Monthly Archives: August 2010

Tales of the unexpected

A rainy weekend looked just perfect for doing some maintenance work for my website: making backups, upgrading below the surface, reading and using a new handbook on the software involved. It turned out to be the perfect time for something you dreadfully fear: it did not work anymore. I will not inflict on you all the painful details, but yes, I had to put a notice on my site apologizing for any inconvenience caused by my virtual absence.

Almost two days after the first signs of a breakdown of the site installation the good news is that the backup of the information is safe and unharmed. And I have learned and learned again some lessons: upgrading equals releasing a new version; documenting of the exact structure below the surface is very useful; making a site depending very much on one central piece of software is nothing but creating the weakest link in a chain…

Of course I have often been warned that these things can go wrong, but this year I had taken new precautions. Of course I had met just a few days ago somebody who told me about the trouble with his e-mailbox. And best of all a few weeks ago I had read again by chance about a website with historical data which have triumphantly survived all major changes in computing since the original data were collected. The data for the Florentine Catasto of 1427 were collected and studied in the sixties and seventies by the late David Herlihy (1930-1991) and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber published in 1978 their study Les Toscans et leurs familles: Un étude du catasto Florentin de 1427. Robert Litchfield and Anthony Molho have taken responsibility for the version since 1995 online at Brown University. This university hosts also an online database with records of the tratte, the elections of the Florentine office holders from 1282 to 1532. More technical details about the transformations of the raw data can be found on the website of the University of Wisconsin with the complete data set of the 1427 Catasto, supplemented with ecclesiastical records from Florence. The harvest of online sources for the history of Florence and Italy is rich and varied, with for example Florentine charters and the Fondo Datini at Prato. Records on medieval taxation can be searched online for other countries, too, for instance the Taxatio Ecclesiastica Angliae et Walliae from 1291, a document on church properties in England and Wales. The Netherlands Economic History Archive in Amsterdam presents a fine overview of historical datasets. Do I need to remind you that these datasets yield their secrets only when you consider them in the light of their context, taking into account such things as the historical limitations of the data collected and the niceties of their online representation?

Perhaps you learn something in depth only when you make mistakes, when things break down, when errors and lacunae take away received wisdom and unmask your bad habits. I have to swallow this interruption of service as a fact of life, and to accept my own small addition to the march of human folly. Meanwhile I will try to re-establish my services to the visitors of my website as soon as possible. However, putting the necessary security devices and tuning the appearance will yet take some time. Most important, next time I will carefully prepare procedures before upgrading to something which looks promising and useful, but is also potentially dangerous. As for now I had better resume working on it, and leaving you hopefully a bit more informed about my site’s crash, perhaps a bit uneasy about your own website, or just amused – or annoyed! – by this unexpected mixture of daily misery and some historical information.


The world of history

Yesterday the 21st International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS) started in Amsterdam. One of its central themes is water, and this is surely worth the attention of historians, too. Today Amsterdam certainly offered lots of water when in a few hours over 40 mm rain came down, a small quantity compared to the ongoing rains that afflict the people of Pakistan and China. Other nations and people suffer daily from the lack of any water. History on the grand scale will inevitably miss the details which matter most for ordinary people. What about the connection between water and law? Law is by no means a neglectable detail, not for ordinary people nor for historians retracing their footsteps. Let’s have a look at the programme of the ICHS organized jointly by the Dutch Royal Historical Society, the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch Royal Library (The Hague) and the International Institute for Social History.

On Tuesday August 24, a session will be held on “Ethics, History and Law”. At stake here is in particular the grasp of politics on historical research. The four papers in this session touch widely different subjects. Antonis Liakos will discuss the abuses of history by politics and the influence of history in politics. Pierre Nora will present a paper on the French legislation about history and remembrance of the past between 1990 and 2008. Paolo Pezzino dives into a classic juridical matter, the role of historians as experts in court. Jörn Rüsen will reflect on the role of history and remembering the major traumatic experiences of the past century.

