Monthly Archives: May 2010

Centers of legal history: Leiden

A fortnight ago I wrote about Ferdinand Grapperhaus, the deceased Leiden specialist of the history of taxation. At the very moment that I would like to write about Leiden as a center of legal history another scholar from its university has died, Pieter Willem Pestman. Today Gregg Schwendner, the creator of the blog What’s New in Papyrology, notes the obituary and bibliography on the website of the Leids Papyrologisch Instituut. No doubt this obituary will be translated into English.

Teaching and research at the Leiden department for legal history has three general focuses, the history of Roman law, European private law and European public law. However, some more specific themes are forever associated with research by scholars from Leiden. Eduard Maurits Meijers (1880-1954) is famous as the scholar who almost single handed started modern research into the legal doctrines developed at the medieval university of Orleans. His personal library included many early printed books and manuscripts. For many years the department was housed at the Gravensteen, the former county and city prison. Meijers’ books were kept separately in a special room. Nowadays these books and his collection of manuscripts are kept at Leiden University Library. Mentioning medieval legal manuscripts and Leiden must include the yearly Friday privatissimum, the special seminar in which palaeographers and legal historians decipher and study together medieval manuscripts with juridical texts.

The Gravensteen, Leiden

Not just medieval law is studied at Leiden. Hugo Grotius gets deservedly attention as one of the most distinguished scholars of the Dutch Golden Age, and not just from the viewpoint of Dutch legal history. A juridical court, the Great Council of Malines, has been the focus of a project which touched both learned law and institutional history. Many sources for Dutch legal history have been studied and edited by scholars from Leiden. And how can one write about legal history at Leiden without due reference to the ongoing research into the history and the influence of Roman law? You do not have to agree with the idea that Roman law can immediately contribute to the creation of modern European supranational law in a kind of renewal of the 19th century Pandektistik, but you cannot ignore Roman law if you study for instance the new Dutch Burgerlijk Wetboek which shows more influence from Roman law than Meijers, initially charged with the drawing of this new code of civil law, had in mind.

It is difficult for me not to expand all this information or just to mention more legal historians, for example those who studied at Leiden and now work elsewhere. One should of course refer to the Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis. Today one has to remember those scholars no longer with us. However, let me at least thank legal historians working or trained at Leiden for all encouragements, constructive criticism and kind help given since many years to me and many others.

See for an interview with Pieter Willem Pestman the article by Boudewijn Sirks and Bernard Stolte, ‘ Piet Pestman: interview met een papyroloog tussen mens en recht in het oude Egypte’, in: Prominenten kijken om. Achttien rechtsgeleerden uit de Lage Landen over leven, werk en recht, Theo Veen et alii (edd.) (Hilversum 2004 (= Pro Memorie 6 (2004)) 347-359. Leiden University has published a bibliography of Pestman’s publications (PDF).


Ferdinand Grapperhaus and the history of taxation

Dutch legal historians are not often mentioned in national newspapers. On May 9, 2010, Ferdinand Grapperhaus passed away. Ferdinand Heinrich Maria Grapperhaus, born in Utrecht on December 26, 1927, became a legal historian after a career in fiscal law which brought him into politics. He had studied law at the University of Amsterdam where he got his degree in 1952.  He worked as a fiscal consultant and defended his doctoral thesis on fiscal law in 1966 at the University of Tilburg. From 1967 to 1971 he served as Undersecretary at the Ministry of Finance. In this position he was able to introduce some very important fiscal measures, for example the VAT. From 1971 to 1975 he was at the head of Bank Mees & Hope (now MeesPierson). In 1975 the University of Leyden gave him a professorship for the history of taxation which he held until 1993.

The obituaries published today do not mention any details of his publications in the field of legal history. In the Festschrift for Grapperhaus – Liberale gifte: vriendenbundel voor Grapperhaus, edited by J. Verburg, N.H. de Vries en O.I.M. Ydema (Deventer 1999) – his bibliography occupies eight pages. Using the Digital Bibliography for Dutch History one can rapidly retrieve his most important books and articles. A special characteristic of them are the very long titles reminiscent of eighteenth century books. Alva en de tiende penning (Alba and the tenth penny) (Zutphen 1982) is the exception. In this study he discusses the infamous taxation introduced in 1569 by the Duke of Alba. This action acerbated opposition against Spanish rule in the Low Countries. In fact the States of Holland had already in 1553 tried to impose the tenth penny on the possessions of William of Orange, Egmont and Horne, the richest aristocrats of these regions. In Belasting, vrijheid en eigendom (…) (Zutphen 1989) – the English version is titled Taxes, liberty and property : the role of taxation in democratization and national unity 511-1787 – he wrote about the way taxation helped the processes of state building in Europe. Grapperhaus treated regional history as well. In an article for the Jaarboek Oud-Utrecht for 1996 he discussed the meaning for fiscal history of the Utrecht Landbrief from 1375, a key document for the relations between the prince-bishops of Utrecht and the emerging States of Utrecht. Grapperhaus’ last book was about a very Dutch kind of taxation, a bicycle tax for which you had to put a copperplate on your bike: Over de loden last van het koperen fietsplaatje : de Nederlandse rijwielbelasting 1924-1941 (Deventer 2005).

No doubt Onno Ydema, now at the same chair of the history of taxation at Leyden University, will be able to give a more detailed appraisal of Grapperhaus’ work, but it seemed fitting to dedicate at short notice a few words to the memory of this remarkable lawyer, politician and legal historian.

An addendum: Grapperhaus published in 2009 two books for the International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation which appeared in one cover: Tax Tales  for the Second Millennium and Taxes through the Ages. A Pictorial History (Amsterdam 2009).

Young and old

How can one bring life to legal history? How to find young people able to develop an interest in a subject is a perennial question for any discipline. Some people happen to know at a very early stage in their life what profession they will choose, others find their specialism with more difficulty. At school and university it is not just the subjects taught that will ignite a sparkle, but more often just one teacher or professor whose approach and personality makes you happy to go for one particular subject.  Thinking about your initial choice, even after many years, you will remember her or him, and smile because of memories rekindled. The sheer enthusiasm, the inimitable gestures, the way of putting questions to you, and so much more influence you for the rest of your life.

I have a soft spot for the Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog. Mike Widener, its librarian and chief contributor to the blog, published on May 4 a post about letters with questions and remarks from children who had recently visited the library with their school class. Earlier this year Widener received a number of medievalists who visited the exhibition on reused fragments of medieval manuscripts used as bindings in old legal books. The Yale blog presents the items put on exhibition. Some of the fragments need further identification: sometimes the exact nature of the text is not yet fully clear, and for other items the provenance poses riddles. If you like you can help solving questions of this kind.

Of course showing young children historical materials is not the only way to kindle historical interest. The story of this visit is very much also a story of curiosity, of questions asked without any educational or professional blockades, of remarks which make you think again. In my opinion confronting people with a rather different world than their own, a world that partly belongs to the past, and yet a world with real people, is one of the major tasks of history. It can set us free to look again at what seems unchangeable, at what seems modern, at what seems dead or forgotten. It can indeed show us our prejudices and other weaknesses. Any sensible contribution to fulfill this task is very much welcome.