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).

1 thought on “Human nature, human rights: a long history

  1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

    I received a notice about an activity concerning human rights in Utrecht: Tuesday June 22, 2010, there will be a debate around the movie “Access to rights” at the Tumult Debate Centre, Domplein 24, Utrecht, starting at 20 h; when coming please contact info [at] The movie is about women rights in Liberia. The Tumult debate centre announces on its website,, its closure in its present form after this month.


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