Creating convincing arguments in court

Banner image of two muses, Themis and ClioLately I was gently pressed to add a particular blog to my blogroll. I argued that it does not deal primarily with legal history, although it is in many respects a most valuable blog. Even after a second plea, accompanied with a nice variant on Ceterum censeo… I still stick with my argument, but in fact this blog had already been included in my blogroll…  On closer inspection of the links now present I also looked at the growing number of online journals in open access dealing with legal history. The latest issue of Clio@Themis [8 (2014)] deals with the history of legal argumentation, a theme which has had my interest since many years. I also spotted the announcement of an upcoming scholarly event in May on this subject. Nomôdos, the blog of Clio@Themis, is most useful in tracing new publications and announcements concerning legal history in France. Thus it is a source for my congress calendar, and of course it is listed in my blogroll. These two subjects give me enough materials for this post.

Arguments in courts

Clio@Themis is a French scientific journal with most of its articles in French, with abstracts in English added to them. The journal has a tradition of including as a bonus a French version of classic legal articles. Its latest issue called L’argumentation au cœur du processus judiciaire skips this feature. Seven articles deal with legal argumentation in court proceedings. Two other contributions are only loosely connected with the general subject of this issue.

Logo CHJ Université-Lille 2

Catherine Denys and Naoko Seriu introduce the theme of this number and elucidate briefly the subjects of the seven articles which originated at three days of scholarly encounters around this theme in 2012 at the Centre d’Histoire Judiciaire (Université Lille-2). They describe a shift from viewing legal argumentation solely as part of legal doctrine to an approach akin to the way philosophers, sociologists and linguists deal with speech acts. The history of the judiciary and legal practice is here the primary field of investigation. The use of arguments is seen here as a part of a strategy to get favorable results in court.

The focus of all articles is on three European countries during the Early Modern period, with the exception of two articles dealing with subjects from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first two articles the sixteenth century comes into light. Alain Wijffels discusses procedures claiming revisions of earlier trials at the Grand Conseil de Malines, the highest court of the Habsburgian Low Countries. The appeals for revision should be allowed in cases of factual errors (error facti) and in principle not for any legal error (error iuris), but in actual practice both kinds or error could be redeemed. The interesting thing is how lawyers at Malines argued about this state of affairs.

Marco Cavina deals in his contribution – in Italian – with the views of Carlo Ruini and Andrea Alciato concerning the different types of legal counseling in consilia. Alciato sketched a model with different approaches used by lawyers. Some went for subtle reasonings (subtilitates), others for the archetypical Renaissance – but essential medieval – abundance (copia) of allegations from Roman and canon law, and a third group imitated the brevitas of the classical Roman lawyers and their compact way of expressing opinions. Alciato frowned upon publishing consilia for several reasons, but his own contributions to this genre, too, were posthumously printed.

Isabelle Arnal-Corthier looks at materials sometimes presented to the Parlement de Toulouse in criminal appeal cases between 1670 and 1700. Instead of just a hearing of the accused for an appeal in criminal cases as punctuated in the royal ordinance of 1670 barristers often brought also a lettre de cassation to this court. The defense adduced in these cases mainly arguments about the competence of lower courts, insufficient evidence or irregularities during judicial procedures.

Yet another French court, the Parlement de Tournai and its third chamber in the late seventeenth century, figures in an article by Jacques Lorgnier who deals with cases concerning property rights and conflicts about the cost of church repairs. This foray into actual argumentation leads him to the hypothesis that the justiciables, the people going to court and their legal representatives, trusted the workings of rational arguments in the face of solid proofs within the framework of legal procedure.

Logo ADN

At this point I would like to mention the great resource created by legal historians at Lille for doing research into the history of the Parlement de Flandre. In the database ParleFlandre you can find more than 30,000 dossiers from the série 8B1 at the Archives Départementales du Nord (ADN) in Lille. Lorgnier uses cases from another series of dossiers at the ADN, the série 8B2. For the history of the Low Countries the archival collections at the ADN contain many important documents. At Fontes Historiae Iuris, the virtual portal at Lille to digitized resources concerning French legal history, is a section with further resources for the Parlement de Flandre.

