Tag Archives: United States of America

Musing upon liberty and law

While musing myself on themes suitable for a new post on my blog at least one subject offered itself last week in my mailbox. An antiquarian bookshop with stores in Brooklyn, NY and Stevenson, MD, sent me a message about nineteenth-century manuscripts for sale. One of the items attracted my attention because of a remarkable series of subjects touching on law, history and liberty brought together in a manuscript note by a well-known American author. Here I will try to focus on two questions which call out for an answer. Do these subjects really combine so easily and naturally as this author assumed? How can legal historians bring them into discussion again? Here I would like to share with you my first impressions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the law

Ralph Waldo Emerson, manuscript notes on liberty

The manuscript at the center of this post is a two-page note written by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in 1855. Both the website of the antiquarian firm and their mail message point out this text features in Emerson’s book English Traits (1856). From Emerson Central, one of the online portals to Emerson’s texts, I take the quote at stake here:

Magna-charta, jury-trial, habeas-corpus, star-chamber, ship-money, Popery, Plymouth-colony, American Revolution, are all questions involving a yeoman’s right to his dinner, and, except as touching that, would not have lashed the British nation to rage and revolt.

Emerson had studied theology at Harvard. He had visited England in 1833 in 1847, and France in 1848 during the year of revolutions all over the European continent. My first impression of this sentence from the chapter “Ability” of English Traits is that of someone applauding the steady character of the British who do not let them foil into violent actions for some goal, however lofty or urgent. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, revolts in medieval England, the break with Scotland and the Dissolution of the Monasteries are conspicuously absent, and I choose here only a few themes. Instead of character I should perhaps say “nature”, taking the lead from Emerson’s famous essay Nature (1836/1849). In his even more famous address The American Scholar (1837) he urged writers to break away from literary conventions and to find their own voice. Some twenty years later love for things British seemed to be very real. Emerson definitely wrote in the century of the nation-state, and his opinions might be both fired and coloured by feelings of national pride, influenced also by personal experiences. His use of the words Saxon and Scandinavian race is distinctively mainly for the apparent conviction it carries, and not only for its factual imprecision. To all appearances Emerson shared here a Whig view of British history, one long and unbroken road to liberty. Emerson was a poet, too, and we should acknowledge that his vision of the United Kingdom is visionary, perhaps even utopic. Historical facts or their reassessment do not alter the poetic view expressed by Emerson.

For a first online orientation concerning Emerson the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful. You can execute illuminating textual searches in Emerson’s writings in the digital edition created by the University of Michigan, and continue your research at RWE.org. The nature of this blog post is a very simple first impression, a first look at a resource which surely can be studied in more depth.

Great events

The core of Emerson’s note to be discussed here is the combination of familiar subjects for legal historians: Magna Charta, the trial jury, the Habeas corpus rule, the Star Chamber, the Plymouth colony and the American Revolution. The fight against Catholic influences and the creation of the Anglican Church is concisely evoked by the word “popery”. The ship-money was the tax levied by Charles I of England between 1629 and 1640 without parliamentary consent. Once upon a time such subjects might have been included at least in continental capita selecta lectures about British history, but they more probably were and are at the heart of an introductory course in British legal history taught anywhere in the Anglo-American world. By the way, law is not forgotten among the digital resources presented at The Plymouth Colony Archive.

Next year legal historians will face the celebrations around 800 years Magna Charta. The original copies will be shown in exhibitions, sometimes far from their present location. Cultural institutions such as the British Library will rightfully exhaust themselves to show their treasures and to appraise them anew. Hopefully historians can take a distance from preconceived opinions and look at their own prejudices, and help explaining how and why some themes in legal history gained their iconic importance.

The thing that struck me most about Emerson’s words is the vitality of history and the value attached to it, even when admittedly the nineteenth century was the century of history par excellence. The two pages with his notes show in a very immediate way – notice the fluency of his hand! – how he saw himself as part of a living continuity. Whatever the reasons behind the American Revolution it followed nevertheless the example of a country with a long experience of institutions safeguarding liberty.

The website of the antiquarian firm gives a five number amount of money as the prize of Emerson’s note. The prize of liberty and the just course of law and justice is beyond any prize. Legal historians should honour the history of liberty by pointing to its prime examples, to the grave and grim periods and events threatening liberty, to mistakes and opportunities recognisable in our days, too.

The 1855 manuscript of Emerson – with a 1875 carte de visite photograph of Emerson – is for sale at the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop

Digital wealth: comparing national digital libraries

On April 13, 2013 the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) was launched, an initiative that brings together digitized sources from a number of cultural institutions in the United States. In November 2012 the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB) started which combines the digital collections of over 2,000 institutions in Germany. The DDB is still in its beta-version. A Wealth of Knowledge is the motto of the DPLA. In this post I will try to make a comparison between the new American and German national digital libraries. For this purpose I will look both at rather random chosen subjects, and also at specific subjects with a link to legal history. How rich are both initiatives? Do these two new digital libraries compare favorably with other national digital libraries? Actually it is already interesting to look how many comparable initiatives exist worldwide. A number of them is mentioned on my own webpage for digital libraries. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell a national library portal apart from a general search portal or a national portal for digitized cultural heritage.

The limits of comparison

Logo Digital Public Library of America

Perhaps it wise to start here with a Dutch proverb, je moet geen appels met peren vergelijken, do not compare apples with pears, in other words, don’t compare incomparable things. Each of the digital portals and national digital libraries has its own history, background and very different cooperating partners. In my view it is not unimportant to bear in mind this when I assess the qualities of the DPLA and the DDB. I do not want to judge them, but solely to put the efforts behind both libraries in perspective.

The first impression of the website of the Digital Public Library of America is colourful and inviting. A rolling banner shows an impressive array of beautiful images and photographs of important people and events. Visitors of the website can immediately starting looking at information for particular locations, dates and years. The exhibitions section brings you quickly to a number of themes. For legal history I would like to single out Indomitable spirits: Prohibition in the United States. Below the motto A Wealth of Knowledge you can enter a free text search. The DPLA gives prominent space to its tweets, a news section and its apps, alas not yet the applications to use on smartphones to search its contents, but two separate search interfaces. One of the apps enables searching in both the DPLA and Europeana. I will include this double search app and Europeana, too, in my comparison. For brevity’s sake I will not discuss here the Library Observatory with a more abstract presentation of the search interfaces of contributing institutions.

