Comparing legal history portals

Sooner or later it just had to happen. Comparing legal history portals is one of the things on the back of my mind when I worked – and still work – on my own portal for legal history, www.rechtshistorie.nl. The main question facing you at the start of any comparison is which portal sites are going to be included in it? How can you do justice to the efforts devoted to them? Another question has to be the aim of a comparison. In the comparison I am going to make here I purely aim at informing people about a restricted number of portals. It will soon become clear that they share a number of constituent parts and features. To make a fair comparison possible I have decided not to include any portal maintained by a research institute or at law faculties and law schools. Portals devoted to the legal history of one country are also excluded as are portals dedicated to a particular period. These exclusions still leaves room for portals created by teams of scholars with various affiliations, and in my selection is also room for portals maintained by the owners of law firms.

Lex Scripta

The first portal I would like to mention is no more than a small part of a larger Australian portal for law, Lex Scripta, maintained by Anthony J.H. Morris, a barrister from Brisbane, Queensland. Three pages are concerned with historical periods (“Pre-Classical” and Classical; Middle Ages; Modern Era), and a generous general links collection. Every link has got at least a brief comment about the content and qualities of the site. Obviously contemporary Australian law is the great strength of this website, but within its brief compass you will find a lot of useful links, even if you might find most of them elsewhere, too, except probably the Australian and New-Zealand links. Another strength should not be forgotten, the fact that Morris started this portal already in 1998. Long standing services deserve a credit for the perseverance of the founders and editors. Lex Scripta was last updated in 2007.

The Legal History Project

The Legal History Project (LHP) was started in 2005 by Peter C. Hansen. Blogs initially accompanied the LHP, but this feature was last updated in 2008. The LHP is a manysided project. The resources section guides you to law schools, their courses and degree programs, to societies for legal history, an impressive number of websites with historical documents and a calendar. Between 2005 and 2008 this events calendar functioned. From my own experience I know how many efforts are needed to maintain such a service. You can still check the list of past events. The LHP hosts a forum. An interesting feature is the series of interviews about legal history. The LHP was developed with a view to create a supporting member group. However, this initiative has not met much acclaim. The quiz is a nice feature, although with only ten questions it is rather short. It seems nothing has been done at this portal since 2008. The section with resources remains worth checking, in particular in the listing by type.

Duhaime’s LawMuseum

Duhaime's Law Museum

The next portal is again a part of a larger website, but this time it is clearly in a class of its own. In Duhaime’s LawMuseum Lloyd Duhaime has created a number of very different sections, ranging from a small image gallery, a timetable of world legal history, a Hall of Fame shoulder to shoulder with a Hall of Shame, to a selection of quotations on law and justice. This website by a Canadian lawyer has of course a large section on Canadian legal history. One of the most striking features of this website is indeed its sheer size and scope. Apart from Africa Duhaime includes all continents. The legal histories in a nutshell of Japan and China are admirable. Each of them ends with a selection of literature. It was surprising to find no mentioning of the Dutch connection with Japan between 1640 and 1853, but this is trifling in view of the way Duhaime tells the legal story of several countries and retells the lives of famous and infamous lawyers. On this website you will find no sections with links to law schools or online resources for legal history, and thus it is rather different from other portals. Duhaime’s website includes a blog like section, the LawMag. I could not stop myself for looking briefly at the articles concerning legal history. In the post on saintly lawyers I searched in vain for saint Raymond of Penyafort (circa 1175-1275), the canon lawyer who created the Liber Extra (1234). In my view Duhaime’s website is a model of its kind, also because of its clear design.

Virtual Library Legal History

Virtual Library Legal History

The Virtual Library Legal History is a creation of Steffen Bressler. Bressler worked on this bilingual portal – both English and German – between 1998 and 2004. A few years ago the website which once upon a time was present at http://www.rechtsgeschichte.de disappeared with its provider. It has returned in a kind of clone version of the original. Steffen Bressler followed the example of several German history departments which contributed to the Virtual Library project some very useful websites on the historical auxiliary sciences such as palaeography, codicology, sigillography, epigraphy and also on medieval charters. Bressler’s pioneering portal is divided into four sections: institutions, classical resources, other resources and special projects. Within the borders of this layout you will find in each section a variable number of commented links. For example, the number of legal history societies is rather small, the section on archives points to three well-known archival portals, and the section on literature leads you to a score of digitized articles and books, all in German. In the section with other link collections Bressler does not mention much, but the incredibly rich links collection at the Instituto Politécnico de Beja in Portugal did not escape his attention. Bressler does mention a number of German museums for the history of criminal law and guides you to the German Virtual Library Museen. Perhaps Bressler’s website does look a bit old-fashioned and the number of links indicated is often rather restricted, but its resurfacing is worth attention.