Naoko Seriu looks at a scarcely known crime at the end of the Ancien Régime, the illegal sale of military goods by deserters, in particular uniforms. Records of trials survive in which individuals were charged with buying these illegal uniforms or the vendors themselves were charged with this crime. Seriu compares the verbal strategies used and the particular differences in approach to exculpate themselves. I could not help noticing that the examples of cases stem mainly from Brittany, in fact from just one modern département, Ille-et-Vilaine. A comparison with other regions might be useful. At the EHESS in Paris Seriu studied with Arlette Farge, a French historian who has devoted much attention to the way stories are told in historical sources, recently in Condamnés au XVIIIe siècle (Lormont 2013).

Forays into the twentieth century

Bruno Debaenst (Ghent) brings us from France to Belgium and much closer to the twentieth-first century. In his contribution (in English) he has studied trials concerning accidents during work in around Mons between 1870 and 1914. Using dangerous machinery, imperfectly prepared surroundings, shortcomings in labor organization, and workmanship not up to demands were among the arguments heard around these cases. In these years the Belgian code of civil law still was a virtually unchanged version of the French Code civil, with scarcely attention to actual circumstances in an industrial society. Debaenst describes also the use of reports by experts, criminal investigations and testimonies. In the face of inadequate means to deal conclusively with liability defendants had much opportunity to evade responsibility for what happened in their firms, thus reaffirming the gap between workers and patrons.

In the last article of this special Frédéric Chavaud brings us to familiar scenes from modern crime series on television. He looks at the use of emotions between 1880 and 1940 as arguments at the Cour des Assises, the highest criminal court in French departments. Tears, laughter and fear were not only used by barristers and defendants, but also by others in court. Studying the history of emotions is not without its pitfalls, and Chavaud rightfully points to some pivotal studies. He uses mainly contemporary public reports about trials, and not the actual dossiers of the cases. These reports do convey a vivid image or proceedings, but one can suspect that their authors also follow well-known tracks to please the expectations of their readers. Of course it is exactly important to notice such bias and detect changes in them. Emotions can and could break rational arguments and reasonings, specially when directed at juries. Chavaud clearly focuses on the contemporary perception of emotions, and he rightly mentions studies about emotions in court published between 1920 and 1940.

The range in time of this special is pleasing, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and we read about both civil and criminal law. The geographic focus, however, is on France, even when admittedly you get a most varied view of French legal history. Luckily the Low Countries, Belgium and Italy add a European dimension. Lorgnier is the only author to mention the use of topical argumentation. I am afraid it is not quite possible to expand here very much on any of the articles presented here. You can always wish for more, and therefore I invite you now to the second section of this post about a congress where you might pursue this aim very soon.

Studying legal controversies

Banner Rennes 2015

La controverse. Études de l’histoire d’argumentation juridique [Controversy. Studies on the history of legal argumentation] is the title of the coming Journées internationales, the yearly congress organized by the Société d’Histoire du Droit. This year’s congress will be held at Rennes from May 28 to 31, 2015 with the Centre d’Histoire du Droit of the Université de Rennes-1 acting as its hosts. You might want to have a good look at the generous links section of their website and at its own digital library. Rennes is the capital of the département Ille-et-Vilaine mentioned above, and participants might want to visit the Archives départementales. The call for papers is still active. Proposals should be sent before March 10, 2015, and this is the closing date, too, for registration (mail: Rennes is well worth visiting, in particular for the building of the old Parlement de Bretagne. Saint-Malo and the Mont-Saint-Michel are not far away.

Young scholars, too, get a chance at Rennes. There will be a atélier doctoral organized in cooperation with the Association française des jeunes historiens du droit, a society of young legal historians founded in 2013. You can send your proposals until March 30, 2015 (mail:

The congress wants to approach controversies both as a phenomenon within the territories of law, be it the judiciary, legislation or doctrine, and as historical cases of conflicts about a plethora of possible subjects. What was the impact of certain schools of thought? Which impact had other disciplines on legal theory and practice? It is perhaps necessary to keep in thought that the international dimension of the Journées was and is traditional that of the French-speaking world at large, the francophonie. The blog like website at Rennes nicely mentions the exceptional use of English for any communication. In a region with many British and Dutch visitors one might expect the start of a change to that tradition.

This post with a French flavor should also remind readers from the Anglophone world that those speaking and writing English are not the only possible center of the world of science. It can be truly useful and illuminating to know about different approaches in other countries, to practice them yourself or to use your approach on foreign ground in order to see how universal it really is. Anyway, I have tried to convey something of my joy in discovering this special of an online legal history journal, and I might well do this here again. In my blogroll or for example at Nomôdos or the blog of the European Society for Comparative Legal History you can choose from many online journals in the fields of legal history.


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