Category Archives: Landscapes

A wood in the polder

When I visited Delft this summer it was years ago I bicycled to the nearby tiny village ‘t Woudt, which means literally “The Wood”. However, ‘t Woudt is situated in the polders to the west of Delft, and you will not detect any wood in my pictures.

't Woudt near Delft

In fact I would have dearly liked to take more photographs on one of the few sunny afternoons of this summer, but the battery of my camera got empty. The tiny village, a hamlet is a more apt word, is dominated by the imposing medieval church. The buildings in ‘t Woudt are rightly classified as monuments.

The church of 't Woudt

The church looks rather formidable because its tower has been inclosed by the extended side-aisles. I added on purpose the detail that I took a bicycle to reach ‘t Woudt, because the road to Wateringen behind the church is not open to cars. The N223 road from Delft to De Lier and other villages has an exit for ‘t Woudt, but you can drive only the few hundred meters to this lovely spot, within two kilometers of the A4 highway connecting The Hague to Delft.

Stories to tell

For weeks I have been thinking what kind of story is behind ‘t Woudt. The first story is partially a story of onomastics, the auxiliary discipline that deals with the etymology of names. Toponymy is the study of place names. ‘t Woudt is now a part of the municipality Midden-Delfland. Originally it belonged to the manor Hof van Delft, literally “Garden of Delft” or “Court of Delft”, for the most part now a neighbourhood of Delft itself.

To the south-west of Delft is another place name with a wood in its name, Abtswoude. Toponymical studies have shown this name was formed by an act of popular etymology. The medieval name was Popta’s Woude, “The Wood of Popta”. In the nineteenth century this name had been transformed to Papswouw. People thought this place name meant “the wood of a priest”. In a funny way they decided to upgrade the place name to Abtswoude, “Abbot’s Wood”, because of the popular belief in the existence of a monastery on this spot in medieval times.

Now it is very difficult to imagine actual woods in a classic Dutch polder. In this fen country a wood can hardly exist. Perhaps to add to the confusion about Abtswoude, and to create a new chapter in Dutch landscape planning, a land art project near Abtswoude was started in the late twentieth century in the form of a wood surrounding a hill of only five meters. The wood is called the Abtswoudse Bos, and the core of the project is even called Moeder Aarde, “Mother Earth”. The whole area of just 190 hectare is situated on the outskirts of Delft.

The A4 and the Raad van State

The A4 road reaches from The Hague Delft only to stop in the midst of the polder. After decades of discussions, protests and several juridical procedures at the judiciary branch of the Raad van State, the highest advisory council of the Dutch government, on July 6, 2011, it was finally decided to build the missing six kilometers of this highway to Rotterdam. The new part of the A4 will run at a distance just 1500 meters from the Abtswoudse Bos.

The Raad van State has also the role of a court of appeal in cases concerning administration. Lately the double role of the Raad van State, founded in 1531 by Charles V, becomes more subject to criticism because it is a clear example of a situation – governed by the special law for the Raad van State (1962) – in which the governing power has to be separated from the judiciary. The court branch has to judge cases which have been discussed in or which were advised upon by the council itself. In October the Raad van State opened its renovated building. Surely the external renovation with a better use of its palace in The Hague at the Kneuterdijk was needed and successful, but an internal renovation, too, is needed to survive and function properly in this century. The Dutch queen is formally the head of the Raad van State, but the vice-president leads in daily practice the council. Due to their position the vice-presidents have got nicknamed viceroy of the Netherlands. These months the nomination of a new vice-president is another point of debate. Instead of being aloof to party politics the vice-president’s function might get more politicized.

Old and new landscapes

Having brought together a medieval hamlet, a romantic belief in the existence of a medieval monastery, a newly planned wood and land art project, and the completion of the final trajectory of the A4 I do not know whether to smile or to shake my head in disbelief. The Dutch polders can show you a rich variety of different landscapes. It seems most practically to keep in mind Dutch landscapes have been shaped and are being shaped by man. One could almost suggest the neologism manscape… Between The Hague and Leiden you will find the artificial lakes of the Vlietlanden directly next to the A4. The high-speed railway between Amsterdam Airport and Rotterdam was custom-built with a number of tunnels to protect the scenery of the classical Dutch polder as much as possible. Interestingly a separate institution has been founded to deal with complaints about damages caused by this railway. In daily life you have to picture the densely populated province of South Holland as an amazing mix of villages and towns surrounded by the remains of polders and more graphically by railways and highways, with to the east the largest more or less intact polder zone, the archetypical Groene Hart, the Green Heart of the Netherlands.

