Monthly Archives: September 2012

Writing at a slow pace

This month it seems I will not be able to write four posts. It feels awkward to break my promise for the continuity of my blog. However, yesterday I had the privilege of being guided to a project in Utrecht which proceeds very slowly indeed. It shows the relativity of joining a Weekly Post Competition or a Post a Day Challenge. This post has at face value only a very slim connection with legal history, but perhaps you might detect here a deeper meaning.

The Letters of Utrecht

Letters of Utrecht - The beginning

On June 2, 2012 Aleid Wolfsen, burgomaster of Utrecht, opened the project The Letters of Utrecht (De Letters van Utrecht) by uncovering a line of stones with the words of a poem in the pavement along the medieval canal Oude Gracht. You have to begin somewhere to give the past its place (“Je zult ergens moeten beginnen om het verleden een plaats te geven”) is the first line by Ruben van Gogh of a poem to be written by a collective of poets working in Utrecht.

To create an impressive start the project showed in June immediately a number of lines, but this was only a consequence of using a convenient starting point. For every week since January 2000 a stone with one letter has been put into place. The pace of one letter every week means the poem will become visible at a very slow speed indeed. At present some 650 stones are visible. Every Saturday afternoon a new stone is prepared in situ by a mason and put into its place.

Letters of Utrecht - The sequel will come next Saturday

The first stone of the project is a gift from The Long Now Foundation hewn from the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range in Texas where a 10,000 Years Clock is being installed since 1996. Behind the project in Utrecht is the Million Generations Foundation, an organization which invites people to think about the future of the earth, its people and civilization in the very long run. Its founder, Michael Münker, and my guide yesterday, is also on the board of the foundation for The Letters of Utrecht.

Among the immediate offsprings of the Long Now Foundation are The Rosetta Project for a public digital library with texts from all documented languages, and PanLex, a project for a multilingual translation database and interface. At first the name of the PanLex project led me to guess it aims at creating a database of laws worldwide! In fact you might indeed try to use it as a juridical multilingual dictionary.

Letters of Utrecht - "Guilty"

After spotting in the pavement the word guilty (“schuldigen”) I knew for sure I had a pretext to write here about this project. The word is a part of line in the poem by Ellen Deckwitz where the medieval tower of Utrecht Cathedral points as a finger to heaven to identify the guilty (“…schuldigen aan te wijzen”). My picture of this text is rather vague, but on second thought this can function as a mitigation of the rather strong image provided by the poem.

Letters of Utrecht - The present matters ever less...

Yet another line by Ruben van Gogh near the very start of the poem struck me even more: the present matters ever less (“…het heden doet er steeds minder toe”). The words of this poet run directly against the mainstream of contemporary life. However, it is only in the present that we can read his words and reflect on them, but he provokes us to realize that our view of the present is guided by the past. Is it sheer coincidence to reflect on words by someone named Van Gogh in the very weekend the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam closes for a seven month renovation? 75 paintings by Vincent van Gogh will be shown temporarily to the public at the Hermitage Amsterdam. Anyway, the present visibility of the project in Utrecht is not only provided by a website, but also by presence on Facebook and Twitter. It is certainly food for thought to look at a project aiming for the ages which is firmly present in the virtual reality using the media where people often seem to focus on actual situations and activities!

Another aspect of The Letters of Utrecht I would like to mention is the use of a type specially created by the Avant la Lettre foundry. The capitals of this type make me wonder about the form of a basic type yet to be created. I like the fact that a project which invites you to look into the distant future uses a contemporary type. As for the project in Utrecht it is no wonder if you are reminded of laws carved in stone, a subject touched upon here in some posts here, too (The voice of Hammurabi and Carved in stone). Using stones as a material to make texts visible for all times still has the attraction of one of the ways to reach into eternity. The use of stone is a part of the image a text creates, and thus I decided to include this post not only in the Utrecht section of my blog, but also under the heading Legal iconography.

Revisiting Frankfurt am Main

Logo Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

One of the earliest posts on my blog in 2009 was devoted to the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt has featured here in many posts, for example in a post on a guided tour to the criminal history of the capital of Rheinland-Hessen and in the post on Savigny at 150 years. Many times I have referred here to the pivotal position of this German research institute in the field of legal history, because it is the best example of an institute showing the variety of legal history, which almost leads you to prefer the plural expression legal histories. When I visited this week the website of the Frankfurt institute I found many new things which merit attention in a new post. The new building of the institute in Frankfurt’s West End gets close to completion, but it is really worthwhile to have a look at its activities before the move from the Hausener Weg to the new location near the inner city.

From strength to strength

At the moment I wrote the caption for this paragraph I wondered whether the MPI at Frankfurt am Main has indeed a motto of its own, but this one could very well play this role! In the face of many other fields of science and law for which the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft has created institutes it is most reassuring that legal history, too, has got its place since many years. The research programs of the MPG’s institutes are comparable to any other research institute, but the main goals and aims are reviewed by the central board in Munich through the years, with as a possible consequence closure or radical change.

One of the changes has been a shift of focus from the European Middle Ages to other periods and regions. Countries in the South-East of Europe and Latin America are new targets of research. Luckily materials brought together at the MPI such as a large collection of microfilms of medieval manuscripts are still safely in place. Quite recently the history of the former Arbeitsgruppe Legistik has been honoured with the launch of a digital version of the Verzeichnis der Handschriften zum römischen Recht bis 1600 (4 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1972) in the database Manuscripta Juridica. The original edition itself was basically a print made by Gero Dolezalek and Hans van de Wouw with their pioneering computer program of information concerning manuscripts in libraries worldwide containing texts of and commentaries on Roman law. The online version will be supplemented with data concerning manuscripts with canon law texts. Recht im ersten Jahrtausend is a new subseries of the MPI in the main series Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte. The recent publication of Andreas Thier’s study Hierarchie und Autonomie. Regelungstraditionen der Bischofsbestellung in der Geschichte des kirchlichen Wahlrechts bis 1140 (Frankfurt am Main, 2011), on episcopal elections and medieval ecclesiastical law, shows that early European legal history is not neglected.

