A short guide and a portal to legal history

Peace Palace Library
Lately the Peace Palace Library, the library of the International Court of Justice and other institutions in the field of international law in The Hague – all present at The Hague Justice Portal – has restyled its website. The Peace Palace Library (PPL) had a separate blog which has now been integrated into the new website. One of the strengths of the PPL’s website were and are the research guides, a feature which now comes more to the front. The website offers more than fifty guides in ten sections. Among the new guides is a short guide to legal history, the subject of this post. Apart from the new website the PPL is also present online with numerous tweets (@peacepalace). Last year I presented here a comparison of several portals to legal history. The PPL’s legal history guide points to a portal that somehow was not included in this comparison, even though I had spotted it and noticed some of its qualities. In this post I want to make up for this omission.

Legal history at the Peace Palace Library

The history of international law is the main reason for the PPL to devote time, space and attention to this subject. Thus the field of international law is not entirely absent in the new short guide to legal history, but it does not figure too prominently in it. The presence of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) in the guide is only natural for the PPL with its rich holdings in editions of Grotius’ works. The Grotius collection is now substantially better shown on the website, with an updated version of the guide on Grotius.

The guide to legal history of the PPL is a guide in a nutshell. Before I will comment on this guide I want to express my admiration for the courage to create a short guide, because in a way it is easier to write a more ample guide. Its five sections present an introduction, a short bibliography, a presentation of a number of selected books as a librarian’s choice, a short links section with at present only six links, including the portal covered in the second part of this post, and a section with links to a number of related research guides, and a nifty link to all items in the category “Legal history” of the PPL’s catalogue. In this guide and in other guides as well the PPL has added consistently links to social media, a print button and a link to a PDF version of the guides. For the legal history guide the PDF function gives you only the librarian’s choice, certainly a bug but one without grave consequences. More awkward is the fact that the French version of this guide on this bilingual website is only partially in French.

The librarian’s choice at the moment of writing this post shows three books, including their covers. The first book is the collection of essays edited by Tracy A. Thomas and Tracey Joan Boisseau, Feminist legal history: essays on women and law (New York 2011). The second item is the chapter by Randall Lesaffer on ‘The classic law of nations, 1500-1800′ in the Research handbook on the theory and history of international law (Cheltenham 2011) 408-440. The third book shown is Law codes in dynastic China : a synopsis of Chinese legal history in the thirty centuries from Zhou to Qing by John W. Head and Yanping Wang (Durham, N.C., 2005).

The very brief introduction on legal history stresses the many sides of legal history. The two paragraphs can be summarized in two sentences. Laws, institutions, individuals and the relation of law to society are all aspects of legal history. Law both reacts to developments in society, but also actively shapes society. The French version tells you only that legal history is concerned with the development of law in history and the question why it changed. The French version continues with the explanation of the aim of the guide, to introduce people to the subject and to the holdings of the PPL in this field.

The bibliography is substantial, but some elements do raise an eyebrow. In particular the choice in the section with reference works is just that, a choice. Thoughtfully all titles have been directly linked to the library catalogue. Three books – with as a nice feature again their covers – are mentioned. I have no problems with the Oxford international encyclopedia of legal history, Stanley N. Katz et alii (eds.) (Oxford 2009), but the two other books have been chosen more arbitrarily. John Hamilton Baker’s An introduction to English legal history (4th ed., London 2002) is certainly a classic, but it inevitably focuses on England. The third book is a collection of essays by William Morrison Gordon, Roman law, Scots law and legal history. Selected essays (Edinburgh 2007), and this choice alerts to the existence of mixed legal systems. However, these choices center around the United Kingdom. Adding a book on for example the European legal tradition or about legal history in one of the world’s major countries or continents would be most helpful.

I cannot help pointing to some other defects in the selection of titles. Why just one issue of the ‘Bibliography of Irish and British legal history’ from the Cambrian Law Review? The link to the online version of the Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis brings you to the journal Legal History, the sequel to the Australian Journal of Legal History. The choice of books is more balanced, but it is odd to find here again Gordon’s volume of essays and the Oxford encyclopedia of legal history, both already present in the reference section. The other titles are concerned with the legal history of Europe, the United States, China and Rome, with sources for English legal history and with women’s legal history. Under “Documents” only one title is given. Far better is the choice of recent articles and papers about legal history, which range from a discussion of research methods, Islamic jurisprudence and thoughts about the legal history of the twentieth century to a comparison of legal history and comparative law, and the history of the law of nations. Of course it is difficult to create such lists as presented here, but with a relatively small number of corrections and additions it can become more useful. The list of journals on legal history is short and excludes e-journals.