As for medieval monasteries around Delft, to the north-east of Delft is Sion, now part of Rijswijk – the Ryswick of the 1697 peace treaty -, the spot of a monastery of Austin Canons, founded in 1345 and demolished in 1572. The canons found around 1490 a Roman milestone near Monster in the Westland region. A part of the grounds survived as an estate long owned by the Van Hogendorp family. Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp (1762-1834) helped in 1813 decisively in creating the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sketching a draft for the new constitution – subsequent versions of the Dutch constitution can be found here – and getting the family of Orange-Nassau on the new Dutch throne. I had hoped to find more information on individual monasteries in the lavishly illustrated volume De middeleeuwse kloostergeschiedenis van de Nederlanden [The medieval monastic history of the Low Countries], edited by Paulina de Nijs and Hans Kroeze (Zwolle-Ter Apel 2008), but this is not the case. Characteristically romantic phantasy lacked geographical precision. I suppose I will hardly succeed in cycling around Delft in one day to visit all places mentioned in this post. Hopefully there is enough here for reflection on the facts and stories presented.

Monasteries in medieval Holland: a postscript

I would like to help those searching for medieval monasteries in the Low Countries by pointing to the Signum network for the social-economic, institutional and juridical history of medieval ecclesiastical institutions in the Low Countries. The scholars in this network do research on such institutions both in present day Belgium and the Netherlands. The website of Signum has been recently refurbished. Among the reviews of recent publications is a review of the book edited by De Nijs and Kroeze. At this moment (early December 2011) the useful links section is not present anymore. One of the links mentioned was the so called kloosterlijst maintained at the Free University Amsterdam, a database with concise information on some seven hundred medieval monasteries within the modern Dutch borders. For Delft only you will find thirteen convents…

Water control, a legal matter

Water is a matter of life and death. For a country like the Netherlands with the ground level for more than fifty percent below sea level water control has got for centuries several additional dimensions. Water control can mean controlling the quality of water for drinking, irrigation and other purposes, it can also mean getting water out of a district to ensure a good water level for farming, it can mean protecting such districts against flooding by the sea and rivers. Major parts of the Netherlands lie within the estuaries of the Rhine, Meuse and Escaut (Schelde).

To the best of my knowledge the Western Waters Digital Library (WWDL) is one of the largest cooperative digital libraries. Some twenty institutions from several states contribute to this project on the history of water control in the United States, mainly participants of the Greater Western Library Alliance. The WWDL presents a great variety of documents and images on many subjects, and also finding aids for collections. You will not only find information about irrigation projects, but also on the great dams and their impact on the quantity and quality of water, and in particular information from and about people involved with many projects concerning water.

The peculiar legal nature of Dutch institutions for water control in the broadest sense of the word is their independent origin and – at least to a considerable extent – still independent status. A Dutch waterschap or hoogheemraadschap is not a municipal, provincial or national institution. Some of the waterschappen occupied themselves only with a part of a region, but since a major reorganization in the nineties of the past century only a small number of large water control boards exist, six hoogheemraadschappen and some twenty waterschappen. The modern provinces Friesland and Limburg have now each only one waterschap. A waterschap had and has its own governing body, organizes its own elections for representatives and its board, collects itself special annual taxes, creates its own regulations (keuren), including penalties to be inflicted. In history some waterschappen could even threaten to impose the death penalty for major infractions against its bylaws, for example not complying to orders to repair dikes or not helping against the imminent threat of a flood.

