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.