For any wishes and remarks on the quality of the bibliography the links section and the section with other guides go some way to fulfill them. The links show not only some portals – including the portal in the spotlight of this post – but also a blog, the website of a society for legal history, and the research guide for legal history of an American university. This guide at the University of Minnesota Law Library neatly shows the imbalances in the PPL’s guide. However, the PPL redeems the deficiencies of its legal history guide by its own guides in related fields. You will be pressed hard to find any website which features guides on all these subjects: diplomacy, Antarctica, comparative law, Islamic law, philosophy of law and the use of force, not to mention Hugo Grotius. A number of websites do offer links on these subjects, but not similar guides. More extensive guides certainly exist, and in fact you will find them often using these research guides at the PPL. It might seem that in view of the sheer number of research guides provided by the PPL only some tuning – and translating – of the website is needed. Part of the tuning will be adding the research guide for the League of Nations to the related fields section of the guides.

A portal for legal history?

History of Law website

The portal for legal history I want to discuss here briefly is History of Law. Looking at it again in 2012 some reasons why this website can only in a restricted sense be called a portal are immediately clear. The website lacks links sections, presents no sources or articles, nor is there an events calendar or an overview of research institutions. Yet the PPL alerts to this website in its short guide to legal history. The most obvious reason for the inclusion is the page at History of Law on Hugo Grotius. When I first read it I was charmed by the narrative of Grotius’ life, and only somewhat amazed by the retelling of his escape from the Loevenstein prison in 1621, a story belonging to the heart of the canon of Dutch history. No sources are indicated for this story. A quick search using for once the eponymous search tool which conjures its results by unfathomable stratagems and axioms leaves no doubt which source has been used, Charles Butler’s The Life of Hugo Grotius (…) (London 1826). You can check the book online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library, and even choose which digitized copy you are going to look at.

Not only at the Grotius’ page of History of Law the original source is not acknowledged, the same is true for other pages. The text on the page on the history of Greek law comes from Martin Ferdinand Morris (1834-1909), An introduction to the history of the development of law (Washington, D.C., 1909). A reprint from 1911 of this work has been digitized for the Hathi Trust. The title “Roman canon law” for another webpage at History of Law should ring a bell with its anachronistic title, if not already the URL http://www.historyoflaw.info. I will not spoil the game of tracking the sources of the other pages of this website which is a nice exercise in source criticism for which you can use facilities available online. If you read the page on testamentary law it is worthwhile to establish who originally attacked the views of Blackstone on the introduction of testaments in England. For tracing the source of the page on Greek legal history I used deliberately the following phrase: “thousand other improvements and inventions of our wonderfully inventive age”!

At History of Law no name can be detected, but in the banner of this website a young man gazes at you. I mailed to him asking for his name, but he has not yet identified himself. Anyway, be it a student hoax or just a fruit of plundering the Internet, it has little to do with modern research on legal history, apart from pointing to the laziness of those thinking you can rely on old works without any consideration, as if the facts of – and the views on – legal history are immutable. The History of Law website is a plain case of plagiarism. Its chief merit is alerting to the works of Butler and Morris. Instead of writing about the views on legal history of Morris, one of the founders of the Georgetown Law School and at the end of his career associate Justice of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, our anonymous could only copy and paste from this book. Charles Butler (1750-1832) was an English conveyor and lawyer, the first Roman Catholic since 1688 to practise in England as a barrister. In fact he prepared the very legislation making this possible, the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 (31 George III. c. 32). It is yet another subject worth real study instead of mock history.

A few conclusions

Instead of spending more time with this portal it is better to return to the research guides of the Peace Palace Library. Luckily the authors of the online guide on Grotius do not mention the History of Law website. The authors at the Peace Palace Library of the short guide to legal history should not hesitate to repair things as quickly as possible, and create a guide that is as trustworthy as the other guides of this important library. Was it the wish to include a website with the story of Grotius in English that misguided the creators of this guide when they added a link to History of Law? Whatever the answer is, it pinpoints the need to approach websites carefully. It is easy to find guides for evaluating web pages.

I feel lucky I did not include the History of Law website in last year’s comparison of legal history portals. With pages on Phoenician law and the laws of Pythagoras a portal on legal history can certainly attract attention, but it should make you wonder when you find also the history of maritime law and Egyptian legal history, too much of a good thing! It is more rewarding to go to the sources, to use and indicate them carefully, to struggle with them honestly and to report your findings in your own words and to put your name at the end. You will not find any legal history portal with a full coverage of all main subjects, nor a website with full-length research guides about each separate subject in legal history.

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