Monthly Archives: October 2010

Again, images of justice

Searching images of justice was the title of my latest post on legal iconography ten days ago. After I wrote it I kept questioning myself whether I have done at all justice to this subject? In one respect I certainly used a restriction to the collections and websites I mentioned here and on my website: they should reflect a large degree of order and accessibility. I seemed to restrict myself therefore to online databases with images. In principle this might be all right, but it invoked some comments. Mike Widener, curator of the Rare Books Room of the Yale University Law School Library and well-known for his blog accompanying the fine collections at Yale, pointed to the collection of images he presents at a Flickr website. “Highlighting images from the Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School” is the modest notice on this website with sixteen small thematic collections, including images from Dutch law books. Widener has added to each image either at least the title of the book from which the images stems or a somewhat longer notice. First of all one must acknowledge the effort and the very fact of showing images without for example ugly transparent logo’s against possible infringements of copyright, unfortunately something quite commonly encountered. It wets your appetite for more detailed descriptions and more search possibilities, and surely this will follow when these collections grow in the wake of the exhibitions organized at the Rare Books Department of the Yale University Law School Library and shown on the blog.

To all these images I add here my own pictures of buildings, of landscapes, even of road signs, and I would not dare calling it a collection, and nevertheless I continue taking pictures. Making photographs can be a way to make you look better at things, but even so often the results are just silly pictures. Israel Kiek was one of the earliest Dutch photographers. He gave his name to kiekjes, the diminutive of those peculiar pictures without any pretensions that speak only to your next of kin. Kiek’s name is very much akin to the Dutch verb for looking, kijken!

The frieze at the west entrance of the Buurkerk in Utrecht

The frieze at the west entrance of the Buurkerk in Utrecht

In the old city of Utrecht two churches were dedicated to Mary, the church of the collegiate chapter of St. Mary, and the main parish church, officially a Maria Minor, most times called Buurkerk, “Citizens’ Church”. The frieze on the west entrance dates not from the fifteenth century, but from the restauration of the church between 1950 and 1960. On the right you see a religious theme: it shows angels around another angel playing the organ. On the left, however, is a secular theme: proud citizens of Utrecht, some of them with a helmet and arms. It would be very easy to show in an iconographic collection each section of the frieze separately, but the interesting fact is their juxtaposition. At first it would seem perfectly sensible to show only the left part of the freeze in a collection for legal iconography, but this does injustice to the artefacts in situ. In fact, this combination of secular culture and religion is the very paradigm of late medieval Utrecht as described and characterized in the major monograph by Llewellyn BogaersAards, betrokken en zelfbewust. De verwevenheid van cultuur en religie in katholiek Utrecht, 1300-1600 (2 vol., Utrecht 2008); her title translates as “Earthly, involved and self-conscious. The interdependence of culture and religion in catholic Utrecht, 1300-1600”. A comment to a photograph of the doors in the collections of the Utrecht archives states that at funerals the body of the deceased used to enter through the left door and to leave through the right door.

The citizens' section of the frieze at the west entrance of the Buurkerk, Utrecht

The citizens’ section of the frieze at the west entrance of the Buurkerk, Utrecht

At the centre of the citizens’ section of the frieze is the city blazon which shows at the left the red mantle of Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Utrecht. At the right this saint is shown sitting on horseback and sharing one half of his mantle with a beggar. Thus a religious image is at the focus point of this part of the sculptural design. To be sure, to understand this frieze better a full description is needed and more information about it. I have shown it here as an example of the limitations of pictures and consequences of choices made by photographers and collectors alike.

Doing legal iconography calls for many things to be taken into consideration. For me a fascinating distinction is to be made between imagined justice and images of actual justice, not to mention those images that have become iconic images of justice. Images often fire your imagination more than the actual forms of justice and law. If legal historians should restrict discussing images to debates about the copyright on and the use of images, we would blind out the very real impact of images on legal life and legal history. Apart from law books The Yale Law Library Rare Books blog brings comics and even the Supreme Court Bobbleheads to your attention, and any law library can find here inspiration for exhibitions.


Searching images of justice

In an earlier post on my blog this year I wrote a few lines about legal iconography. I promised to present more about it on my website It took me some time to start fulfilling my promise, and the information I wanted to collect was not always easy to find. However, the first results are promising. I made myself a second promise: a post on legal iconography must have an image illustrating this subject.