In the main programme there are three sessions focusing in law.  There will be also sessions on history and human rights, and on slavery. Another session combines Scottish networks on the Atlantic and the history of legal attitudes to piracy. In other sessions some papers touch law and legal history at least in their titles. Billy K.L. So speaks about company law reforms and business modernization in China and Japan in the early 20th century, Anne Redgate discusses liturgy, law and self-representation in medieval Armenia and England. Ana Sofia Ribeiro will focus on sexual violence in 18th century Portugal, and Marianna Muravyeva will talk about legal attitudes to sexual violence in modern Russia. Torsten Feys’s subject is shipping interests and American immigration laws, and Joanna Woydon brings Polish schoolbooks on the 1981 martial law to our attention. Maria Cmierzak tackles the attitudes of the lawyers who reformed the Polish constitution during the last century, and Ditlev Tamm will speak about the transmigration of legal scholarship.

The ISCH hosts also separate programmes. The largest programme is organized by the International Federation for Research in Women’s History. I feel a bit disappointed that only three out of eighteen sessions deal substantially with law: there will be sessions on nationalism, imperialism and women’s rights, on the global struggle for women’s citizenship, and on women’s freedom and civil rights in the African diaspora. The Commission Internationale de Diplomatique represented by Theo Kölzer has organized a session on charters. Papers will concern documents concerning the judiciary in medieval Sicily, medieval Italian merchants and their documents, a notary from medieval Lucca, testaments in Portugal and Spain, and public documentation on devotional practices in medieval Zaragoza. The Commission Internationale de Démographie Historique will held eleven sessions at the International Institute for Social History. Three sessions focus on inheritance law from a comparative perspective. Two other sessions deal with the question whether family systems are only beneficial to land-owning families. With respect to legal history this program looks promising. In fact it makes up for any apparent or real absence of subjects concerning law and history.

It is definitely too early yet to say anything about the success of this major international congress which is convened every five years. It is indeed a question whether more legal history would benefit the ICHS, or that legal historians would win by giving attention to this congress series. It is up to legal historians to be present themselves at such congresses or to opt for other ways of exchanging results from ongoing research, to look at their own research from a comparatist’s view or simply to meet other researchers which deal with the same period, country, region, people or whatever phenomenon or historical event.

The Dutch VPRO television reports daily about the Amsterdam ICHS on its own history website (only in Dutch). At the opening session the Canadian historian Jean-Claude Robert, secretary of the ICHS,  gave a lecture on the history of water management in Canada, a subject which is prominent in Dutch history, too. Reading about the very different appreciations of water depending on its role and impact I could not help thinking of the website about wetlands in Pakistan and the communications network on Pakistan wetlands. What will happen to these wetlands now one has to face another, more terrible impact of water? How can historians help reconstructing life and landscapes in devastated regions? The disasters caused by water in this and other regions are not just a regional problem but a challenge to the global community.

Terschelling revisited

Two weeks ago I left my blog for a holiday on Terschelling, one of the five Dutch Waddeneilanden, the Frisian Islands. It is time to come back to my post about these islands. Reading it again it clearly needs some additions and clarification. Thanks to my recent visit I can really complete a line of thought which loomed at first rather dim and hesitant.

The Staatsbosbeheer camping for groups at Swartduin

The Staatsbosbeheer group camping at Swartduin

At the heart of my post on Terschelling was the struggle between the protection of natural beauty, represented by Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch National Forest Service, and the interests of tourism, the core of the economy on these islands, represented by both the municipalities and the citizens of the Wadden Islands. The Dutch National Forest Service wants to increase the long lease rents due to them drastically. It is easy to see that the conflict here is also about the power of a public body in the role of a private land owner with a position tantamount to a monopoly. Whatever the outcome of this clash which implicates the boundaries between public and private law it is bound to be of interest to legal historians.

My search for legal documents about Terschelling has still barely started, but I could have pointed already to the very useful collection of sources presented at the website Regelgeving in de Nederlanden (Legal administration in the Low Countries). Alas you will not find here any sources which pertain only to the Frisian Islands, but among the sources for Frisian law you can find the main law texts, for instance the Lex Frisionum. The Dutch national website on jurisdiction, Rechtspraak, offers on the page of the Leeuwarden court a short general history of the Frisian courts.

The air touches the earth on the west beach of Terschelling

“…where you doubt whether it is a part of the sea or of the earth.”