Windmill near Oud-Zuylen

A windmill near Oud-Zuylen, to the north of Utrecht, now in the care of the hoogheemraadschap Amstel, Gooi en Vecht

The history of waterschappen has not been neglected by Dutch legal historians. One of the great pioneers was Sijbrandus Johannes Fockema Andreae (1904-1968, grandchild of another legal historian with the same name (1844-1921), the latter mainly remembered for his useful overview of sources for Dutch legal history – the Overzicht van oud-nederlandsche rechtsbronnen, A.S. de Blécourt and A.M. van Tuyll van Serooskerken (eds.) (2nd ed., Haarlem 1923; reprint Alphen aan den Rijn 1981) – and his 1910 facsimile edition of the first edition from 1631 of Hugo GrotiusInleidinge tot de Hollandsche rechts-geleerdheid. Fockema Andreae junior defended in 1934 a thesis on the history of the hoogheemraadschap of Rijnland, the region around Leiden. Some of the works of a slighty earlier scholar, Anton Albert Beekman, have a rather special form: his study Het dijk- en waterschapsrecht in Nederland vóór 1795 (2 vol., The Hague 1905-1907) is a glossary of old Dutch law, and he contributed also a similar volume to the Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek, the dictionary of Middle Dutch. Let’s mention in passing also his major contribution to the eight volumes of the Geschiedkundige Atlas van Nederland (The Hague 1915-1932), a historical atlas of the Netherlands for which he drew all maps.

I could cite many more recent studies. Many touch not only water control but also the reclaiming of land in the fen regions of Holland, the creation of the archetypical Dutch polders. Landmark studies are Hendrik van der Linden’s De cope (Assen 1956; reprint Alphen aan den Rijn 1980) which focuses on the classic medieval reclaiming campaigns, J.L. van der Gouw’s De ring van Putten (s.l. 1967) and perhaps Martina van Vliet, Het Hoogheemraadschap van de Lekdijk Bovendams (Assen 1961). Using the online bibliography for Dutch history you can easily search for more relevant titles.

A pumping engine from 1918

A pumping engine building from 1918, built for the former waterschap of Achttienhoven, near Utrecht

In the second part of this post I would like to focus on one institution. Leiden is situated on a minor branch of the Rijn, the Leidse Rijn. This river gives its name to the hoogheemraadschap Rijnland. Fockema Andreae worked for many years for this institution. On the website of Rijnland – and also on the website of Delfland – you can find instructive texts in English about the present day working of these water control boards. Rijnland has to deal with both inland water and the sea. By the way, these institutions do occupy themselves with water quality control, too, but drinking water in my country is generally provided by special companies. Some cities founded their own drinking water company. It is needless to say that conflicts of interest can develop between these companies and the water control boards, between farmers wanting a certain water level for their herds or crops and biologists preferring another level for rare plants and animals.

Rijnland has been often the subject of studies and source editions. The oldest surviving registers have been published for the Society for the Study of Old Dutch Law, De oudste bestuursregisters van het hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland (1444-1520). Regesten van de handelingen van dijkgraaf en hoogheemraden, J.H.M. Sloof (ed.) (Leiden 1999). A section of the Rijnland website is devoted to its heritage, with an image database in which you can find also old documents, artefacts, online finding aids and a treasure gallery. One can find further materials for the history of this heemraadschap at the Regionaal Archief Leiden. This archival centre, too, has an online searchable image database. You will find for example building construction drawings submitted to the hoogheemraadschap.

Sometimes the struggle against water has been lost. In the Westerschelde the socalled Verdronken Land van Saeftinge, “The Lost Land of Saeftinge”, is a silent witness to the power of floods and the consequences of insufficient action to keep water out. It is one of history’s splendid ironies that the Hertogin Hedwigepolder from 1904, the last reclaimed land area in the Westerschelde, lies directly next to an area lost definitively after 1570. A sixteenth-century treatise on dike building, the Tractaet of dyckagie by Andries Vierlingh (circa 1507-1579), gives detailed information on the building and maintenance of dikes. Vierlingh sharply criticized those people who fail to fulfill their duties. The 1920 edition by J. de Hullu and A.G. Verhoeven has been digitized by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, The Hague. The Dutch government has conceded in principle to the Belgian government to give the Hertogin Hedwigepolder back to the river in order to guarantee safe sailing for large modern vessels on the Westerschelde on their way from or to Antwerp. This decision has yet to be enforced, and protests against it in the province of Zeeland are vehement. Dutch readers can meet both very different landscapes in an intriguing chapter of a wonderful book by Kester Freriks, Verborgen wildernis. Ruige natuur & kaarten in Nederland (“Hidden wilderness. Rough nature and maps in the Netherlands”; Amsterdam 2010).