A first hesitation occurs when you notice no less than three horizontal menus to navigate the DPLA portal. The uppermost menu is definitely more concerned with the background, and perhaps you will scarcely need it. For navigation a site map would be helpful, also when facing the multiple browse and search options, the choice in the presentation of results and the way to filter them. In one of the new items you can read in small print that the DPLA is launched as a beta-version.

Engraving of Aaron Burr

Engraving of Aaron Burr – Enoch Gridley after John Vanderlyn, c. 1801 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

How to probe faithfully the quality of any meta-catalogue or portal to cultural heritage? In my view both well-known matters and rather randomly chosen examples will help clarifying this matter. As for the random example, I will choose subjects and themes which just happened to be within my view these days. At his blog Appealingly Brief Dan Klau wrote on April 18, 2013 a posting on Aaron Burr (1756-1836), the vice-president who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, and the ancestor of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the endless speech used to stop senators from voting on bills and other proposals. Until now the filibuster figured on my blog only in his original form as a pirate, and thus I am happy to welcome his namesake!

The DPLA finds 20 results on Aaron Burr. Not one of them is directly connected with the filibuster, but more with the conspiracy for which Burr was indicted on November 25, 1806, and with Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky, a place visited by Burr. I found just one image of Burr himself. The double app for the DPLA and Europeana, too, brings 20 results from the DPLA, and 3 digitized books in Europeana. It is the constellation of holding institutions in the DPLA that surprises me, and their content. The search term filibuster gives me just six results, all of them cartoons from the twentieth century. No doubt the cultural institutions that cooperate in the DPLA hold great treasures, but you would expect results from digital collections at Ivy League universities, and from libraries such as the New York Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Boston Public Library, although this library is present as a general partner in the Digital Commonwealth portal of cultural institutions in Massachusetts, a portal linked to the DPLA. As for now only the NYPL and Harvard Library already participate in the DPLA. In the digital gallery of the NYPL I found 57 images concerned with Aaron Burr. It seems that you cannot search yet all digital collections of Harvard Library in one search action at its website.

At present it seems the DPLA has enlisted the services of only a few major institutions, among them The Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Searching the Smithsonian collections for Burr yields more than 200 results. Looking for Burr on the website of the NARA will easily bring you 75 results. Clearly not of all of them connect immediately to digitized materials, but still the difference is very large. Somehow the aggregating process behind the DPLA is not working as completely and correctly as possible. However, the DPLA is helpful in another way: when you click on More subjects you will find a nice overview of associated themes. For Burr the filibuster is missing among these proposed subjects.

Culture and knowledge

Logo Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

The second library portal in my comparison is the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB). At its launch in November 2012 only a beta-version became visible, thus inviting criticism. The first impression of the DDB is austere, a white background with only a search interface, a slide show with just six pictures, and two clear menus. A sitemap seems at first superfluous, but with a view to the future it is wise to include it already. The language of the search interface can be switched to German or English. Below the general free text search field you can click on Advanced search where you will find initially find just two search fields. However, you can add search fields at will, choose from ten categories, and set the character of a boolean search on “AND”or “OR”. The link to institutions brings you to a map of Germany and a search interface to filter for archives, libraries, museums, research institutions, media and monument protection. At present nearly 2,000 German institutions contribute to the DDB.

The Grimm brothers

The Grimm brothers, drawing by Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1843 – Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen – image Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

How to test the qualities of the DBB in a fair and reliable way? 150 years ago Jacob Grimm died, the eldest of the Grimm brothers. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) was not only responsible for the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812) – the fairy tales had their own bicentennial last year; a digital version of the first edition is present at the Deutsches Textarchiv – and with his brother for the Deutsches Wörterbuch, but published also a number of works which touch upon legal history, starting perhaps with a famous article ‘Von der Poesie im Recht’, Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft 2 (1816) 25-99, on the poetry of the law, and editions such as the texts in Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1834) and the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer (first edition in two volumes, Göttingen 1828).

Just entering “Jacob Grimm” in the DDB gives you already more than 200 results, with 80 images of either Jacob Grimm or both him and his brother Wilhelm. You will find the first three volumes (A to Forsche) of the Deutsches Wörterbuch. The DDB does not bring you to a digitized version of the 1816 article, online in the digital library for German legal journals of the nineteenth century at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. The DDB does contain the Reinhart Fuchs from 1834, and a letter on the subject of this book on several medieval versions of the Ysengrinus story by Grimm to the philologist Karl Lachmann, Sendschreiben an Karl Lachmann von Jacob Grimm über Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1840). The DDB lists several digital copies of the 1828 and 1854 editions of the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer. Twice it is stated the first edition appeared in Leipzig, but the title pages of both volumes of this edition mention Göttingen. The error is due to the source of the meta-data on the digitized copy in question, in this case the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich.

With Grimm I choose an example from the very heart of German romanticism and scholarship. The formal end of the German Holy Roman Empire came in 1803 with the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, a decision of the German Reichstag at Regensburg. One of its consequences was the end of the secular power of a number of German ecclesiastical institutions over large territories, and the secularisation of all possessions of German monasteries. Many libraries were torn apart and ended in the holdings of new large libraries such as the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. By some German scholars 1803 has been described as a more decisive turn in German history than the French invasion by Napoleon. The DDB shows 106 results concerning this decision, not just books, but also links to archival records. Alas the links to the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart are only links to the online finding aids, not to the archival records themselves. When searching for Jacob Grimm at Europeana you get literally hundreds results. A search for the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss as a subject brings at Europeana only four results, but they happen to be the digitized appendices to the decision of the Reichstag with detailed information about institutions and territories. These volumes have been digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. If you search for titles with the same word, you get seven results, again from the same library.

Promises to be fulfilled…

How to assess the results presented in the DPLA and the DDB? Even when bearing in mind we have only been in touch with the beta-version of both digital portals a feeling of disappointment is not far away. For all its colourful and alluring aspects the actual search results at the DPLA are meagre. When you try to search for the same subjects in the online collection databases of some of the major participating institutions you get more results than are at presented harvested by or aggregated at the DPLA. The presence of less well-known digital libraries in the DPLA is a promise for the future. It is good that the nets of the DPLA are not only cast in familiar fishing waters. No doubt the number of participating institutions will steadily grow. In itself it is a strength that this portal does transcend the borders and limits of the traditional library. Images, sound recordings, archival records and artefacts are welcome in the DPLA without any prejudice. The side effect is, however, that books are not as prominently present as you would wish them to be. Some subjects are distinctly nearly absent in the DPLA. The last thing I expected to find in the DPLA among the few results for decretals was a digitized copy at the Brigham Young University of a rare edition of a medieval decretal taken from the edition of the Compilationes antiquae (Lerida 1576) by Antonio Agustín.