The library of the Frankfurt MPI is really the core and the heart of the institute. Its digital library testifies to its rich holdings by steady enlargements. To the first section with digitized German law journals between 1800 and 1918 a second section has been added this year with journals between 1703 and 1830. At present you can view 31 journals, some two hundred (!) more will be added. You will not wonder that these projects dominate the field of legal history until now, and they have a special place in an earlier post on digitized journals and legal history.

The Virtueller Raum Reichsrecht is dedicated to digitized works stemming from the German Holy Roman Empire. A much larger collection is DRQEdit with digital editions of German-language legal works, a project in cooperation with the Academy of Sciences in Heidelberg and the University of Cologne. Legal literature from Germany, Switzerland and Austria concerning private law printed during the nineteenth century is another subject for a separate digital library, with more than 4,000 books. The digital library for dissertations from the Holy Roman Empire between 1600 and 1800 contains a number of digitized versions of them, but is mainly concerned with presenting a detailed description of some 73,000 dissertations. By now it should be no surprise the institute at Frankfurt participates with three other institutes of the MPG in the Digitization Lifecycle project for best practices and innovation in the field of digitization. It is only fair to indicate that for reasons of copyright the number of accessible digitized books in the field of Byzantine law is unfortunately very restricted. The overview of manuscripts with legal texts from Byzantium offers here some solace. By the way, a number of pages of the MPI website are available both in German and English.

The holdings of the library have been enriched by the collections of several scholars in the field of legal history. Among recent accessions is the library of Sten Gagnér (1921-2000) with 10,000 volumes and many offprints. It goes without mention the library offers to its visitors access to a number of subscribed databases and the MPG’s own digital library and licensed online journals. It is often very sensible to look for books on a particular subject first in the library catalogue of the MPI. This will bring you often to literature you had not yet spotted at all. The only sections recently removed from the website of the MPI – or hopefully just temporarily missing – are the links section and the selection of portals for legal history.

In June 2012 the Max Planck Legal Studies Network has been launched in which ten legal institutes combine forces. One of the strengths of the Frankfurt MPI has always been the support of young scholars. With the University of Frankfurt the MPI cooperates in a Graduiertenkolleg, a graduate school for comparative legal history. Every year the MPI organizes a summer school and several other courses for young scholars. The Graduiertenschule Lateinamerika is organized in cooperation with institutions in Argentina and Brazil. For reasons of space I skip other initiatives for young scholars, apart from the financial support for graduates. A link with contemporary law is provided by the new LOEWE center of excellence Aussergerichtliche und gerichtliche Konfliktlösung, a three-year project extrajudicial and judicial conflict solution, a theme dear to my Rotterdam supervisor Chris ten Raa who organized already in the nineties an international research project on the history of mediation and conciliation.

The journal Rg-Rechtsgeschichte scarcely needs introduction as the successor to Ius Commune (1967-2001) which is in its entirety accessible online in the PDF format, and also to the Rechtshistorisches Journal with an often amusing different slant on and sometimes scathing view of the practice of legal history. It is a relief drawings are again admitted to the pages of Rg-Rechtsgeschichte!

More institutions in Frankfurt

Paulskirche, Frankfurt am Main

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main, the location of the Nationalversammlung in 1848

I would like to end this post with a brief look at institutions of the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. The law faculty at Frankfurt is certainly not neglectable, and in particular not the Institut für Rechtsgeschichte. The university library, too, is worth visiting. 1848-Flugschriften im Netz is the digital collection with pamphlets on the German revolution of 1848. Compact Memory is a project with over 100 digitized 19th and 20th century Jewish journals from Germany, to mention only one of the digital collections concerning Jewish history and heritage. Legal texts are present among the more than 400 digitized medieval manuscripts. I pick at random from the special collections the Internet Library Subsaharan Africa, a major portal for African studies, the Flugschriftensammlung Gustav Freytag and the Sammlung Deutscher Drucke 1801-1870, the central collection of German imprints from this period. Colonial history is the focus of the Bildarchiv, the digital image collection of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, digitized in cooperation with the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Dresden. The university library holds also the former collection of the Bibliothek der Bundesversammlung (1816-1866). The volumes of the inventory by Johann Conradin Beyerbach of Frankfurt city ordinances, Sammlung der Verordnungen der Reichsstadt Frankfurt (11 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1798-1818), have been digitized, and the university library has several thousands of these ordinances.

Let’s finish with four other institutions: the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek with the German Exilarchiv 1933-1945 focuses on bibliographical projects and communication. The museums in Frankfurt have created the society for Frankfurter Museumsbibliotheken. For legal history the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, too, is one of the libraries with relevant holdings. The history of criminals and punishments comes into view at the Kriminalmuseum Frankfurt am Main.

You might get tempted to think I forget to mention scholars doing research and teaching in Frankfurt. I am very well aware they make the MPI and the other institutions briefly touched upon here into places with a vibrant scholarly life. Many of these scholars do deserve laurels. The very least to do is pointing to two deceased scholars, Helmut Coing, the founder of the Frankfurt MPI for European Legal History, and Marie-Theres Fögen, also many years at the head of this institute. In my experience the scholars in the service of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte do their best to honour their memory. All who visit the institute and benefit from its services should follow and debate the standards they set, for constructive debate about the fundamental questions, practices and prejudices of legal history is also among the inheritance they left to future generations.