Portail Numérique de l’Histoire du Droit

Histoire du Droit

When I first visited this French portal I expected to find only French legal history, but this is not true. This portal has four main sections, news on legal history in the form of notices about new publications and events, and sections on research, online resources and other links. The news section on the left side of the front pages of this portal gives the latest news items in a blog like way. In the research section information is provided on the teaching of legal history at a number French universities, a number of digital libraries is presented, and also a number of libraries in Paris – you might compare this information with the notices in my miniature Paris library guide – and four libraries outside Paris. The section with sources is the most extensive part of this portal, divided into a part with sources for particular periods in history, and a part focusing on databases and scientific journals. In the links section you will find societies for legal history, three contemporary French courts with historical holdings, some websites focusing on French legal history and a corner with various links ranging from important French collective catalogues to linguistic tools and online dictionaries. Despite careful checking I could not find any names of the people forming the team behind this website. However, post to the webmaster will be answered by Luc Siri (Université Panthéon-Assas Paris 2). French legal history is at the centre of this portal, but in particular Roman law is served here, too.

Among the dictionaries included here the Dictionnaire électronique Montesquieu at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyons deserves your attention for its attempt to offer a modern counterpart to all legal notions treated by Montesquieu. In fact you will find also extended information on Montesquieu’s writings, including bibliographies and references to online versions of his works.

Storia del diritto medievale e moderno

Storia del diritto medievale e moderno

After German and French as a language for a general legal history portal it is now time for Storia del diritto medievale e moderno, an Italian portal launched earlier this year which focuses on at least two historical periods and therefore fits into the criteria for the comparison in this post. This portal is maintained by Paolo Alvazzi del Frate, Loredana Galati, Marco Miletti and Giovanni Rossi. Salient features are the page with announcements of events, new publications and an overview of recent articles in a number of scientific journals, a section with information on Italian scholars and their presence on the web, a section for discussions on current themes, and an overview of Italian university programs touching the field of legal history in the widest possible sense. In the section with links you will find a list with a number of online books – largely and very sensible taken from the fine list created by Elio Tavilla (Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia) -, articles by several Italian scholars, and a good selection of links to libraries, digital collections, online reviews and other legal history sites. Italy is clearly the main focus of this portal, but this focus goes with depth and a generous width in its approach which do credit to its editors.

And another portal?!

It brings no good at all if I add here my own portal to the comparison, except to tell you what you will not find at www.rechtshistorie.nl. There is no section on current publications nor a discussion forum. I have tried to mention at least the departments for legal history at Dutch universities, but my list for Belgium is alas not complete. This blog accompanies my portal, where I do not present any interviews. There is no timeline or a series of portraits of lawyers or a list with major events and texts in legal history. You will search in vain for digitized articles, famous quotations or a legal history quiz.

A matrix

At the end of this post I decided to put a kind of matrix which might help to put possible comparisons into a clearer perspective. By now you might well be a bit exasperated and think: “All this is very nice, but I will stay with the websites of the law school(s) or research institute(s) I am used to”. The matrix offered here might just help you to check these institutional websites more quickly and to see whether they offer much the same things or focus unduly on certain aspects of legal history. I will not say which private portal carries my favour. Instead I will at the very end mention some of the professional websites I visit often.

Portal Events Forum Just published Online articles Scholars Digital libraries Databases
Lex Scripta + -/+
Legal History Project + + + + -/+
Duhaime +
VL Legal History + -/+ -/+
Histoire du Droit + + + + -/+ +
Storia del Diritto + + + + + -/+ -/+

In the following list with some institutional portals and websites I clearly give a personal selection:

Among the legal history guides of American law school libraries it is difficult to choose, but five websites stand out:

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