The DDB is a bit of a paradox. I have never seen before a digital portal with nearly 2,000 cooperating institutions behind it. I had expected more and more interesting search results for the examples I have chosen here. They stem from a pivotal period in German history and culture. It is not very reassuring to find that searches elsewhere, for example at Europeana and in the collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek yield more results than at the DDB. Especially when you realize German regional meta-catalogues, and at the top of them the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog, help you to track books, including digitized copies, in a very quick and reliable way, the question arises what the aims and goals of the DDB are. Is one it aims to do better than the BAM-Portal? The BAM-Portal finds more results, but on closer inspection only a portion of them concerns digitized materials.

How do the DPLA and DDB compare to similar national and international initiatives? Europeana came into view here already several times. A search for Aaron Burr at the European Library brings you 35 digital results. I found for the filibuster 68 results, with just 5 digital resources. Among the results you can filter for disciplines, which is helpful to find the right kind of filibuster. A similar search for the decision in 1803 to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire yields 23 digital results, with again mostly items digitized at Munich.

Worldwide several library portals exists which combine the forces of several national or even foreign collections to present their digitized resources. Here just a few examples: Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, increasingly aggregates also digitized books from other libraries, for example at Lyons and Toulouse. The Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura is an Italian initiative which combines the forces of a number of thematic and special collections. In Mexico a number of institutions work together in the Biblioteca Digital Mexicana. Fifty digital libraries in Poland can be searched using the portal of the Federacja Bibliotek Cyfrowech. The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel Cervantes is a portal of several major Spanish institutions. For Catalonia the portal Memòria Digital de Catalunya brings you to even more institutions. In the portal Digital NZ – Á-Tihi Aotearoa a number of cultural institutions in New Zealand bring digitized collections together.

One of the main factors for the success of digital library portals is the way data and meta-data are harvested and aggregated. In countries where many different digitization standards prevailed it is surely more difficult to create a successful portal website. The Polish consortium of digital libraries unites institutions which use exactly the same system. Efforts to create a national portal can diminish the financial means for participating institutions to digitize materials that you would like to find also at the national level. The launch of the DPLA took place in Boston. It was no coincidence that I mentioned the position of the Boston Public Library. Its participation in the Massachusetts portal Digital Commonwealth surely poses both possibilities and limits.

Not the least factor in the success of digital portals is sticking to international standards and at the same time creating a tool that is useful for users with different interests and backgrounds. Some portals might in fact be closer to a kind of national showcase than a research tool that fits the needs of scholars from various disciplines. Sometimes it is clear you will start your search elsewhere: for digitized historical maps a first orientation is given at such portals as David Rumsey’sOld Maps Online and Archival Maps, and a second major resource to use for this purpose is the GEO-LEO-portal of the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg and the university library at Göttingen. In my view the DPLA and DDB should get the benefit of doubt. It is clear that they do not yet fulfill all high expectations, but at the same time it is wise to realize nobody would see them as the one and only gateway to digital resources in a particular country. Hopefully constructive comments will be more helpful than harsh early criticisms to create the first complete releases of the DPLA and DDB more satisfactorily. These promising portals deserve a second chance.

A postscript

The portal to historical maps of David Rumsey will shortly join the forces of the DPLA. Among the European portals I could have mentioned the Spanish portal Hispana.

Crossing many borders: the study of medieval canon law

When I started my blog in 2009 this happened not only because I wished to do so, but also in answer to the very question how to blog about legal history. The question came from the Stephan-Kuttner-Institute of Medieval Canon Law (IMCL) at the University of Munich. Since 1996 this institute is housed at the Leopold-Wenger-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte. One of the earliest posts in my series Centers of legal history centered around both institutions.

Stephan Kuttner and the modern study of medieval canon law

The IMCL is a creation of the late Stephan Kuttner (1907-1996). Kuttner was born in Bonn. He studied law in Berlin. His family was originally Jewish, but they had converted to Lutheranism. After his promotion in 1930 Kuttner was refused the opportunity to do research for a Habilitationsschrift at any university in the German-speaking world. Kuttner left Germany and was during a few years able to teach at the Lateran University, and to do the research for two studies which altered the study of medieval canon law radically, a model study on the canon law theory of guilt and a repertory of manuscripts with medieval canon law texts. Eventually Kuttner had to leave Italy and succeeded in 1940 in entering the United States. He taught at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., at Yale University since 1964, and finally from 1970 onwards at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became one of the directors of the Robbins Collection at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school. In 1955 Kuttner founded the IMCL.

In the sixties Kuttner and Gérard Fransen from the Université Catholique de Louvain decided to organize an international congress for the field of medieval canon law. The first congress took place in 1963 at Boston College. In 1968 the university of Strasbourg hosted the second congress, and in that year it was decided to organize the congress every four years, with the venue alternating between Europe and America. From August 5 to 11, 2012, the University of Toronto hosted for the second time – 1972 was the first time – this congress, the fourteenth of a distinguished series. Andreas Hetzenecker used the resources of the IMCL to write a study about Kuttner’s early years in America and his scholarly role for the multidisciplinary field of medieval canon law, Stephan Kuttner in Amerika 1940-1964 : Grundlegung der modernen historisch-kanonistischen Forschung  (Berlin 2007). Kuttner ranks with other brilliant German scholars such as Erich Auerbach and Richard Krautheimer, Fritz Stern, Paul Oskar Kristeller and Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Kantorowicz and Hermann Ulrich Kantorowicz, and many others who had to flee from Germany in the face of the Nazi regime.

Languages and medieval canon law

Logo ICMAC

Both the IMCL and the series of congresses are supported by a society with a Latin and an English name, Iuris Canonici Medii Aevi Consociatio or International Society of Medieval Canon Law, which should not surprise you in view of the language of many sources concerning medieval canon law. When you look at the book titles in the online catalogue of the library of the IMCL you will find works in many languages which is a faithful reflection of the worldwide community of scholars studying medieval canon law.

Quite recently Dante Figueroa wrote for In Custodia Legis, the blog of the Law Library of Congress, a guest post on medieval canon law with at its center the edition of the proceedings of the 2008 congress on medieval canon law at Esztergom. The author evidently was surprised not only by the uncut pages of the proceedings published by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in 2010, but also by the very fact of scholars publishing in a wide variety of languages on a subject which in itself has so many sides. I added a comment to this post mentioning this year’s congress in Toronto, and the fact that the first see of the Institute for Medieval Canon Law was in Washington, D.C., more precisely at the Catholic University of America, where the webpages of Kenneth Pennington remain one of the earliest and most informative pages on the study of medieval canon law.

