Monthly Archives: March 2010

Doing legal history

Regular visitors of my blog will have met already several times the walking historian and his (modern?) shadow, the armchair historian, nowadays known as the web surfing historian. These stereotypes might seem separate species, but one can easily combine their characteristics in one person. In fact I simply like walking, reading books and searching the web for real information. Zwei Seelen, ach, leben in meinem Brust, and thus at least three souls can work together happily when you do legal history.

After one of these recent walks I came home with lots of food for thought, and ideas for research. I hesitated to write immediately about this walk, because I could not do justice to the tale I want to tell. To make things more complicated, looking for answers  in a particular direction helped me to find inadvertently something else which simply seems to cry out for further investigation. I guess it was one of these times when you stumble into something you was not really looking for, but nevertheless you found it, and in an uncanny way it almost seemed to have been waiting for you. By chance? If things were that easy to be found, they would have been noticed long ago. No, this much I can say already: I was not totally unprepared when I found it. Training and experience helped me to look through the unpromising appearances, to look behind the mere words I read, to connect it to and confront it with existing knowledge.

Postings on a blog are meant as appetizers, as news flashes or short stories in need of an audience. The stories I am trying to unravel these weeks need more space, more words, more time for research, reflection and clear writing. Perhaps the story of that particular walk in early March will one day turn up in a blog item, but the story of the historical materials found at a time I was working up another walking story needs publication on paper. And when doing legal history the blogging historian has simply less time to write new postings. Creating and strengthening will ask some careful attention, too. All things in due time! When things here seem rather quiet the blogs indicated here will hopefully bring you enough recent postings…


From homepages to a website

It took me more time than I would have guessed: seven weeks ago I started work on converting my old homepages into a nice website of my own. In November my provider changed at short notice the URL of my homepages. You can imagine the effort to inform people about the new address. While murmuring about this unwelcome change the idea of creating a blog on legal history took precedence over starting the new website. Wisdom advised me to start with the conversion of the pages in Dutch.  If only working on this new website had been possible during February, things might have gone a bit quicker, but checking the information and tuning the web design were also necessary. As for now, only a few pages are available in English, but I promise to add the remaining pages as quickly as possible. It would not surprise me that the new page on digital libraries will get attention; adding the English version of it is my first duty. Enough, I cannot wait any longer: welcome at www.rechtshistorie.nlRechtshistorie is one of the two Dutch words for legal history. The other word, rechtsgeschiedenis, is already familiar to you. I hope that you will find the new website in some way helpful.

A walk to a duck decoy

The past two weeks have been busy, and after a few sunny days with enough time for a long stroll things to do returned, as always, with really no time to write a posting. Add to this a bit of illness, and forgetting about the walks would be natural. However, these walks were truly uplifting. They have inspired me to look beyond the landscapes and the impressions they gave me. Today’s post might have a sequel, especially because I guess that more can be said about this topic.

Duck decoys can be carved wooden models of a duck or another kind of fowl, but there is another meaning of this word. Duck decoys, structures to lure fowl into a trap, are a phenomenon that seems to stem from the Netherlands where the earliest mentioning of them dates from the mid-sixteenth century. The Dutch word eendenkooi, “duck cage”,  clearly explains a part of the etymology of the English word decoy. Duck decoys were used also in England, Germany and Denmark. They consist of a number of curving ditches with screens on both sides leading to a net on a pond in which ducks and other birds can be trapped.

Eendenkooi Breukeleveen

The Breukelenveen duck decoy in winter

A duck decoy is often situated in a small wood. I walked to the duck decoy of Breukeleveen -indeed in the fen country near the village of Breukelen, northwest of Utrecht- which is situated in such a place. In order to take pictures of a curved ditch and the screens I simply had to wait until winter, because otherwise you cannot see them.