Did you spot anywhere in this post the Dutch National Water Management Agency, Rijkswaterstaat? Did I mention the plans to add the waterschappen to the provinces? You can figure out yourself that when you add national and provincial institutions to my sketch of Dutch water control at a meso and micro level things are still complicated. In my opinion creating or having independent institutions for water control is not only a phenomenon for institutional historians but a subject worth of further investigation. This century will witness the growing importance of natural resources, will perhaps even see battles and wars for water, and you are invited to contemplate the example of a region with in this respect a special balance of powers.

Disaster and digital heritage in New Zealand

One of the unforgettable scenes in The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s famous novel, brings the reader to the remains of a boat built by the Maori ancestors of Joe, which comes only to the surface after a minor earthquake. This week New Zealand has been forcefully hit by a major earthquake. People have been killed by it, many more people got injuries, houses and other buildings have become ruins or are severely damaged. How to rebuild lives and houses? How can one heal the wounds? What has become of all kind of things that form ties with the past, with New Zealand’s cultural heritage?

On my website for legal history the page with digital libraries is on the brink of becoming a separate section. One of its shortcomings is its organization along national borders, for frontiers have changed over the centuries. Colonial history has often destroyed older borders and memories of them. Luckily some digital libraries are the fruit of international cooperation. Looking at my list today I can at least see quickly which collections are important for New Zealand. The libraries I list for New Zealand happen to be not just important for legal history but for the history and heritage of this country at large. Australia, too, will show up in this post because of the historical connections within the former British Empire.

The Digital NZ – Á-Tihi Aotearoa of the National Library of New Zealand is a portal to digitized sources at several cultural institutions. Matapihi is a more general portal of New Zealand’s national library  to find digitized materials. The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre at Victoria University of Wellington has among its projects for example He Pātaka Kupu Ture – The Legal Maori Archive, with sources on Maori legal history. Early New Zealand Books, a digital library of the University of Auckland Library, presents online a number of digitized early editions printed in New Zealand. Sources pertaining more strictly to legal history are present in the digital collection for Colonial Case Law of the Macquarie Law School in Sydney. In fact it is a portal to several sites on historical cases, with a very useful links collection, also for New Zealand. It mentons for instance the New Zealand’s Lost Cases at the Victoria University of Wellington. The Oceania Digital Library is an international digital portal created by the University of Auckland Library, the University of California at San Diego Libraries and the University of Hawai’i Library for the cultural heritage of Melanesia, Polynesia en Micronesia.

One of the most remarkable initiatives for digital libraries I have seen is the New Zealand Digital Library at the University of Waikato. Behind this modest title you find in fact a portal to several digital libraries, not only for New Zealand but for other countries as well. The Greenstone digital library software is used in particular for a number of development initiatives and humanitarian services worldwide. Among the so-called “user contributed collections” is the website “Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project” concerning the hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005. At first it might seem wry to find among the projects also the Virtual Disaster Library of the Pan-American Health Organization and the WHO Health Library for Disasters. However, it shows also the outward bound mentality of New Zealand, and these efforts to help worldwide deserve respect and support. I could mention many more links. The website of the Christchurch City Libraries has a well-organized links section, with a special page for links on earthquakes.

Christchurch City Libraries also present a very useful set of legal links. You can follow their tweets for the latest news from Christchurch. For modern law cases the New Zealand Legal Information Institute is the first site to visit; the databases with cases on intellectual property go back to the late fifties and sixties. The Victoria University of Wellington houses an exhaustive website on Indigenous Peoples and the Law which reminds you that continents and subcontinents have a very distinct history before modern nations came into existence. The University of Canterbury in Christchurch gives on its library website an extensive guide to online resources for modern law in New Zealand. To round off for today, let us not forget the legal historians of Australia and New Zealand, united in one society. New Zealanders and Australians try to bridge gaps between a continent and an archipelago. Perhaps we can do something for them, starting with showing our sympathy with the people of Christchurch.