I always feel slightly disappointed when links in the often very interesting posts at In Custodia Legis lead you only to the venerable Encylopedia Britannica. However, Figueroa has taken the trouble of searching for online information sometimes far away, but he could have found much online in Washington, too. If someone of the fine blogging team at the Library of Congress would take the trouble to add the category canon law to all relevant and often revealing posts at In Custodia Legis they would save anyone interested some time in finding them… Anyway, I am most willing to admit that the post by Figueroa made me think about addressing the subject of languages and medieval canon law.

Medieval canon law in Toronto

When starting this post I soon realized that Toronto would surely qualify for inclusion in my series on centers of legal history. Writers’ received wisdom says you should not mix up things too much in one story, and I confess to a strong tendency to put too much of a good thing in one post. Let’s therefore opt for the best of two worlds and just refer to the Toronto institutions involved in the 2012 congress. The Centre for Medieval Studies is the first to mention. I am intrigued by the references to research projects on the Florentine monte and on Beneventan script, but the website of the CMS does nor bring you directly to more information about them. Among the scholars doing research in legal history one can point to Alexander C. Murray and Giulio Silano. At present Lawrin Armstrong is the editor of the series Toronto Studies in Medieval Law. Medievalists all around the world turn to the well-known series with sources in translation, the Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations.

The second institution at Toronto was the venue of the congress – which incidentally I had liked very much to attend – St. Michael’s College, which can boast Marshall McLuhan, Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain among its former teaching staff. The third institution is the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (PIMS). To honour the memory of Leonard Boyle O.P. (1923-1999), for many years not just a renown palaeographer and codicologist but also a scholar working in the vast territory of medieval canon law, a chair with his name has been founded. The sheer width of his scholarship and his interest in modern technology is mirrored in the Internexus part of the PIMS website which amounts to a full-scale portal for medieval studies online. Here Boyle’s motto taken from Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon should serve as a reminder that you will never look in vain for something to learn which will help you to understand the medieval world at large and medieval canon law as one of its essential components. The PIMS has its own series of publications, including the journal Medieval Studies and the Mediaeval Sources in Translation. Legal history and medieval canon law are among the subjects of the publications. The PIMS is home to the project Monumenta Liturgica Beneventana in which Roger E. Reynolds takes account of medieval canon law.

Blogging about legal history

In my blog roll I try to present as many relevant blogs for legal history as I can. My collection is surely not complete, but at least many countries and languages are represented. Returning briefly to the opening of this post where I told about the impulse I received from Germany in 2009  it is only quite recent that German scholars have started embracing this medium. Klaus Graf is probably the best known pioneer, if not the very godfather of German history blogs. He started his Archivalia blog in 2003. The German branch of the French Hypotheses blogging network was officially launched during a symposium Weblogs in den Geisteswissenschaften in Munich on March 9, 2012. At de.hypotheses.org you can now find 23 German scholarly blogs, including a new one edited by Klaus Graf with references to reviews of recent studies on Early Modern history, the Frühneuzeit-Blog der RWTH. Graf wrote a very substantial paper for this meeting, with many links to blogs on history instead of traditional German footnotes, and a picture of a hilarious game in which you will win by noticing as many stock prejudices against the use of Internet as possible. It is no incident that the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Paris and its librarian Mareike König have taken a lead in getting German scholars to create blogs and to use Twitter.

As for blogging about canon law by a Dutchman, this should not surprise you anymore at the end of a post where linguistic borders are just one of the frontiers to conquer when studying medieval canon law. A recent inquiry from the United States made me think again about the importance and afterlife of medieval ecclesiastical law, and I hope to add soon some pages to my website to show this in more detail.

A postscript

In a comment Anders Winroth (Yale University) announces the return to New Haven of the Institute of Medieval Canon Law in 2013. Some of the contributions to this year’s congress at Toronto are the topic of recent posts at Medievalists.

The wealth of sources: comparing legal history databases

On April 23, 2012 Dan Ernst alerted at the Legal History Blog to the report by Mitch Fraas on legal history databases for the Center of Research Libraries (CRL). Fraas compares in his brief report the contents, range and accessibility of sources for legal history available in a number of major databases which can be accessed by subscribers and subscribing libraries. The theme of open access has figured here already a few times. Perhaps due to the sheer number of posts at the admirable Legal History Blog Dan Ernst’s post and the report by Mitch Fraas (University of Pennsylvania Libraries) have thus far not received due attention. Fraas makes some comments about finding documents and archival records outside the main databases for legal history that call for reflection and reactions.

This report gives me a most welcome opportunity to deal at last with these commercial databases which I have so far kept at a safe distance. Until now I have included them nor here nor at my website. Is it wise to want to have as much as possible in subscribers-only databases? To who belong the sources for the history of nations, for the development of law, legal institutions and jurisprudence, and the records of the actual application of law in courts and elsewhere? Is the intervention of commercial firms absolutely necessary to make online access possible? Are we simply facing a dilemma or are there several ways to obtain maximum accessibility at comparatively low costs? Fraas is a specialist in Anglo-Indian legal history, but he brings the Indian perspective only as a second thought. The very least I can do here is pointing to a blog which serves a portal to India’s legal history. I will also look at the digital collections provided by the Center for Research Libraries, both for subscribing institutions and in open access.

Commercial databases for legal history

Until now my main impression of commercial legal databases was that they serve primarily the field of current law. Depending on the country you live in they tend to focus on jurisprudence, laws and statutes. Legal history seemed to figure only as an offspring of these databases. My impression of a rather closed environment was perhaps rather unluckily fortified by the website Constitutions of the World where for non-subscribing visitors only facsimiles of constitution come into view. The guide on Scottish legal history by Yasmin Morais at Globalex, a website with guides to the legal systems of many countries where her fine guide is the only one dealing with history, adds to an impression of legal history as a subject lost between modern developments. The readers of this blog and my website or of any other worthwhile website on legal history know this picture is not correct. Legal history is very much alive!

