Monthly Archives: June 2010

Human nature, human rights: a long history

Looking at my recent postings I became aware of a common theme connecting them: both in my posting on South Africa and apartheid and in the posting about the mirror of society offered by the beast epic Van den vos Reynaerde views of human nature are at stake. From the viewpoint of legal history it might seem a small step to human rights. Just how great the step is for humanity was at the centre of a lecture at Utrecht University on the history of human rights by Lynn Hunt, a historian from UCLA well-known for her books on the French Revolution.

Thursday Lynn Hunt’s starting point was her book Inventing Human Rights (New York 2007). She did not repeat the lecture shown on YouTube and on University of California Television! Instead Hunt presented her conclusions as a set of propositions which she then more or less illustrated. In her perspective the concept of human rights came to the fore very suddenly on a wave of interest which started around 1760. The change in views about human nature, if not partially created, were at least stimulated by the new genre of the epistolary novel which invited readers to sympathize with the characters of the novel. It is not just in the sphere of the law, and more precisely of criminal law and punishments, that we should look for motives for and supporters of legal change, crowned by such documents as the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme of 1789. What happened between 1760 and 1789? Hunt looks for the interplay between cultural, social and political developments, and rightly so. The suddenness of the coming of human rights makes the title Inventing Human Rights an echo of The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge 1983), the volume of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

Utrecht University and UCLA have an exchange program since 2001, founded by Margaret Jacob (UCLA) and Wijnand Mijnhardt (UU). This year the two of them together with Lynn Hunt have edited a volume of essays, Bernard Picart and the First Global Vision of Religion (Getty Research Institute, 2010), and The Book that changed Europe. Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World (Belknap Press, 2010). A website with a full facsimile of the four earliest versions of Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, originally published at Amsterdam between 1723 and 1743, accompanies both books. Jean Frederic Bernard wanted to present the rituals of all known religions and he got the engraver Bernard Picart to illustrate the nine volumes of the first edition.

These books and the splendid website evoke for me at least four remarks. First of all venturing into social history, law, art history and much more shows Lynn Hunt’s scholarly capacity to cross frontiers and to connect different fields of research in a fertile way. Secondly, the growth of religious tolerance is coupled with the establishment of a vision of worldwide mankind, which contributes indeed to a cultural change, and this view of man and mankind influenced the concept of human rights. Thirdly, Bernard’s and Picart’s ventures slightly predates the French eighteenth century vogue for encyclopedic works in the wake of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and Voltaire published between 1751 and 1772, but it surely made some minds already more open. The fourth point is the evident role of illustrations in the success of these works, and this brings me to the subject of legal iconography.

Lately I have been busy searching for digital libraries concerning legal history, which I present on my legal history website. Having collected a fair number of digital libraries it becomes clear that more is needed and possible. Archives presenting digitized documents and institutions with different kinds of material contribute as much to legal history as classic libraries presenting mainly digitized texts. At some universities Law and Humanities has become a regular subject. It would be to the benefit of both legal historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences to revive legal iconography. Since this is only a posting I will not try to present here a full list of interesting websites, but only mention some of the more classic collections for legal iconography. The University of Graz (Austria) has a database for legal iconography. The University of Munich and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek have digitized the collection on legal iconography of Karl von Amira. The Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte at Frankfurt am Main has put the collection of Karl Frölich on its intranet; you will have to visit Germany to use it. Of the former Dutch Centre for Legal History and Legal Iconography at the Royal Library (KB) in The Hague the iconographic database is accessible for KB card holders. Its bibliographical documentation and its thesaurus, too, survive on the web, the former has been integrated into the Digital Bibliography for Dutch History. In due time I hope to present more on my website.

Let’s return to Lynn Hunt and the history of human rights: of course she had to mention such landmarks as Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire’s comments on the Calas affair. Jean Calas was tried at Toulouse. Tolosana, the digital library of old books at the Université de Toulouse, contains a substantial number of legal works from eighteenth century France, including at least 23 books and documents concerning the cause célèbre of Calas.

No doubt it remains difficult to pinpoint exactly the start of the concept of human rights, but at least it is clear this concept was not invented as recent as 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Awareness of the history of human rights can help to understand the slow progress of human rights. This last miserable fact can be researched using the database at the documentation centre of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights at Utrecht. And a reminder about iconography: at Utrecht University you can use a copy of the Index of Christian Art, both the card files and the database.

A postscript: a fine history of views on mankind and humanity has been written by Siep Stuurman, De uitvinding van de mensheid. Korte wereldgeschiedenis van het denken over gelijkheid en cultururverschil [The invention of mankind. A short world history of thinking about equality and cultural difference] (Amsterdam 2009).


Beyond the lines of soccer

A blog with a focus on history is of course created in the present, there is no need hiding this fact of life. Karen Tani, contributor to The Legal History Blog, took up the theme of the South African world championship soccer which started on June 11 with a very interesting posting, In Honor of the World Cup – South African Legal History. The editors of this blog show the great advantage of creating a team of contributors to a blog by maintaining a very high number of postings every month, second to none, and followed at some distance by Nomôdos and the blog of the European Society for Comparative Legal History.