Redeeming the woods of The Hague

When you leave the central railway station of The Hague you will see the Malieveld, a part of the Haagse Bos, the wood of The Hague. The Malieveld is one of the main Dutch places for major demonstrations. The connection with demonstrations on large squares readily explains my interest in the Malieveld. In fact the story goes back to 2006 when the burgomaster of The Hague suggested the Malieveld as the building location for a new Dutch national museum. Five years ago historians showed evidence of an act from 1576 issued by William of Orange forbidding the sale of the Malieveld and the adjacent wood with the objective to cut down its trees. The website of VPRO television´s history channel has a very useful notice on this princely act, with links to the original text and a modern transcription of it, and this forms the starting point of my post.

The Malieveld in The Hague

A part of the Malieveld in The Hague

On February 21, 2011 the Dutch newspaper Trouw brought this again to the attentions of its readers. The article was accompanied by a photograph showing a horsed man dressed as William of Orange addressing people at the Malieveld before a debate on natural conservation in the province of South Holland. The debate on February 19 was organized by the Dutch Society for Natural Monuments, the National Forest Service which owns the Haagse Bos, and the Foundation for the Landscapes of South Holland. I will not touch upon this debate concerning the possibilities for new policies that cuts in the budgets might bring.

Jaap Buis started his majestic study Historia forestis. Nederlandse bosgeschiedenis (2 vol., Wageningen-Utrecht 1985) – available online at the E-depot of Wageningen University – with a short history of Dutch woods and forests. The woods around The Hague were not mentioned as woods in the late Middle Ages, but still as wilderness. The Haagse Bos was created in the fifteenth century. Its maintenance and use as a hunting ground costed lots of money. In 1574, during the early phase of the Dutch Revolt, The Hague was briefly captured by Spanish forces. William of Orange, himself one of the richest aristocrats of the Low Countries, needed money for the continuation of his struggle against the king of Spain, and he proposed the States of Holland to sell the Haagse Bos. Protests by the citizens of The Hague lead on April 16, 1576 to the signing of the Acte van redemptie.

The Institute for Dutch History has created an online database with the correspondance of William of Orange. The Dutch pater patriae got his nickname, William the Silent, not because of his abundant correspondence – some thirteen thousand letters have been tracked down! – but because of his skill in saying almost nothing with much words. In this act the prince of Orange made the citizens of The Hague promise to pay 1500 guilders from the sale of melted down church bells, and 1000 guilders from waiving the right to get back this sum which they had loaned to the prince. William promised in return that the bosch ende warande, the woods and park, would be forever geredimeert ende affecteert, reclaimed and looked after, and that these grounds will never be sold or put to sale for the purpose of cutting down its trees. All this would have to be maintained in full accordance with the old uses and servitudes known to the auditor and bailiff of North Holland.

A point initially missed by journalists and politicians was the fact that this act does not forbid any sale of the woods, but only a sale aiming to get rid of the woods, supposedly to sell the tress as timber and rent out the grounds as building parcels. Buis notes that in 1795 the National Convention was close to selling the Haagse Bos, but the proposal did not get a majority vote (see Buis, I, 14-15 and 328-333).

The Institute for Dutch History shows on its website only the text in a register of the Court of Holland (Hof van Holland, 44, fol. 112r-113v). The original letter has not been traced. The municipal archives of The Hague present the story on their website with a photograph of a copy from 1593 and a translation in modern Dutch. The year 1593 is no coincidence because Maurice of Orange issued in 1593 a new ordinance for the Haagse Bos. William’s act from 1579, the ordinance from 1593 and subsequent relevant documents can be found in the Groot placaet-boek (..) Staten Generael (9 vol., The Hague 1658-1796), the major collection of the acts and statutes issued by the Dutch General Estates, starting in the eight volume, page 654. The set can be consulted online in the section with old printed sources for Dutch history in the Digital Special Collections of Utrecht University Library. Using the website Archieven, an online database for searching in many Dutch archival collections, I found another item at the municipal archives in The Hague, a dossier of the municipal council from the period 1947 to 1953 concerning building plans on the Malieveld and the Koekamp (Gemeentebestuur 1953-1990, no. 5348) which mentions the 1576 Acte van redemptie. Nil novi sub sole! Among the digitized materials in these archives is the Jaarboek “Die Haghe“, the yearbook of the Society for The Hague’s history, and thus you can also check online the 1905 edition of the act from 1576.