Today I took a train to make a new photo of an object I know from a collection of essays on and images of medieval objects edited by Esther Koch, Erwin Mantingh, Jos Stöver and Kaj van Vliet, Over kaken, broodbanken & etstoelen. Sporen van middeleeuws Nederland (Utrecht 1995). Translating this title is not easy, apart from the second part, “Traces of the medieval Netherlands”, and worse, the three objects of this book title are concerned with legal history. A kaak or schandpaal was a pillory, a pedestal on which people who had committed a crime could be shown in public to the people to be denounced and mocked. A broodbank is a pew in a church at which bread was distributed to the poor, often by the regents of a foundation; one can connect this to the medieval poor law. Etstoel was the name of the highest court in Drenthe, a Dutch province. So far for the title which can be roughly translated as On pedestals, bread pews and old courts.


The pillory (kaak) at the former town hall of Woerden

The pillory (kaak) at the former town hall of Woerden


In the 1995 volume legal historian Dick Berents contributed an essay on one of the few remaining kaken, the pillory at the former town hall of Woerden, a town 20 kilometers west of Utrecht. The town hall was built from 1501 onwards in late medieval style. Sometimes the pedestal at the corner of the town hall is said to date from 1567. The city council used this building until 1889. From 1890 to 1933 the building housed a kantongerecht, a lower court. The Dutch kantongerechten were introduced in 1811 as a result of a reshaping of the juge de paix introduced by the French during the Napoleonic era. Since 1934 historical objects and antiquities were shown, and in 1988 the Stadsmuseum Woerden, the municipal museum, found its home here.

Where to find more online information about the legal iconography of the kaak at Woerden? Let’s presume we have not the possibility to use the database of the Dutch Center for Legal Iconography, a database open only to card holders of the Royal Library at The Hague and subscribing libraries. The very presence of this database helps research, but rather often it is not so easy to find online information. The website of the Dutch Prison Museum in Veenhuizen fails to offer detailed information on its collection, as is also the case with the site of its German counterpart, the Kriminalmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. At present the website of the old prison at The Hague, the famous Gevangenpoort, is under construction due to renewal. The website of the Dutch Tax and Customs Museum in Rotterdam shows at least some items from its collections. The Woerden kaak is not presented in the show case website Collectie Utrecht for cultural heritage in the province Utrecht, nor in the central database for cultural heritage of this province. Luckily the website of the regional historical center Rijnstreek en Lopikerwaard which houses the municipal and other archives of Woerden, includes an image database. Using the search term schandpaal yields four photographs.

The town of Woerden developed on the spot of Laurium, a Roman army camp. Between 1978 and 2003 seven Roman ships have been excavated in this town. Much more can be told about Woerden. The Stichts-Hollandse Historische Vereniging offers a useful link collection on its website bringing you to more information on the history of Woerden and the region around this town which received municipal rights in 1372 from count Albrecht of Holland. Among the links is the website of the famous Heksenwaag, the Witches’ Weighhouse at Oudewater, not far from Woerden.

To those used to the classic collections of legal iconography my hesitations may seem strange, but these collections do have a particular origin. Often they are the fruit of one scholar devoting a life time collecting interesting objects or searching images. They reflect to a greater or lesser extent the scholarship behind them, and cannot be used straightforward. However, their presence on internet is most welcome to facilitate using these materials at all. Using other collections is one of the ways to address their shortcomings and biases. Some subjects have attracted much attention from scholars and the general public alike. For these themes, such as witch trials and slavery, one can use special image collections. Sometimes you find images online not at the website of the institution holding them, but elsewhere. An example are images from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Neurenberg. This rather large collection is presented at the German portal site Bildarchiv, a branch of the Fotoarchiv Marburg; if you want to look for pillories, use the word Pranger. Perhaps this state of affairs is obvious for German scholars and for people well versed in art history, but not for everybody.

My page on digital image collections is permanently under construction, and it is still easy to make major additions. Subjects like slavery and witchcraft deserve separate attention, but it is not difficult to find large image collections concerning them. For now it seems better to present first the major portals to digitized cultural heritage, secondly to mention large open access image collections and preferably national portals to them, and in the third place to mention not only collections of well-known sources, but to focus on those that are a bit harder to find. In my view placing the collections with particular relevance to legal historians inside a circle of more general collections helps to put them into different perspectives. Having to deal with questions such as open access or subscribers only collections and questions about the copyright on images makes me sure I will stay in touch with modern law, too. As for copyright, it is no surprise I present here and on my site only pictures I made myself. I have added to my website a page on the digitization of cultural heritage. Adding this information will help seeing all these websites in the context of a major cultural movement. The combination of easier access to information with the shift from history to cultural heritage merits close attention.

