Serving the history of medieval law

Photo Frank SoetermeerThe medieval relation between Roman and canon law can in a way be summarized by the expression utrumque ius, “both laws”. Medieval lawyers working in the field of the learned law saw both legal systems as twins. One of the major stumble blocks in understanding the nature and medieval development of either system is exactly the stubborn way in which modern scholars often refuse to look in the garden of their neighbours. Sadly, these days a scholar who had the courage and all qualities to avoid this false separation and to bridge supposed and real gaps is no longer with us. This week the electronic news bulletin Rechtshistorisch Nieuws of our colleagues in Ghent contained a short obituary on Frank Soetermeer (February 7, 1949-January 6, 2016). Instead of focusing solely on his scholarly work I would like to honour him with some personal memories.

The first time I really met Frank Soetermeer was at the Gravensteen in Leiden in 1990. For many years the legal historians of Leiden had their offices in the old county prison. During a coffee break I saw a poster with an announcement about the International School of Ius Commune at Erice. Just when I had finished reading its text Frank Soetermeer showed up and told me he would be one of the scholars teaching that year. On arrival in Sicily I realized that apart from the poster and the encouraging words of Frank Soetermeer I did know hardly anything else about this event for graduate students! Soetermeer gave his audience a very fine lecture about the production of legal manuscripts at medieval universities. He spoke about his research with natural authority in calm but fluent French, and I shared the admiration for him with the other graduate students attending. That same year he gave me a copy of his dissertation, De pecia in juridische handschriften (diss. Leiden; Utrecht 1990).

Originally Frank Soetermeer came from Rotterdam, but he lived for many years in Utrecht and taught at Amsterdam. He visited Leiden regularly for the famous Friday afternoon seminar about medieval legal manuscripts held every winter and spring. A few years after the Second World War legal historian E.M. Meijers and palaeographer Gerard Lieftinck founded this seminar. Legal historians from several Dutch universities, be they versed in Old Dutch law or papyrology or just a young curious student, and a palaeographer of world renown, Peter Gumbert, met at the Gravensteen to read together the often tiny handwriting of remarkable manuscripts. In a year with river floods threatening the town of Culemborg we were fortunate to have in Leiden a medieval legal manuscript normally kept at the municipal archives of the former town. Few of us could possibly have seen as many manuscripts as Frank had, and we felt lucky with his presence. As on the photograph shown here a smile was never far from his face, but as often his eyes showed question marks signalling questions and points to be investigated. I remember Frank arriving at the Gravensteen almost always wearing a hat, a tradition he clearly enjoyed.

Few Dutch dissertations have been translated both into Italian and German. Soetermeer’s outstanding Ph.D thesis was translated as Utrumque ius in peciis: aspetti della produzione libraria a Bologna fra due e trecento, Giancarlo Errico (trad.) (Milan 1997) and Utrumque ius in peciis: Die Produktion juristischer Bücher an italienischen und französischen Universitäten des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts, Gisela Hillner (trad.) (Frankfurt am Main 2002). Frank discussed earlier research into the pecia system which had focused mainly on the field of medieval theology and on book production in Paris, and looked systematically at its use at the law faculties of medieval Europe. Fourteen articles have been reprinted with English summaries, additional information, corrections and useful indices in the volume Livres et juristes au Moyen Âge (Goldbach 1999). A very useful introduction in English to his studies of the pecia system is to be found in his article ‘Between Codicology and Legal History: Pecia Manuscripts of Legal Texts’, Manuscripta 49/2 (2005) 247-267. His article about Hostiensis (Henricus de Segusio) in Ius Commune 26 (1999) has been digitized in Frankfurt am Main. A quick look at his writings as included in the database with scholarly literature of the Regesta Imperii project at Mainz reveals he contributed nearly thirty biographical articles to the Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, often abbreviated as BBKL or the “Bautz”. A fair number of his articles can be accessed in their original form or as preprints at Academia.

Only a few of Frank’s articles focused on medieval canon law, in particular ‘The origin of Ms. d’Ablaing 14 and the transmissio of the Clementines to the universities’, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 54 (1986) 101-112, and ‘La proportion entre civilistes et canonistes à l’Université de Bologna vers 1270’, in: El Dret Comú i Catalunya: actes del IIIer Simposi Internacional, Barcelona, 5-7 de novembre de 1992, Aquilino José Iglesia Ferreirós (ed.) (Barcelona 1993) 151-166, but particular his contributions to the BBKL show his affinity and deep knowledge about canon law and major canon lawyers such as Guillaume Durand, Bernhard de Montmirat (Abbas antiquus), Oldradus de Ponte, Guido de Baysio (Archidiaconus) and Petrus de Sampsone.

On rare occasions I saw Frank in my home town Utrecht. The few times this did happen we both looked slightly bewildered, because Frank did travel much and we just did not expect to see each other in Utrecht. One of the happiest memories of briefly meeting Frank in Utrecht was when I saw him with Nella Lonza and their child. The happiness of Frank, of this couple with their child, is indeed a memory to treasure. It is with disbelief that I have to use the past tense in writing about him. If I had to single out any of his articles it would have to be ‘La carcerazione del copista nel pensiero dei giuristi bolognesi’, in: Gli ultramontani. Studi belgi e olandesi per il IX centenario dell’Alma Mater bolognese (Bologna 1990) 121-139, also in the Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune 6 (1995) 153-189. Masters in Bologna and elsewehere argued about the way one could compel a scribe to finish writing a legal manuscript, including the small initials, see his study ‘Un problème quotidien de la librairie à Bologne: «Minora» manquants’, in: Excerptiones iuris. Studies in Honor of André Gouron, B. Durand and L. Mayali (eds.), (Berkeley 2000) 693-716. Frank Soetermeer showed how you cannot confine the study of law at the medieval universities to just one discipline. In his work he traced with patience and precision the impact of the learned law in medieval Europe, an impact beyond the pages of the manuscripts concerning legal doctrine. With the death of Frank Soetermeer we have lost a fine scholar, a true gentleman, a loving father and a steadfast companion of his beloved, a man to be remembered.

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