The word redemptie sounds very much like the religious word redemption, and indeed its meaning is not far from the religious concept. In legal texts redemption means buying off or reclaiming something. I could check the meaning of the Dutch legal term in a reprint of a small legal dictionary from the eighteenth century, Franciscus Lievens Kersteman’s Practisyns woordenboekje of verzameling van meest alle de woorden in de rechtskunde gebruikelijk (Dordrecht: Blussé, 1785; reprint Groningen 1988), edited with an introduction by J.E. Ennik and Paul Brood. This “Practicioner’s Dictionary or Collection of Almost All Words Used in Jurisprudence” is really useful for understanding older Dutch legal texts. The Institute for Dutch Lexicography in Leiden makes available online not only the Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal but also dictionaries for Middle Dutch and Early Middle Dutch, and even a dictionary of yiddish words in Dutch. The Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal confirms and expands the meaning given by Kersteman.

The old name of The Hague, Den Haag, is actually an abbreviated form of ‘s-Gravenhage, literally “the hedge of the count”. In the thirteenth century count Floris (Florence) IV of Holland had bought grounds near the village Van der Hage. The counts clearly liked this spot next to a lake, nowadays the Hofvijver. Count Floris V built a large hall, now the Ridderzaal of the Dutch parliament. Since the fifteenth century the county tribunal, too, resided at The Hague. The main pastime of the counts was hunting on the grounds around The Hague. When the dukes of Bavaria came to reign over Holland in 1358 and decided to stay in The Hague all signs were positive for creating a real court like surrounding in which the old sport of hunting was not forgotten.  The court was both hunting lodge and a place to hold court, including attention to literature as shown by Frits van Oostrom in his acclaimed study Court and culture: Dutch literature, 1350-1450 (Berkeley, Ca., etc., 1992).

Living near a princely hunting ground was not easy for the citizens of The Hague. Today the Malieveld and the Haagse Bos form a much-needed green area in the city which houses the Dutch parliament and government and a number of international institutions. The Hague is the residence, too, of Queen Beatrix. As long as the 1576 act is not contested in court the fields and woods near the centre of The Hague are ready to receive people for a demonstration or just for a walk to muse over the amazingly long impact of William’s act.

An old boundary

What happened to the walking historian? Lately I did not often go for a walk. During springtime I made several long walks, and I promised to keep a story about one of these walks in stock.

In February Janjaap Luijt published a short note ‘De leeuwenpaal: grensconflicten tussen Utrecht en Holland’ (The lion’s post: boundary conflicts between Utrecht and Holland) in the journal Oud-Utrecht 81 (2010) 10-11, the first of a series of short articles on boundary-posts in this journal of the historical society for Utrecht Oud-Utrecht. On the cover of this issue two men pose in historical costumes in front of one of the old boundary-post discussed by Luijt.

An old boundar-post along the Hollandsche Rading

An old boundary-post along the Hollandsche Rading

I would like to add some information to Luijt’s article which clearly was meant to introduce the subject and to point to the present situation of these objects. Luijt sketches their history. The sixteenth-century posts were renewed in 1719, and eight of them again in 1925. Luijt mentions the 1531 peace treaty on the boundary between Utrecht and Holland. The Great Council of Malines also had to give judgment about the exact boundary. J.M.I. Koster-van Dijk published Gooilanders voor de Grote Raad 1470-1572 (Amsterdam 1979) in which she dealt with all cases brought before this court concerning the Gooiland, the most eastern part of the medieval county of Holland. Many historians have written about Gooiland.  On May 21, 1541 the Great Council pronounced an important verdict on the disputed boundary between Utrecht and Holland.

The boundary-post on the picture I took in early spring is situated at the Hollandsche Rading, a field name which literally means “The boundary of Holland”, a straight line in the landscape, nowadays part of the border between the provinces of Utrecht and North-Holland. The forest in the background is called Einde Gooi, “The End of Gooi”.