If you do not deal on a daily business with Anglo-American law you might be excused in guessing LexisNexis, HeinOnline, WestLaw e tutti quanti present only the materials for contemporary lawyers and law students. The resources guide of an average American law school allots much space to the products of these firms, and a number of schools can add regularly new databases or functionality for existing systems to the variety of resources available for users on and off campus. History comes into view already because of the need in a number of legal systems to be able to search for precedents. Thus legal systems with a tendency to focus on case-law or – phrasing it for Anglo-American law – taking a lead from the principle of stare decisis, inherit a vital connection to the past for present-day use. The drawback is the daily temptation to view this historical connection as a useful handmaid of the present, and not much more. In American law case-law currently gets its specific importance also from the way the constitution comes into view.

A useful comparison

Logo CRL

You might wonder why I included the paragraph here above, but at least it helped me in being more aware of my prejudices against commercial legal databases. Let’s go now quickly to the concise report by Mitch Fraas. He looks at a wide range of sources: published case reports, trials, statutes and laws, general legal literature, and other legal materials. For each category he compares the resources offered to subscribers by LLMC-Digital, HeinOnline, Gale and other firms with resources freely accessible online. Very soon it becomes clear that sources for the United States and the United Kingdom are very well served in these commercial projects. Part of the report is a very useful links selection of both subscription databases and open access resources. Fraas notes that the CRL, too, makes many of its subscription databases available through LLMC-Digital. The report ends with conclusions which you can use as a kind of rough guide to digitized resources for doing legal history on subjects touching the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Fraas has written a more extensive report on LLMC-Digital to which he has added an overlap analysis with comparable providers and a report on the coverage of countries within LLMC-Digital.

At the very end of his report Fraas looks beyond materials for American and British legal history. Sources for the history of the British Empire are also included in the databases under discussion. Fraas himself is a specialist of Anglo-Indian legal history, the theme of his personal blog. His current research is concerned with Privy Council appeals in the early colonial period, i.e. the eighteenth century. For the legal history of India, too, Fraas indicates a search strategy for using digitized sources. To me he seems unnecessary modest in not mentioning his own blog and the sources he has made available himself. He advises researchers to start first with the subscription databases before visiting the various websites which deal with Indian law. It would have been easy to add the guide to these websites provided by Mitra Sharafi (University of Wisconsin) on her splendidly useful blog on Indian legal history.

In a comment on Fraas’ report at the Legal History Blog Fred Shapiro mentions the oversight of Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources. I guess it is the very variety of projects within Gale’s Making of Modern Law series that has caused this omission, but this is certainly a major resource. Today I noticed another blog Mitch Fraas has recently started, Unique at Penn, a blog for the University of Pennsylvania Libraries about its holdings. Compared to the average online library guide to digital resources for legal history Fraas’ report stands out because he indicates strengths and weaknesses of these resources and points to strategies for their use.

What else has the Center for Research Libraries in stock for legal historians? The CRL website gives an overview of the digital collections created by CRL. LLMC-Digital is among them, and most of them are only open to subscribers. Here I will briefly mention the resources in open access which have some relation to legal history. The Digital South Asia Library, a joint project of CRL and the University of Chicago Library, is not only a digital library but also a portal for South Asian Studies. Among the digitized reference books is the Imperial Gazetteer of India. The Digital Library for International Research contains the Digital Legal Texts of Outer Mongolia, created for the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulanbator. The collection Brazil Government Documents, too, is freely accessible online. Of interest is also the collection Chinese Pamphlets: Political Communication and Mass Education with pamphlets published between 1947 and 1954. In my latest post figured the nineteenth-century Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuktu. The digital collection with pamphlets and periodicals of the French Revolution in 1848 has also figured here in an earlier post. CRL provides more research guides, for example on human rights and medieval studies. At the CRL website you can find also reviews of major commercial digitization projects, for instance of World Constitutions Illustrated, with again a useful list of online resources, both for subscribers only and in open access.

Open access or subscription, an eternal dilemma?

Some of my readers would like me to vote clearly for the creation of open access digital resources as the sole way to provide scholars with adequate access to their preferred digitized resources. I simply cannot decide this within the space of one post. I am certainly concerned about the monopolizing tendency of a number of firms which gain sizeable profits from the digitization projects they maintain in cooperation with national libraries and prestigious research institutions. In principle national libraries have a task not only for scholars or for a nation but for the common good. It seems many institutions follow both the road of projects financed and possibly tapped to some extent by commercial firms, and the road of their own projects, sometimes in collaboration with partner institutions in other countries. Libraries are probably wise not to exclude commercial collaborations, but when access to digitized materials concerning the cultural or legal inheritance of nations and peoples is severely restricted, it seems they do not fulfill their mission as completely as they should.

One should be aware how difficult it is to take decisions in the face of budget cuts. Libraries, museums and archives have to adapt themselves to the chances and threats of the digital revolution. They face pitfalls and dead-ends, they are sometimes surprised by the very success of other projects. Every now and them it is even hard to discern at all between failure and success. They cannot bet on one horse, be it the glory of independent projects which distract from the very high costs sometimes involved, be it as a more anonymous contributor to commercially safe projects which do not exhaust their own budgets. In my opinion the firms with the subscription databases should give the contributing institutions more credit for their trust and for their policies which have resulted in the very creation of the collections being digitized. Is there no lawyer who can develop a legal construction which sets for example a ten years limit to the profits gained by these firms from digitizing objects which are in the public domain? On the other hand one has to acknowledge some firms invest at least some of the profits gained from their subscription databases in the field of current law into projects for scholars and the general public interested in culture and history.

It is easy to create a caricature of reality with a simple distinction between the good, the bad and the ugly. Some open access projects are distinctly ugly, in particular those with institutional stamps on images. In my view it would help to have more insight into the arguments which favor in one case open access, in another case cooperation with a publishing company. In earlier posts I could already show that the sheer number of items or the degree of familiarity of objects is not necessarily the decisive factor. Today’s wisdom can be tomorrow’s foolishness. State of the art technology can quickly become outdated. The position of libraries in the field of scholarly information can change rapidly and make current constellations inadequate for the future. The report discussed here deals with American and British legal history. It will be most interestingly to create similar reports for other fields of legal history.

A postscript

At the back of my mind remained the question where to find a guide to free online materials concerning American law. Recently Harvard Law School Library published an online guide for this purpose, not only for American resources, but also covering foreign and international law.

Copyrights and the threats of censorship

Between January 18 and 24, 2012 I have included in the top right corner of my blog a banner linking to the website on American Censorship which promotes the protest against the proposed SOPA/PIPA bills. Why this reference to current politics? Why this gesture? Perhaps because in the end politics will touch you, even when you stay aloof from politics.

