At the death of two leading Dutch legal historians

Tom de SmidtLast month Dutch legal historians were saddened to hear about the death of Jacobus Thomas de Smidt (December 19, 1923-February 18, 2013). In several obituaries, for instance by Arthur Elias for Leiden University, by Joke Roelevink for the Huygens Institute of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, and at the website of the Dutch National Archives, the great efforts and merits of Tom de Smidt for the study of Dutch legal history and the organization between Dutch legal historians are commemorated. Among the major projects he initiated are the project on the history of the Great Council of Malines, a project for the edition of the Dutch codifications in the period around 1800, and for example the West Indisch Plakaatboek, a multivolume edition of legal sources for Dutch colonial history in the Caribbean. De Smidt also helped Dutch archives to modernize, and helped the Indonesian government to deal with the records of the Dutch East India Company in the Indonesian National Archives. People remember his warm personality, his sense of humour and his encouragement to young scholars, and I can testify myself for this. In fact his words “Ja, moet je doen!” [Yes, do it!] are for me among his most characteristic utterances.

Robert Feenstra 1920-2013On March 2, 2013, Robert Feenstra passed away at the age of 92. For legal historians abroad he was without any doubt the best known and most respected Dutch legal historian. This week John W. Cairns (Edinburgh) is one of the first legal historians to commemorate Feenstra. If you want to mention major themes and projects with which Feenstra dealt during his long scholarly life you are faced with a very great variety. The history of Roman law in Europe after the end of the Roman Empire and Dutch legal history give only the boundaries of his research interests. Let it suffice here that only four years ago he published with Jeroen Vervliet a new edition of Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum (Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum 1609-2009 (Leyden 2009)), and that in 2011 he witnessed the completion of the project for the Dutch translation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis. He continued the research started by Eduard Maurits Meijers (1880-1954) on the history of the School of Orléans, and many scholars from Leiden have followed him on this path. Feenstra published a number of volumes with articles by Meijers.

For six decades Feenstra was on the editorial board of the Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis. Feenstra helped fostering the relations between Belgian and Dutch scholars. Just like Tom de Smidt he served for many years on the board of the Foundation for the Study of Old Dutch Law. Today Paul Brood (Nationaal Archief) wrote a brief obituary for both scholars on the website of this foundation. Surely its own journal Pro Memorie will contain longer obituaries on both scholars in its coming issue. Luckily this journal published in its series Rechtshistorici uit de Lage Landen [Legal historians from the Low Countries] interviews with both scholars on their scholarly lives and careers (Pro Memorie 5 (2003) 3-38 (Feenstra); with De Smidt in the special issue Prominenten kijken terug. Achttien rechtshistorici uit de Lage Landen over leven, werk en recht [Prominent scholars look back. Eighteen legal historians from the Low Countries on life, work and law] (Pro Memorie 6 (2004) 313-329). Feenstra founded a circle of scholars studying the reception of Roman law in the Low Countries – convening either in Leiden or in Antwerp – where young scholars, too, often got and get a chance to present their doctoral research. I remember how I presented the first results of my doctoral research for this circle. The austere company listened patiently, asked questions on subjects I had neglected or problems which I had not yet grasped, and encouraged me to pursue my research. Robert Feenstra had a keen interest in people and he did not fail to help scholars with practical advice and suggestions for sources and literature. One of the things that impressed me always was the way Feenstra corrected his own views expressed in earlier articles. It makes you realizes how Feenstra’s career spanned almost half a century, his tenacity about cherished subjects, and the high scientific standards he applied to scholars and to himself. His presence at scholarly meetings all over the world expressed the continuity of Dutch legal history.

It is sad that both scholars are no longer with us to respond to our ideas, questions and emerging publications, but we can remain faithful to their memory by remembering their tireless efforts, smiling presence and amazing wide interests in contemporary life and legal history, and by following the paths and roads they paved for present-day scholars and future generations.

A postscript

On March 6, 2013, the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main published an obituary of Robert Feenstra. On March 28, 2013 the blog of the Peace Palace Library publshed an in memoriam on Robert Feenstra by Laurens Winkel.

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