A team lead by Thom de Smidt and the late Jan van Rompaey published six volumes with calendars of the verdicts given by the Great Council of Malines between 1465 and 1581. In the fourth volume of the Chronologische lijsten van de geëxtendeerde sententiën (…) Grote Raad van Mechelen (Brussels 1985) it is indicated at no. 11 that several dossiers of one of the highest courts of the Low Countries refer to the 1541 case. The Werkgroep Grote Raad van Mechelen, the team of legal historians that has done so much to enlarge knowledge about the Great Council of Malines, published several books on cities, regions and even one on a country and their cases decided at Malines, for Haarlem, Amsterdam, Leiden, Gooiland, Delfland – the region around Delft – and Portugal. Checking the inventories of archival collections at Het Utrechts Archief made it clear that one could harvest also a nice number of cases concerning the city and diocese of Utrecht. Due to the renovation of the main Utrecht archive building it will not be easy to do research on the history of Utrecht in the near future. As always, some sensible planning and patience will help more than complaining about this situation. For this posting on boundary-posts it is clear how the presence of these historical objects can make one curious to know more about the history to which they refer.

Law, land and art

Law and the humanities, a subject likely to show up on my blog. However, this post has not as its first objective praising seminars on Law and Humanities, nor is it my goal to push anybody to start reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, though this is certainly a good idea. I hesitated myself when art came into my view for a post on legal history, but in fact a work of art was already a central element of my latest post.

This time I want to write about art objects with legal power. Kings and emperors had their sceptres, often beautifully crafted, and now often on display in museums around the world. However, the art objects to be discussed here empower people. They express their claim to lands that in times beyond written memory belonged to them.

The Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht

The Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht at the Oudegracht

In 2001 the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU) was founded, the only museum in Europe which specializes in works of aboriginal art. Apart from its own collection the AAMU houses an art gallery. The AAMU held in 2005 an exhibition titled Law and Land. Art of the Spinifex People, which until then had been on tour through Australia. The Spinifex People who live in the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia decided in the nineties of the last century to put forward a land claim. To support it they created in 1998 two Native Title Paintings, interestingly one by men and one by women. In 2001 the Western Australian Government accepted under the Spinifex Land Agreement the claim of the Spinifex People as decided by the Federal Court of Australia (FCA 1717; November 28, 2000).

Exhibition catalogue "Law and Land"

A fragment of The Women's Native Title Painting

The area of land to which the Spinifex Land Agreement applies covers 55,000 square kilometers, almost twice the size of The Netherlands. The concept behind the native title paintings is well-known thanks to Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Songlines (1987), a masterful evocation of the Australian landscape, Aboriginal culture and its struggle to survive in modern Australia. The Aboriginal people described in songs kept secret to outsiders in sometimes minute detail the landscape of their country. Perhaps one should think of the title paintings more as evocations than of straightforward representations of geographical elements. The Spinifex Native Title Paintings lead in 2001 to the start of the Spinifex Foundation which promotes the arts.

The Spinifex people had to leave the northern part of their land in the fifties because of British nuclear testing. This made it difficult for them to show continuous habitation following normal procedures for land claims. The 2000 agreement does not apply to the natural resources found in the region during the twentieth century, and thus for instance the rights of mining companies are not touched by it.

The Spinifex Native Title Paintings form a landmark in Australia’s legal history equal to the first admission of aboriginal documents in 1963, the Yirkalla bark petitions. In the late eighteenth century the view came into existence that Australia was terra nullius, land belonging to nobody, and this doctrine held sway for over two centuries. Only in 1992 the Mabo Case put an end to this doctrine (HCA 23; 175 CRL 1 (June 3, 1992)) in which verdict the concept of native title was recognized.

Much more can be said about the rights of the Aboriginal people and other indigenous Australian people. When I added some Australian addresses to my link collection of digital libraries it dawned upon me that some Australian things just happen to be in Utrecht, near at hand. The AAMU is worth a visit, although I could not help remembering immediately Chatwin’s description of Australian artists because of the presence of an art gallery. While musing about Chatwin’s view it would do more justice to say that people can be as versatile as the Australian Spinifex plant (Triodia pungens) which can be used in several ways. In order to survive in a desert, and more specific in the Nullarbor region, you simply have to be able to cope with different situations in different ways. Making traditional culture and land survive can call for unorthodox methods. Using art as an argument in law calls for fresh thinking, and this post is only meant as a glimpse of more. Anyway, today I liked to think about the desert on a particular rainy and stormy day.