On January 18, 2012 several websites black out during twelve hours as a more radical sign of protest against legislation which could allow the government of the United States of America to block websites completely. Among the protesters are the English Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is not only an archive for websites, but also a treasure-house for digitized books. Many eminent libraries contribute to it.

Almost a year ago the Egyptian government blocked the access to internet in Egypt. Only a few websites in Egypt could be reached within the country and from abroad. This contemporary development led me to write a post on Egyptian websites with the title “Switched off?”. Among the websites not touched in January 2011 by this act of censorship was a sister website of the Internet Archive maintained at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Today, too, it serves as the indispensable mirror of the project in San Francisco.

Yesterday I published a post about the mazarinades, the pamphlets and libels attacking the policies of cardinal Mazarin in seventeenth-century France. A pamphlet from 1651 with the title La Mazarinade coined the generic term for these pamphlets. Mazarin had the guts and wisdom to start collecting these pamphlets in a period which saw the growth of absolutist regimes. To put things into a sharper perspective, Mazarin had started in 1643 the first public library in France, the Bibliothèque Mazarine.

Historians and in particular legal historians cannot close their eyes to proposals which could in the end very well make independent and objective scientific research and free access to information impossible. Perhaps protection of rights is not so much the problem, but in fact it can become a tool of censorship in the hands of multinational organizations and governments fearing democratic control and the free circulation of news, ideas and goods. While at face value only protecting claims to copyright recognized by law it can become far more, even a legitimation of preventive actions. Claims to absolute protection of copyright are indeed claims, not per se facts. Claims to copyright on items clearly in public domain should be ruled out of court.

As for information on blogs, there are both commercial and public initiatives to transmit information from blogs without prior notification to authors. Thus some of my blog posts have appeared with clear indication of its origin at Criminocorpus Radar, the news bulletin of the French Criminocorpus project. I see this as a fine example of free dissemination of information. Nevertheless even I have added a disclaimer to my blog…

As for history online and the history of copyright, the website Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), created by the universities of Bournemouth and Cambridge, brings together a most useful selection of texts. To them you can add the digitized texts in the Archivio Marini of the Università degli Studi di Pisa.

Others have spoken and will speak surely more eloquently and persuasively than I about this issue. I am curious what will show up about this question at the websites of the United States Copyright Office, the Law Library of Congress and the blog In Custodia Legis, “In Protection of the Law”, where the law librarians of the Library of Congress express themselves on many matters. Will they speak out now, too? Anyway, the Library of Congress offers a sensible starting point for tracking the proceedings about the proposed bill. The library’s very recently launched subdomain Bills This Week to Be Considered on the House Floor gives an overview of bills under consideration. The THOMAS system of the Library of Congress for legislative information provides further links to the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PIPA and the actions undertaken by the American Congress.

Claiming the streets. Legal history, riots and upheavals

Between an isolated incident of violence and a full-scale revolution exists a wide variety of possible forms of violent actions. Their cause, form and the people involved have differed widely, as do the backgrounds of such events. The second week of August 2011 saw riots in the streets of London and other English cities, which at first seemed largely an outburst of violence but soon turned into plundering of shops and pillaging of neighbourhoods. The reactions of authorities, even their relative unresponsiveness to events, are ever so much determining factors in assessing the exact character of events as the actual events themselves, their media coverage and opinions about them. In many countries one can scarcely imagine a police force without water cannons which were conspicuously absent in England. In this post I want to look at some historical riots and upheavals from the perspective of materials nowadays digitally presented.

Dutch upheavals

In historiography there has been a tendency to see the Dutch Republic as an island of order in the midst of the turmoil that struck Western Europe from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. However, a title like The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama (1987), echoed by A.Th. van Deursen, De last van veel geluk. De geschiedenis van Nederland, 1555-1702 [The burden of lots of luck] (2004), indicate a less rosy state of affairs. Van Deursen died last month. He was an eminent historian who has considerably enriched our views of the Dutch Golden Age. War was a characteristic of the period of the Dutch Revolt, roughly between 1566 and 1609. The Eighty Years War (1568-1648) of the United Provinces lasted even longer than the Thirty Years War and the destructions that hit the German Holy Empire. Already in 1979 Rudolf Dekker published an anthology of eyewitness accounts of troubles and riots in Holland (Oproeren in Holland gezien door tijdgenoten (Assen 1979)), and in 1982 appeared his study Holland in beroering: oproeren in de zeventiende en de achttiende eeuw [Holland in trouble: riots in the seventeenth and eighteenth century] (Baarn 1982).

One of the most striking revolts in the Dutch Republic was the 1696 Aansprekersoproer, literally “The Undertaker’s Men Revolt”. You can find the occupation aanspreker among the occupations in the History of Work Information System of the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam. The city of Amsterdam had decided to lower the number of men working as an undertaker’s man from around 300 to 72. In order to win the favour of the poor the aansprekers launched the rumour that due to this new policy poor people would not get anymore a decent funeral. An indignant mob attacked the houses of burgomasters and other members of the city’s elite and killed several people. The city council immediately issued ordinances against the violence, but to no avail. The second day sailors joined the revolt. Only the third day a former burgomaster succeeded in calming the mob. Students of Utrecht University have created an interesting online presentation concerning the Amsterdam city government, this riot and the subsequent trial.

From more recent centuries, too, one can find several major riots. The most picturesque riot is probably the Palingoproer, the “Eel Revolt” of July 1886 in the Jordaan, a neighbourhood of Amsterdam. Pulling eels from a rope while standing on a boat in an Amsterdam canal was one of the few pastimes in a poor and squalid quarter of Amsterdam. Not that other Dutch cities were any cleaner. Auke van der Woude has chosen a most winning title for his latest study Koninkrijk vol sloppen. Achterbuurten en vuil in de negentiende eeuw [Kingdom of slums. Backstreets and rubbish in the nineteenth century] (Amsterdam 2010), a book in which you can smell the poverty that reigned in the slums of many cities. Pulling eels had been repeatedly forbidden, and police action against it seemed to be the trigger for protest. On the first night policemen used swords to get safely back to their headquarters. On the second day the army came into action with 26 victims as a result. The image database of the Amsterdam City Archives contains a number of contemporary photographs of the Lindengracht where this revolt happened. The Amsterdam City Archives have developed a very active policy of digitization on demand, and not only for this reason you should look at the services offered here. During the inquiries after these riots it proved impossible to detect agitation by anarchists.

