For the common good: International legal history and collective action

Every month there is a growing chance of encountering some kind of commemoration of historical events and figures. Sometimes these festivities are indeed an opportunity to look at them with fresh eyes, but often these occasions can seem too much of a good thing. In recent years there has been a proliferation of international days, some of them just a funny parody, for example on March 31 the sixth Hug A Medievalist Day! On April 14, 2016 it is the International Legal History Day. At least one university, Harvard, organizes today a seminar about the practices and challenges of doing international legal history. It seems Harvard Law School wants to launch this day as a new tradition.

In this post I will look at two initiatives dealing with a concept which touches many countries and regions all over the world. Commons are shared stretches of land used and owned by several people. Commons can be defined as a type of collective action. An international research project is at the heart of this post, and I will also look at a digital library which helps you to trace relevant literature about commons. One of the features of this post will be the combination of global phenomena with local examples transcending the boundaries of nations and states.

Sharing lands, goods and much more

Header Institutions for Collective Action

When I first saw the portal of Institutions for Collective Action (ICA) I was genuinely surprised by the all-encompassing umbrella used to bring a number of institutions under one denominator. Commons are perhaps the institution most quickly associated with collective action, and they will certainly fill much space here, but there is more. Merely contemplating what kind of actions you will define as collective actions is in my view already a fruitful exercise. Five types of collective actions figure at the portal: commons, guilds, waterboards, beguinages and co-operatives. The ICA portal cites on its homepage Bertrand Russell’s dictum ‘The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation’. Currently there is a set of case studies from eight countries for the five types, with 23 examples for commons, four for guilds, eight for waterboards and only two for co-operatives, and typically for beguinages six examples from the Netherlands and Belgium. The eight countries are apart from Belgium and the Netherlands the United Kingdom, Greece, Portugal, Rumania, Spain and Uganda. The cases from Rumania concern commons, the example for Uganda is a co-operative project for micro-finance. In fact there are more countries: in the section for guilds France, Italy, Germany and China are added.

One of the strengths of this portal is the comprehensive coverage of many aspects of research into institutions for collective actions, and thus you are really looking at a veritable portal. You can consult not only the case studies and general overviews, but also online bibliographies, glossaries, datasets and sources, and you might be interested in the announcements of scholarly events. The section with debates highlights a number of general and specific questions about the types of collective actions figuring on the portal. These questions will certainly help you to refine your own analysis. I found in particular the discussion of the various forms of institutions for water management illuminating. The perspective on Dutch institutions becomes sharper thanks to the comparison with Spanish institutions. I really learned here something also about the Dutch variety of these institutions and the need to look at them more closely. The page with links to related projects shows the context of this project in which scholars at Utrecht have substantial roles. An offspring of the ICA portal are several projects which work with crowdsourcing. Inviting the public to participate in research projects by transcribing or indexing sources is in itself a kind of collective action. The heading Citizen Science is fitting indeed.

Website Vele Handen and the Ja, ik wil project

At least one of them should attract your curiosity because of its legal nature, the project Ja, ik wil (“Yes, I do”) for the transcription of pre-marriage acts between 1578 and 1811 from the municipal archive in Amsterdam, a resource with much more information about people going to be married than you will find elsewhere. The transcribing portal Vele Handen (“Many Hands”) contains more information about the project (in Dutch). In its turn this project serves a much larger research project of the ICA team to compare marriage patterns.

Banner Digital Library of the Commons

The main organization dealing with the history and current situation of common is the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). At the website of IASC, too, you can find an overview of online resources. Some years ago I already encountered the Digital Library for the Commons, a digital collection at Indiana University, but so far I had not started to place this initiative in a wider context. The digitized literature in this library deals with commons on literally every continent, even Antarctica, but not the Arctic region. The simple search mode, the advanced search mode and the filters for browsing are most helpful. In my view it is stimulating to look here, even if you do not quite find what you are searching for.

Although it is easy to expand the fairly summarized information presented here it might work better to keep this contribution shorter than usual. Environmental history is just an example that can be connected with studying commons. At the blog Environment, Law and History you can pursue this direction. Global legal history and comparative legal history do not appear here for the first time. The theme of international legal history deserves attention, and not just on one particular day every year, but the idea is surely valuable. When I started this blog I promised my readers to look for themes and subjects from around the world. There are enough countries, regions and landscapes about which I can write here. Perhaps it is more important to discuss them here not for the sake of completeness, but preferably and more interestingly in connection with the kind of problems and questions which belong to the world of legal history.

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