After watching today the second half of Holland-Denmark I would like to present some websites about the legal history of South Africa. A part of this history is still influenced by the so-called Roman-Dutch law, the amalgam of Roman and Dutch seventeenth century law that survived many changes in South African history, such as the introduction of English institutions and the use of English. A well-known project concerns the translation of these old Dutch works into English. By the way, in the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth and eighteenth century other variants of the Roman-Dutch law were created, as for instance the Rooms-Fries recht, the Roman-Frisian law, and thus this development was not unique. The Roman-Dutch Legal Tradition, an online exhibition at the Robbins Collection of the University of California at Berkeley, gives you a nice glimpse of these old Dutch law books.

A grim reminder to the influence of the Dutch language in South Africa is the word apartheid. The number of acts enforcing apartheid is staggering in itself, and the way this legislation was enforced perverted the rule of law, to say the least. The website of DISA at the University of Kwazulu-Natal is just one of many websites presenting graphic images of this history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tried to deal in a new way with the gruesome impact of apartheid on the people of South Africa. Comparing it to the several international tribunals dealing with crimes against humanity shows that South Africa has chosen a different and daring path. Traces of Truth is the apt title of a website at the University of Witwatersrand about this commission. The digital libraries presented at African Online Digital Library, a portal of Michigan State University, East Lansing, bring you to at least two websites dealing with the aftermath of apartheid and the future of democratic development.

Measuring the strengths and weaknesses of the present South African legal system is not easy. The South African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII) brings together information to help making a comparison between South African countries. At the very home page of the SAFLII I found a judgment of June 8, 2010 at the South Gauteng High Court at Johannesburg concerning the organisation of the FIFA World Cup: the South African government has to grant access to documents about the tenders for the World Cup.

From a great variety of possible websites to mention you will find here some links to courts. On the website of the Supreme Court of South Africa you can find both recent judgments and a judgment archive. The website of the Constitutional Court offers even more information. Law and justice are bound up with society in many ways: one can read about a great wealth of subjects at South African History Online. Its motto, “Rewriting history, critically examining the past, strengthening the teaching the history”, merits contemplation in countries where the teaching of history is sorely neglected. Even the South African soccer history is not forgotten on this website.

To round off this posting a few links of more extensive lists of websites concerning South Africa’s and Southern Africa’s chequered history:

An addendum: if I had known about the Aluka digital library when writing this posting I would have referred to it immediately.

Elections and their sequel

On Wednesday June 9, 2010 elections have been held for the Dutch parliament. Much can be said about the results, but clearly there is no party large enough to form a new government on its own. New coalitions will have to include three or more parties. One of the parties running for parliament was the Party for the Animals which focuses on animal rights. Instead of jumping to George Orwell’s Animal Farm I had in mind a different association which was stimulated by the theme of a congress this month at Amiens on “Law and ethics in literary discourse from the Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment”.

Last year an edition of the Middle Dutch Van den vos Reynaerde appeared with both the text in Middle Dutch and an English translation edited by Bart Besamusca (Utrecht) and André Bouwman (Leiden) (Of Reynaert the Fox/Van den vos Reynaerde.Text and Facing Translation of the Middle Dutch Beast Epic (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)). Large parts of this book can be read online using Google Books. The story of the cunning fox has its roots in the Latin Ecbasis captivi and the Ysengrimus. Adaptations of the story such as the Roman de Renart appeared during the centuries. Even Goethe wrote a version, Reineke Fuchs. Jakob Grimm edited several versions of the tale in his Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1834), including an Ysengrimus abbreviatus.

Scholars have offered many interpretations of beast epics such as the Ysengrimus and Van den vos Reynaerde, but the relations of these texts to real life are also elusive. Beast epics do not offer the clear-cut moral education of fables and fabliaux. The bitter satire might have been provoked by the example of contemporary powerful persons, yet the author avoids clear identification of the victims of his ferocious pen. The scenes of an animal parliament for which Reynaerd was summoned belong to the most obviously legally charged parts. However, calling it a parliament might be evocative, but is also confusing. It is a king’s court, but one can better label it as a distorting mirror of a king’s court.

Perhaps as important as unraveling the strategies of the authors and the structures behind the beast epic is the impact of the legal imaginary on people’s understanding and opinion of medieval justice and aristocracy. King Noble and his council behave to a large extent as fools misled by the appearance of things and led by their own interest, instead of carefully balancing between suspicion and trust. Their behaviour points even today to the importance of not only knowing the rules of court, the law and statutes in force, but also acknowledging larger issues at stake, such as the role of justice in society and the opportunities the workings of the law offer to reset balances of power and influence. Rereading Van den vos Reynaerde allows you to open a medieval window cherished by readers through the ages. For us today reconsidering our views of nature because of the harm done to the natural environment is a most fruitful exercise: exactly what do we perceive as nature, how should we look at animals, how can we protect the earth from further devastation? Can the concept of natural law still help us or is it a dead-end? Some epic efforts might await us.

A postscript

The book by Besamusca and Bouwman with the text and translation of Van den Vos Reynaerde is now available as a PDF (2,5 MB) at the Directory of Open Access Books.