Around the Breukeleveen duck decoy

The sign for the area around the Breukeleveen duck decoy

Legal history’s interest here is of course the right to use a duck decoy. In fact, several rights can go with the possession of a duck decoy. The most visible one is called recht van afpaling, “right to fence off”. From the heart of the duck decoy a distance of either 735 or 1130 meter is delineated in which no building is allowed nor any hunting by other people. The sign reads “753 meter”, which is remarkable, to say the least. This duck decoy dates from 1811. Since 1955 it is owned by the society Natuurmonumenten. The surrounding wetlands are protected by Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch National Forest Service. The bicycle path on the picture is some fifteen years old. The classic study on still existing old Dutch rights is by the world renowned archivist Eric Ketelaar, Oude zakelijke rechten, vroeger, nu en in de toekomst (Leiden-Zwolle 1978). The law for hunting around a duck decoy is further governed according to the Dutch Flora- en Faunawet of 1998 (changed in 2002) and other regulations. Duck decoys figure in recent Dutch jurisprudence, too. Ketelaar commented the important 1981 verdict by the Hoge Raad, the Dutch Supreme Court, on duck decoys.

More on duck decoys in the Netherlands can be found on this website. Thanks to the services of Utrecht University Library you can read a number of back issues of the journals of societies for the history of Utrecht online on SABINE, the bibliography for the history of Utrecht. It helped me to find quickly two useful articles on duck decoys from 1979 by Désiré Karelse. The walking historian can shake hands with the armchair historian… Anyone interested in the history of English duck decoys should enjoy reading The Book of Duck Decoys: Their Construction, Management and History (1886) by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey. And why not mention that my halting place during this walk, a pub at Tienhoven, was very fittingly Het Olde Regthuys (The Old Court Inn)?

A postscript

Amazingly I somehow missed the duck decoys on the Frisian island Terschelling which features in two posts – here and here – on my blog. Lately I found a book by Piet Lautenbach, Eendenkooien. De laatste heiligdommen van Terschelling [Duck decoys, the last sanctuaries of Terschelling] (Assen, 2011).

Defense by water

Military history is in no way my forte. Yet involuntarily I get rather often in touch with traces of the military past when walking around Utrecht. North and east of Utrecht are a number of forts that belong to the former Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie, the “New Dutch Water Defense Line” which stretched from Amsterdam via Utrecht to the Lek branch of the Rhine. In war time a number of polders would be inundated; the weakest points in the defense line were protected by fortifications. Some forts are quite small, nothing more than just one central bomb free building surrounded by earthen walls and water, others are large. Fort Rijnauwen, the largest fort, has an area of 31 hectare. The forts have long lost their military importance.  The Ministry of Defense still possesses a number of the forts built during the 19th and 20th century, but a growing number has been transferred to all kind of institutions. The former Fort Hoofddijk is now the main centre of the botanical gardens of Utrecht University, and also home to its paleomagnetic laboratory.

One aspect of the forts has a connection with legal history: according to the Kringenwet (“Zone Law”) of 1853 the area around the forts was divided into three zones. In the inner zone building with brick was only allowed to a height of 50 cm. Buildings in the outer zone could be made of brick, but in war time they could be demolished without warning and without any right for compensation. The outer perimeter was one kilometer. In effect it meant that the city of Utrecht could not start building large new suburbs north and east of the old city. Only in 1951 this law against brick buildings was mitigated, and in 1963 finally abolished. As a result building progress on this side of Utrecht started belatedly. On the northern limit of Utrecht the zone around the forts is still relatively empty. The relative calm around the forts provided birds and plants with a safe habitat. I remember visiting Fort Rijnauwen in the seventies looking for birds, and it is fittingly protected nowadays by Staatsbosbeheer, the National Forest Service.

Today I walked to three of the forts in my vicinity.

Fort Blauwkapel is perhaps the most curious fort: it encloses within its walls a tiny village. The small fortification shown here dates from around 1850. Its restoration was completed in 2009. A scouting group uses this building.

Fort Voordorp

Fort Voordorp has become a party center. There are few neighbors within hearing distance… Notice the two traffic signs at the right: this place is again forbidden to the general public! Only the lower one is legally enforceable and would suffice.

Fort Ruigenhoek

Fort Ruigenhoek

Fort Ruigenhoek and its main building from 1870 is not just home to a colony of bats, but hosts every summer KAAP, a manifestation of modern art. In 1996 the fortifications around Amsterdam were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, but the forts around Utrecht are every bit as interesting. Fort Vechten has been chosen as the location of a new center for the history of the water defense line. This fort is located near the archaeological site of the Roman castrum Fectio, a part of the limes in the area along the Rhine estuary. Here Roman and recent history touch each other.