The world of history

Yesterday the 21st International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS) started in Amsterdam. One of its central themes is water, and this is surely worth the attention of historians, too. Today Amsterdam certainly offered lots of water when in a few hours over 40 mm rain came down, a small quantity compared to the ongoing rains that afflict the people of Pakistan and China. Other nations and people suffer daily from the lack of any water. History on the grand scale will inevitably miss the details which matter most for ordinary people. What about the connection between water and law? Law is by no means a neglectable detail, not for ordinary people nor for historians retracing their footsteps. Let’s have a look at the programme of the ICHS organized jointly by the Dutch Royal Historical Society, the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch Royal Library (The Hague) and the International Institute for Social History.

On Tuesday August 24, a session will be held on “Ethics, History and Law”. At stake here is in particular the grasp of politics on historical research. The four papers in this session touch widely different subjects. Antonis Liakos will discuss the abuses of history by politics and the influence of history in politics. Pierre Nora will present a paper on the French legislation about history and remembrance of the past between 1990 and 2008. Paolo Pezzino dives into a classic juridical matter, the role of historians as experts in court. Jörn Rüsen will reflect on the role of history and remembering the major traumatic experiences of the past century.

In the main programme there are three sessions focusing in law.  There will be also sessions on history and human rights, and on slavery. Another session combines Scottish networks on the Atlantic and the history of legal attitudes to piracy. In other sessions some papers touch law and legal history at least in their titles. Billy K.L. So speaks about company law reforms and business modernization in China and Japan in the early 20th century, Anne Redgate discusses liturgy, law and self-representation in medieval Armenia and England. Ana Sofia Ribeiro will focus on sexual violence in 18th century Portugal, and Marianna Muravyeva will talk about legal attitudes to sexual violence in modern Russia. Torsten Feys’s subject is shipping interests and American immigration laws, and Joanna Woydon brings Polish schoolbooks on the 1981 martial law to our attention. Maria Cmierzak tackles the attitudes of the lawyers who reformed the Polish constitution during the last century, and Ditlev Tamm will speak about the transmigration of legal scholarship.

The ISCH hosts also separate programmes. The largest programme is organized by the International Federation for Research in Women’s History. I feel a bit disappointed that only three out of eighteen sessions deal substantially with law: there will be sessions on nationalism, imperialism and women’s rights, on the global struggle for women’s citizenship, and on women’s freedom and civil rights in the African diaspora. The Commission Internationale de Diplomatique represented by Theo Kölzer has organized a session on charters. Papers will concern documents concerning the judiciary in medieval Sicily, medieval Italian merchants and their documents, a notary from medieval Lucca, testaments in Portugal and Spain, and public documentation on devotional practices in medieval Zaragoza. The Commission Internationale de Démographie Historique will held eleven sessions at the International Institute for Social History. Three sessions focus on inheritance law from a comparative perspective. Two other sessions deal with the question whether family systems are only beneficial to land-owning families. With respect to legal history this program looks promising. In fact it makes up for any apparent or real absence of subjects concerning law and history.

It is definitely too early yet to say anything about the success of this major international congress which is convened every five years. It is indeed a question whether more legal history would benefit the ICHS, or that legal historians would win by giving attention to this congress series. It is up to legal historians to be present themselves at such congresses or to opt for other ways of exchanging results from ongoing research, to look at their own research from a comparatist’s view or simply to meet other researchers which deal with the same period, country, region, people or whatever phenomenon or historical event.

The Dutch VPRO television reports daily about the Amsterdam ICHS on its own history website (only in Dutch). At the opening session the Canadian historian Jean-Claude Robert, secretary of the ICHS,  gave a lecture on the history of water management in Canada, a subject which is prominent in Dutch history, too. Reading about the very different appreciations of water depending on its role and impact I could not help thinking of the website about wetlands in Pakistan and the communications network on Pakistan wetlands. What will happen to these wetlands now one has to face another, more terrible impact of water? How can historians help reconstructing life and landscapes in devastated regions? The disasters caused by water in this and other regions are not just a regional problem but a challenge to the global community.