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.

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