Legal history with a Dutch view

At the start of my blog, today five years ago, I had no clear idea what form it would take. After a start with twelve posts in one month, most of them short notices, the frequency of posting did not reach that level again. Occasionally there have been four or even five posts within a month, but mostly just two or three, and this year I could not publish here more than just one post every four or six weeks.

However low or high the number of postings it has been a joy to work on other features. It has been possible to expand the congress calendar from its tiny corner on my old webpages to a substantial page with due attention to both recurring and special events, attention for graduate seminars and guidance to other online calendars worth checking for the field of legal history.

A happy subtitle

Legal history with a Dutch view has been the subtitle of my blog right from the start. It offered and offers me chances to change perspectives, to add humorous notes or detached comments, and to bring in my own surroundings, from the fortifications around Utrecht, an old library and the former provincial court in my home town to the dovecotes of the Voorn estate and a number of Dutch towns. Even the hamlet ‘t Woudt near Delft could thus become the subject of a post which turned out to touch on many subjects. My visits to the Frisian isles helped me to reconsider notions about nature, law and natural law. It is a joy to write about these real and imaginary travels from the known to the unknown, and to discover surprising connections or hidden histories and meanings.

As you like it

Sometimes you will have encountered here really long posts. One reason to write somewhat longer contributions is my desire to give you complete stories. Even in these long posts I often worried whether I was not just skating the surface of any theme or subject. The longest post here published in 2011 dealt with the transmission in print of Early Modern peace treaties. A specialist in the field of these treaties said he had learned new things from it, another scholar complained I should have made an article out of it. Both scholars have a point, and I added a summary post to present the main lines of that contribution more clearly. I must add that the initial spur for this post came from an article by Klaus Graf about the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748).

To many posts I have added one or more postscripts with some afterthoughts, links to useful websites or substantial corrections based on comments I received here. Gradually I have grasped the very nature of a blog, its intermediary state between nascent thoughts, ideas and proposals on a side, and on the other side full-fledged articles or even more ambitious publications. Writing here about a wide variety of subjects helps to form and refine thoughts about particular questions and problems. The use of categories and tags proved to be a tool to connect posts which at first look concerned completely different themes, periods and subjects.

At the start of my blog I had no clue about the preferences of my readers. Would there be any readers at all? Some readers owe my great and lasting gratitude for their comments, proposals and continuing interest. The sheer number of readers has varied greatly according to the particular subject. It was a genuine surprise for me that a post about the Dutch lawyer Nicolaus Everardi (circa 1462-1532) attracted much readers. My comparison between two digital library projects, the Digital Library of America and the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, reached many people thanks to the alerts of some of my faithful readers. The day after the abdication of pope Benedict XVI in 2013 I could point to an article by a canon lawyer who had discussed papal abdication in modern canon law a month earlier on her blog. Her article deserved to be read, but as a side-effect my post reached an all time high number of readers.

Connecting and spanning

Marginal image of a scribe reading a charter - Utrecht UB, ms. 400, fol. 113 recto

Marginal image of a scribe with glasses reading a charter – Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, ms. 400, fol. 113 recto

At this blog not only the posts matter. The blogroll in the right hand margin with some thirty blogs concerning legal history, a dozen law library blogs, twenty online journals and some twenty personal blogs connect whoever visits my blog to a much wider circle of historians and lawyers active both in the real and virtual world. For me it brings home the truth that the internet is a network which just happens to be virtual, but nevertheless first and foremost a network.

Much time in writing any post was and is consumed by searching for valuable links to websites. I include them on purpose, not as embellishments or to show my research capacities, but as resources bringing you to primary sources, secondary literature, bibliographies or further information. It satisfies also my curiosity to look at all kinds of printed and digital resources for doing legal history. I invite you to use these links and delve into their riches! You do not harm me or my blog by using a post or one of its links only as a stepping stone. It is the very purpose of these links to bring you at least one step further in the pursuit of your own goals.

Samuel Muller - drwaing by Jan Veth, 1895

Samuel Muller – drawing by Jan Veth, 1895 – image: Het Utrechts Archief

Speaking of curiosity, the funny marginal image of the medieval scribe wearing glasses to read a charter appears in the margin of a pontificale, a liturgical manuscript, probably written and illuminated around 1450 for the collegiate chapter of St. John’s in Utrecht. Bart Jaski, keeper of manuscripts at Utrecht University Library, has published a very interesting essay about this beautiful manuscript. Jaski sketches its background and points to a number of elements connected with medieval canon law. I first saw this image in a volume on the history of the States of Utrecht [Van standen tot staten. 600 jaren Staten van Utrecht, Huib Leeuwenberg a.o. (eds.) (Utrecht 1975)]. Many years later I could not help recognizing a resemblance between this man and the famous Dutch archivist Samuel Muller Fzn. (1848-1922) who did much to reform and organize Dutch archival practice. He worked for nearly half a century at the Utrecht archives.

The series of posts about centers for legal history came into existence thanks to the initial motive to start this blog. I have to thank Jörg Müller of the Leopold-Wenger-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte in Munich, who has done so much for the daily running of the Stephan-Kuttner-Institute for Medieval Canon Law, for asking me in 2009 to start blogging about legal history with the specific aim of discovering its possibilities and problems. Munich figured in one of the early posts in this ongoing series. For your benefit I have listed these posts and all posts which in fact amount to similar contributions about other institutions and cities on a separate page. Writing posts about legal iconography became a reality thanks to the remarks and questions of Mike Widener (Yale University).

“Connecting centuries, countries and continents” was at first only a lucky alliteration in an early post, but in five years I have indeed tried to fulfill this promise wholeheartedly. Choosing this approach again very explicitly in my November post about the World Legal Information Institute was no mere coincidence.

A Dutch view

Some books about Dutch and Belgian legal history

There is a possible complaint about my blog that I must mention here. If you had expected to find here only posts about the legal history of the Netherlands, you might turn away with at its best mixed feelings. From time to time Dutch legal history does get here fair space, but it seems wise not to focus solely on this relatively small corner of Western Europe. In fact Dutch legal history is a kind of mélange of influences from many countries. Its geographical position together with Belgium between France, Germany and the United Kingdom have made it literally into crossroads. Its small dimensions and its many and diverse connections with these countries make it very sensible to look abroad. The ever-changing estuaries of the Rhine and Schelde river have shaped my country substantially. A part of the Low Countries, the famous polders, have been reclaimed from the sea and lakes. They are literally man-made.

My home town Utrecht started as a Roman army camp near the limes, the border of the Roman empire. This border, too, moved with the changes of the Rhine branches. Crossing borders and having to deal with them is perhaps almost a second nature for people living in such surroundings. However, geography does not explain everything, and it is rash to claim you can find here the only Dutch view of things. Creating my blog has helped me very much to cross borders more often. I thank you for your patience with my Dutch views, and as always I hope to welcome you here often to meet the varieties of legal history.

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