Facing the past

Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott, every period is for God at the same distance. This dictum by Leopold van Ranke has often been used to harshly criticize and ridicule his views. It has definitely harmed his reputation. How close are historical periods to a historian? Are some periods not closer to them because of a familiarity fostered by years of research? Are some periods not much farther away from us because we do not readily respond to them? Specialisation can be a hindrance to perceive other subjects, periods and approaches. Historians have to face the temptation to behave like Gods at a safe distance, with the ultimate view and judgment of history and people. Doing academic history is not always and automatically a safeguard against bias and prejudice, but it definitely can help preventing the worst excesses.

A few weeks ago Eric Hennekam, a Dutch archivist who devotes much time to his blog, a website with news on archives and several other online activities including Twitter, almost lamented the launch of, a new Dutch portal about the Second World War. Again a website on this period! At first I intended to share his view, but after visiting this portal I changed my mind. I am afraid I am a medievalist, with admittedly knowledge of and interests in other periods and subjects, but there’s no undoing my focus on medieval history. I have my copy of the multi-volume official history of The Netherlands during the Second World War by Lou de Jong, but apart from that I have only a few books on this period. The services of a portal which leads you to both written and audiovisual sources, to both educational resources and research institutes, can be really useful. Combining the strengths of the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), the audiovisual archives of the Dutch broadcasting organizations and other institutes is not in itself a bad idea. The use of the term erfgoed, “heritage”, on this portal is probably more alarming. It points to the different perceptions and representations of history which can lead you away from a more distanced way of doing history.

It is now four weeks since the appearance of a new study on the role and behavior of Dutch barristers during the Second World War by Joggli Meihuizen, Smalle marges. De Nederlandse advocatuur tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Amsterdam: Boom, 2010). Meihuizen is a researcher at the NIOD. The research for this study was supported by the Dutch Bar Association. The reactions on Sans égards, a study published in 2007 by Meihuizen on Adriaan Pitlo, a famous law professor at the University of Amsterdam, and his behavior towards Carel Polak, a Jewish lawyer, during and after the Second World War, contain for me the warning to keep here a safe distance. In Dutch historiography about the Second World War much stress has been put on the discernment between morally justifiable and immoral behavior. In 1983 former NIOD director Hans Blom gave his inaugural lecture at Amsterdam University the title In de ban van goed en fout? (Enthralled by good or wrong?). Chris van der Heijden’s Grijs verleden: Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Grey past: Holland and the Second World War) (Amsterdam 2001) was often seen by the general public as a defamation of historical truth.

Using words as accomodation, indicating the many hues and grey zones, is difficult to swallow when this does not seem to fit in with one’s own recollections of the war period. Few things are probably more confronting than comparing your own memories with more general views of any event: your own view might appear to be biased, you might have created your vision of things, others might have a very different view of affairs. Things are perhaps made more heavy for Dutch people because of the sheer impact of the first war on Dutch territory since 1813. The Second World War has become The War. However, it is normal for historians to distinguish between continuity and change, and it is perfectly sensible to look for both also when studying the Second World War. Two generations after the end of this terrible war it is still living memory, a period to which people are sensitive.

The Dutch Bar Association wanted the NIOD to do research on Dutch barristers precisely because of the diminishing powers of memory, the small number of lawyers still living who were practising at the bar in these years, and because archival records about barristers are relatively scarce and difficult to trace, and finally to break the silence and to penetrate the mists of time. Meihuizen entitled his study Narrow margins. How much scope for behaving differently actually existed? How much scope could one perceive? Only after reading his study carefully one can say whether he has succeeded in bringing to light in a valid and consistent way the officium nobile during a most challenging period. What can we really ascertain at this distance in time, with the particular difficulties of the sources used, with due respect to the people living in a period where angels fear to tread? Facing the questions of war in the midst of a war is different from looking at it from a safe distance in time or place. I have no idea of my own response to such challenging situations.

As for portals on particular historical periods, some periods are indeed almost hidden behind portals and websites, others suffer from unjust neglect by the world of virtual access to information. Bringing together information, giving judicious comments on websites, and pointing to easily overlooked information available online, is really important.