The Jordaan, now a much-loved neighbourhood in Amsterdam, saw in 1917 a week called afterwards the Potato Revolt with nine casualties and over one hundred wounded people. In 1934 a protest in Amsterdam against a cut in the doles combined with a protest against the Dutch national-socialist party NSB. During this Jordaanoproer not only the Jordaan became the scene of a revolt, but other quarters of Amsterdam as well. With five dead people and more than fifty casualties this might seem a less violent revolt, but the Amsterdam police failed again to quench the revolt quickly.

Most recent in Dutch memory are the riots in Amsterdam on April 30, 1980, during the coronation of Queen Beatrix, and therefore called either the Coronation Riots or the Squatter’s Revolt. A substantial number of houses in the old city of Amsterdam had become illegally inhabited by groups of squatters. They announced a day of action as a protest against the Dutch housing shortage, and more specifically against the authorities which according to the squatters failed to act against speculation on the housing market. The very city heart of Amsterdam had been sealed off to ensure a smooth coronation, but elsewhere in the city centre a number of fierce battles were fought. A growing number of squadrons of a special police force, the Mobiele Eenheid, the “Mobile Units” was called upon to fight against the squatters. Due to inadequate communication these forces at first did not help much. Only late in the evening of April 30 the streets became quiet after a day with hundreds of casualties and severe damage to shops and other buildings. Afterwards the Coronation Riots were absolutely the main reason for the Dutch police to give the Mobile Units more training, to enhance communication and to revise police strategies against possible violence. Novelist A.F.Th. van der Heijden wrote in 1983 De slag om de Blauwbrug [The battle for the Blue Bridge], a short story about an episode during the Coronation Riots, which functions as the prologue to a series of novels by this author.

Only the Jordaan Riots of 1934 have been canonized in the Canon of Amsterdam. If you want to find more Dutch riots and upheavals mentioned in the current Dutch vogue for historical canons you can search for words like rellen, oproer or opstand at the Regiocanons website which presents a number of regional historical canons.

Riots in the United States

Surely one of the best documented events concerning a riot in the United States is the Haymarket Affair. In May 1886 a four-day labor protest in Chicago was met by a large police force. On May 1 and 2 things went uneventful, but in the evening of May 3 a bomb exploded amidst the policemen just as they had summoned people to clear the streets. One police officer was killed immediately, six others died later. The police responded with gunfire which wounded an unknown number of protesters. Afterwards the police arrested a number of anarchists. In the subsequent trial four defendants were sentenced to death. The trial became an international affair. In fact the remembrance of this protest created the international celebration of May 1 as Labor Day.

The Chicago Historical Society has created a digital collection on the Haymarket Affair, in which you will find all kinds of documents on the protest, the events of May 3 and the trial. At this site is also a so-called dramatization of the events, a narrative with the purpose to put the events into perspective. The Library of Congress presents in the digital collection of the American Memory both the documents digitized at Chicago, more documentation and a full transcript of the trial. Perhaps it is good to note the title of the collection at Washington, D.C.: Chicago Anarchists on Trial. Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887. The trial is of course present at the Famous Trials website of Douglas Linder, who specifies the title of the case, State of Illinois v. Albert Spies et al. Despite rumours about machinations by anarchists or social-democrats the investigations at the trial did not bring convincing evidence for this charge.

Linder mentions several other riots which resulted in epoch-making trials. The Boston Massacre in 1770 was one of the events leading to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Soldiers opened fire at unarmed citizens when they felt threatened by them. Five people died, many others were wounded. In his introduction to The Boston Massacre, a history with documents (New York, etc., 2010), a useful collection of documents on this event, Neil L. York does not fail to mention the paradox that what happened was not a massacre, but it surely had similar impact. The Carthage Conspiracy Trial has at its centre a mob killing Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinois in 1844, just one man.

In fact this paragraph could easily be extended to mention much more riots and upheavals. The Villanova University in Philadelphia launched this month an online exhibit called Chaos in the Streets. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 on the violence against Catholic and Irish people in May and July 1844. It is already interesting to note the time span of these riots. On the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website of the O’Quinn Law Library, University of Houston you will find for example materials among the Privy Council Miscellaneous Papers at the British National Archives concerning the Stamp Act Riots of 1765. The New York Draft Riots in July 1863 were probably the largest riot in American history. Protest against the conscription act enacted by Abraham Lincoln culminated in fierce riots after the publication of the names of draftees. The number of victims has been estimated between at least twenty to perhaps 2,000 people. In Making of America Books, a digital library at the University of Michigan, you can find a book by Joel Tyler Headley, The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873,: including a full and complete account of the Four Days’ Draft Riot of 1863 (New York 1873). Its title clearly indicates the events in 1863 did not constitute the first riot in New York.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) forms the background of the 1863 riots, and puts them into a different perspective from riots during more peaceful times. It is hard to distinguish between a single riot and riotous days during or even starting a revolt or revolution. Therefore I have excluded riots during such periods from the sample of riots presented here. It is certainly not for a lack of riots in American history that I mention only a few. Slavery and racial tensions were just a few of the ingredients at hand and at stake in riots. By chance I spotted the Tulsa Race Riot in the night from May 31 to June 1, 1921, with an estimated number of deadly casualties between one hundred and three hundred in this Oklahoma town. The Tulsa Historical Society has created an online exhibit about this event.

Riots in the United Kingdom

Events in the United Kingdom pushed me to write about riots. The British people are no newcomers to such events. In 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt had been a nationwide upheaval. The study of riots by historians has been decisively influenced by Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé and their book Captain Swing (New York 1968) on the farmer protests in 1830. Threshing machines were demolished, workhouses and tithe barns attacked. The actions were accompanied by letters written by a Captain Swing, an invented figure. No killings took place during the Swing Riots. The protests followed after two seasons of poor harvests. It has been argued that the 1830 riots were in the long way also the consequences of earlier enclosures which deprive poor farmers of a decent source of income.

Hobsbawm minted the term social banditism, a kind of bottom-up, grass-roots rebellious action against law and order. According to him the bandits gained a stronger social status by protesting violently against and breaking through the borders of society. As a medievalist I would think immediately of Robin Hood, and realize also that his romantic legend grew only in much later times. The studies by Hobsbawm and Rudé are still worth reading because of their scholarship, but inevitably they point also to the weakness of hypotheses about the causes of riots which favour just one reason or factor behind riots and revolts.