I owe you the exact reference to the words of Pliny the Elder about the Wadden region: it is in Naturalis Historia, 16.1.2. The striking thing is of course the nearly seamless transition between land, air and sea. Walking on the Groene Strand, the Green Beach, makes you wonder why this particular area is not a national park. Now only the area around a number of dunes where artic terns (Sterna paradisaea) have their nests is marked as a bird reserve. In fact it has long been pleaded to make the Dutch Waddenzee into a National Park. Nature is such a scarce commodity in the densely populated Low Countries. Why should one hesitate to take action?

The Frisian Islands came into existence in the late thirteenth century when a former wall of dunes was finally broken by the power of the sea, thus creating the Waddenzee. I mentioned in my July post on Terschelling the fact that the Boschplaat has been added to the island since the second half of the nineteenth century when the former strait of the Koggendiep silted up. Geologists see a long-term development in which the Frisian Islands slowly move to the east. The Dutch National Forest Service invites groups of volunteers to help removing firs from the dunes. Dune areas should not become woods any more. One can certainly distinguish areas of outstanding natural beauty on Terschelling and the other Dutch Frisian Islands, but the question is exactly whether these islands have a distinct and definitive natural form. To my eyes nature here is in an eternal flow. Islands will move. The tides reshape their form not just twice daily, but also in the long run. Creating screens and dikes on sand plates and fostering dunes is an act of man making nature obey to some measure to his wishes. In the end, however, the forces at work here escape man’s grasp. The great paradox of natural beauty is indeed being often only recognized by making it a part of a landscape park, almost the Enlightenment version of the Garden of Eden. The very word landscape was first used in English to describe Dutch paintings representing outdoor scenes situated in a landschap, a man-made environment.

It is not my objective to dispute the ecological wealth of the Waddenzee or to doubt the need for protection. My question is not just which natural environment is most outstanding, but what does the concept of nature mean when it is so clearly fluent? Can one point to the original state of the Waddenzee? How can one use nature as a juridical concept when you have to acknowledge the fact that nature does not equate automatically with a stable order nor with utter chaos? In this light natural law most definitely emerges as a man-made argument par excellence.

The original idea of a vacation period was to free one self from daily doings and squalid affairs. Theologians wrote about vacare Deo, free one self for God. Hopefully your own holidays help you to look freshly again at anything and everything.

To finish things let me point to the Tractatus Tiberiadis from 1355 by Bartolo de Sassoferrato, the first treatise on legal geography as Osvaldo Cavallar wrote in his article ‘River of Law: Bartolus’s Tiberiadis (De alluvione)’, in: A Renaissance of Conflicts. Visions and Revisions of Law and Society in Italy and Spain, John A. Marino and Thomas Kuehn (edd.) (Toronto 2004) 31-129, with an edition of Bartolo’s treatise. You can read online the version of the text in a Lyonnese edition from 1555 of Bartolo’s consila and treatises in the digital library for legal history at Milan, starting at fol. 139 verso (page 278). For more information and images you can also read this post on the blog of the Fonds Anciens at the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Lyon.

I would also like to mention the Tractaet of dyckagie by Andries Vierlingh (circa 1507-1579), a treatise on dike building. The 1920 edition by J. de Hullu and A.G. Verhoeven has been digitized by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, The Hague. More information in English about the history of Terschelling and other Dutch islands is presented by Ruud Bijlsma at his Islas website. Old maps of Terschelling are discussed and presented in a study by Marijke Donkersloot-de Vrij, Scellinge.Vijf eeuwen kartografie van Terschelling (Utrecht 2002). The Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences has started a Waddenacademie.

A postscript

Somewhat belatedly I noticed Terschelling is home to seven duck decoys. A recent study has been devoted to them by Piet Lautenbach, Eendenkooien. De laatste heiligdommen van Terschelling [Duck decoys, the last sanctuaries of Terschelling] (Assen, 2011). The National Forestry Service pointed at its Terschelling blog in 2011 to the fact that some of these duck decoys have one owner, but others have multiple owners, and indicated also differences in the maintenance of them.

The theme of alluvial growth of land in Frisia and its impact on legal history is pursuited in a recent article by Kees Kuiken, ‘Opstrek of aanwas? Bezits- en rechtsverhoudingen in en om Het Bildt in Friesland tot 1506’ [Increase or alluvion? Properties and legal relations in and around Het Bildt in Frisia until 1506], Pro Memorie 14 (2012) 31-54.