011 an activity called “Tatort Frankfurt: Frankfurter Kriminalfälle und Rechtsgeschichte“. The goal is to create a kind of guided tour through the city in a span of one and a half hour visiting and seeing the places where murders took place, criminals were executed and famous cases happened. Some of the courts and the places where the black market flourished will also be visited, and you can imagine other interesting spots and persons. The names of Kaspar Hauser and Anselm Feuerbach are well-known indeed. The tour starts at the Hauptwache, the square named after the former main guard-house of the city, nowadays also the name of a subway station. Perhaps the mentioning on this website of a firm which teases you to taste their drink is the clearest sign that legal historians are not directly involved in the creation of this walk.

Before we might start quibbling about the academic level of this proposal in Frankfurt I would like to ask a few questions. What if professional legal historians did organize an outdoor event in a city with a rich or eventful past? How about leaving your department or research institute, and trying to present a subject to people who are willing to listen and to be informed about something which obviously interests you? Why not make people happy with your hopefully evident enthusiasm about, knowledge of and involvement with legal history? Those within the trade know about the importance of this scientific discipline, but any try to explain it yet again or to present it in a new way or to a different public offers you a chance to develop skills in presenting and guiding, in creating a kind of script which you can quickly tune to your actual public, or even to the weather and your own stamina! And speaking of academic audiences, should one not be aware of the specific challenges to communicate truly with them? Does this not involve at least some of the same qualities a city guide or a museum staff member must have? Anyway as a visitor of a scientific events I really hope speakers have prepared themselves not just to present a paper, but to invite reactions and discussion, and first of all to keep people interested.

What strikes me is the apparent ease in creating this tour in Frankfurt, which in the short description on-screen seems to succeed in taking examples not exclusively from the history of criminal law, to mention only one obvious thing. Some German legal historians have not hesitated to write also for the proverbial general public, and these publications have certainly been used in preparing this tour, and if not, I am sorry to be mistaken. The resources for doing legal history in Frankfurt are not restricted to the wealth of information and materials at the Max-Planck-Institute for European legal history, and getting to know Frankfurt’s history is really worthwhile. I simply refuse to believe you cannot try to create something either similar or even more attractive elsewhere, nor do such tours only qualify as misguided forms of tourism and a waste of time for people with higher education.

For anybody wondering about finding information about current academic events in Germany and surrounding countries, and more particular in the field of legal history, I have to point first of all to the website of HSoz-u-Kult at the Humboldt University, Berlin. The section with Termine (literally appointments or deadlines) has a events calendar showing a relatively restricted number of upcoming events in Germany. Zeitgeschichte-Online is a website with many facets but without a Terminkalender. Clio-Online ia a very useful portal for historians, but alas also without a congress calendar. I have spent several periods in Germany, I have visited Switzerland and Austria, too, but it took me some time before hitting upon the word Wissenschaftskalender. The Informationsdienst Wissenschaft has a website with an interface in German and English with a calendar of scientific events. Austria has its own Wissenschaftskalender. Because of the advanced hour I will not add any events concerning legal history from it to my blog today, but I do like to single out among the news items on the IDW website the news on the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Among the winning young scholars of this year who received their prizes in Berlin on May 9, 2011, is a historian, Henrike Manuwald from Freiburg, who crosses the borders between the history of medieval literature and law. Let’s hope her example invites other scholars as well to find new approaches, to walk unfamiliar roads and to handle both classic sources and newly found materials with fresh inspiration!

A postscript

Only a year later I became aware of a painful omission in this post: the quality of the tour described here cannot be qualified properly without including the Kriminalmuseum Frankfurt am Main. In two posts on museums and legal history I discuss the role and position of these institutions.

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