This post would become a bit tedious if I would continue to go from one case to another without sufficient reasons and explanation. However, in order not to let you suffer too much from the apparent lack of information here you had best turn to bibliographies and journals on legal history. Law, Crime and History is one of the journals you might start searching in for more. In the most recent issue (21/2 (2011)) of this e-journal you will find for example an article by David Cox on the Staffordshire Election riots in 1835. This journal is an offspring of the Solon project at Plymouth University. Checking for seminars and conferences concerning legal history at the website of the Institute of Historical Research is another thing to do. You will also consult with profit the bibliography of British and Irish legal history compiled at Aberystwyth University, alas only for publications between 1977 and 2005. If you use as a search term the word riot in the database of the proceedings of the Old Bailey for the period 1674-1913 you will find easily more than 400 cases. This website has an extensive bibliography. This fact, too, explains my hesitation to choose any example from these rich court records.

Violence and (legal) history

One blog post is not enough to tell more of the story of violence and its presence in legal history on the local, regional or national level. Here I have only tried to point you to some examples which came to my attention recently. Let’s finish this post with the remark that preparing this post and seeing the great variety in the form of these riots and upheavals, the wide spectrum of issues at stake, the different views on their causes and the very different stories these riots make, has helped me to become more sceptical of easy explanations. No doubt some easy explanations still figure in the presentation I give here of some events. The depth of explanation is probably inversely related to the number of examples given… Sometimes giving a taste of things to explore further is just as important as giving a seemingly complete story.

Expanding stories: a postscript

In order to make it more obvious how many revolts and rebellions can claim your attention a few examples which came to my notice in December 2011. It is only logical to make up here for the rather scarce information on riots in the United Kingdom, even more because the original impulse to write this post stems from the August riots in English towns earlier this year. In my post about the Centre for Legal History in Edinburgh I mentioned the digital collection of Jacobite prints and broadsides at the National Library of Scotland. In the section Historical News of the website of the Institute for Historical Research in London I found a notice about the digitization of the depositions after the Irish rebellion of 1641. Trinity College Dublin has recently launched a website with these depositions. If you search for riots on the website of the Institute of Historical Research you will be richly rewarded. One of the search results is the conference at Brighton from September 5 to 7, 2012 at Brighton on the theme Riot, Revolt, Revolution. To the selection of websites on British History which I made to make up for the relatively short treatment of events in the United Kingdom I would like to add History Online.

The Boston Massacre

The blog In Custodia Legis of the law librarians of the Library of Congress alerted me to documents at the Library of Congress concerning the role of John Adams in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre in 1770, and brought also a special website to my attention. A number of documents has been digitized, and you can find out more at the website of the Boston Massacre Historical Society.

A historical re-enactment with a twist: Bradwell v. Illinois

I do like devoting posts to books and archival records as sources for legal history, and thus it was really by chance that I saw a notice on the website of the Yale Law School about the re-enactment of a historical case from 1873. When reading about the re-enactment and viewing the video recording of it my curiosity grew. One of the headings I used in a post this month was “Less is more?”. After that really long post I have decided to keep this new contribution rather short.

At the 2011 Judicial Conference of the Ninth Circuit, held from August 15 to 18, 2011, a number of lawyers re-enacted the case of Myra Bradwell versus the State of Illinois before the United States Supreme Court (83 U.S. 130 (1872)). Among the performers was Yale law professor Judith Resnik who pleaded the case of Myra Bradwell (1831-1894), a married lawyer who wanted in 1869 to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, but her request was denied. It took some time before her case was finally heard by the Supreme Court. The re-enactment was presided by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg. In 1873 Bradwell lost her case, but last month Judith Resnik pleading for Myra Bradwell convinced Justice Ginzburg and won her admission to the Illinois bar.

Women’s legal history in the United States

Until now I have only mentioned women’s legal history very briefly, but the few things noted in that earlier post helped me to get quickly more information about Myra Bradwell. The Women’s Legal History (WLH) project at Stanford Law School has a page with lots of online references about materials on Bradwell and literature about her. Thus I could link here to an online version of the case. The page on Bradwell at Stanford University brings a lot more than the brief notice in the online exhibit of the Columbia Law School library, The Rise of Women in the Legal Profession. In fact the WLH project is a model of its kind, but not a model you can easily follow. The combination of biographical matters, be it in an admittedly very concise but consistent way, with full references to documents and literature, makes many biographical websites a bit shallow and bleak.

One of the elements in Bradwell v. State of Illinois making this case still interesting is that it involves interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the constitution of the United States. Does denying a married woman the right to be admitted to the bar impair the “privileges and immunities” of a United States citizen? On April 15, 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that this was not “obnoxious to the charge of abridging any of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States”. In 1890 the Illinois Supreme Court, acting on its own, finally allowed Myra Bradwell to practice law. Long before 1890 Bradwell had become a well-known lawyer as founder of the Chicago Legal News (1868).

I could easily continue reaping the fruits brought together at the WLH project and elsewhere, like the short notice in the online exhibit Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition of the Newberry Library, Chicago, but it is more interesting to read the case, to ponder the arguments used in the nineteenth century, to look at the video of the re-enactment and to consider the new arguments presented. Of course much more can be said about American women lawyers, but for today I leave it to you to start further research for example at the history section of the website of the American National Conference of Women Bar Associations.

A Dutch twist

For your convenience I will end here with more information about the other links on women’s history I wrote about earlier, giving this post, too, the customary Dutch twist. The International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam has a fine links selection on women’s history. The IISH maintains the Virtual Library Women’s History, a gateway to women’s history, and ViVa Women’s History, an online current bibliography of women’s and gender history, both indispensable research tools. I noticed earlier on also the IntLawGrrls blog where Bradwell figured in 2009 in the On this Day sectionAletta, formerly known as the International Archive for the Women’s Movement, also based in Amsterdam, has an open access image database. The name Aletta comes from the first Dutch female physician Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929), a pioneer of women’s liberation. She married to the Dutch politician Carel Victor Gerritsen (1850-1905). The Gerritsen collection with early books on the history of the women’s movement has been digitized, but is accessible only at subscribing libraries and their card holders, and for card holders of the Aletta Institute. This enables you to use two other digital collections at the Aletta Institute as well.

All those who would like to know more about women’s legal history outside the United States should perhaps have a look at the program of next month’s conference in Chicago (October 13 and 14, 2011) with the theme Women’s Legal History: A Global Perspective.

A postscript

While searching for other matters an Italian website, Donne e diritti. Osservatorio di storiografica giuridica [Women and rights. An observatory of juridical historiography] came to my attention. It is a portal for women’s legal history with articles, sources in translation, detailed bibliographies, a calendar of events and a link selection with an international orientation.