A true professor: Knut Wolfgang Nörr, legal historian and lawyer

Knut Wolfgang NörrIn the midst of all kind of things, not only preparing new posts for this blog, I read news which made me pause for thought, and more than that. It is truly sad to hear that Knut Wolfgang Nörr passed away on January 15, 2018. Last week Thomas Duve, one of the directors of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main, wrote a brief message about Nörr’s death on the institute’s website. At the university of Tübingen his colleague Jan Schröder wrote a somewhat longer but still very concise in memoriam with however a very full treatment. In fact it is hard to believe you can tell anything about him with so few words. When you look at the enlarged version of the portrait photo it is even more striking how he looked almost unchanged over the years. Here I would like to share a few of my memories of meeting Professor Nörr many years ago, and I will briefly look at his work in the field of medieval canon law. I am sure they show sides of him which are equally telling about his person, his life and achievements as a scholar as more profound obituaries which he truly deserves.

A true professor

Jan Schröder succeeds wonderfully in creating a most lively image of Knut Wolfgang Nörr (1935-2018), a man of many gifts. Legal historians tend to see him as a major specialist in the field of medieval canon law, but he made also important contributions to the study of contemporary German law. It was Stephan Kuttner who guided his first research in the field of medieval ecclesiastical law, resulting in his first book around a theme connected with the Council of Basel, Kirche und Konzil bei Nicolaus de Tudeschis (Panormitanus) (diss. Munich 1960; Cologne 1964). Nörr used here the person of the Sicilian canonist Niccolò de Tedeschi (1386-1445) as a focus for a study of views on the balance between church and councils. His versatility became soon visible in his Habilitationsschrift on the position of judges within Early Modern legal procedure, Zur Stellung des Richters im gelehrten Prozess der Frühzeit: Judex secundum allegata non secundum conscientiam judicat (Munich 1967). Nörr became in 1966 a professor at Bonn, and went in 1971 to Tübingen where he would stay despite several alluring calls from other universities.

Combining the history of legal procedure and medieval canon law became a hallmark of his work, but he was equally equipped to study the history of German law, for example with a pioneering study of private law during the Weimar Republic, Zwischen den Mühlsteinen : eine Privatrechtsgeschichte der Weimarer Republik (Tübingen 1988), and crowned with a study on the history of economic law in post-war Germany, Die Republik der Wirtschaft : Recht, Wirtschaft und Staat in der Geschichte Westdeutschlands (2 vol., Tübingen 1990-2007). The results of his research were published also in a steadily flow of articles, a number of those concerning civil procedure were republished in the volume Judicium est actus trium personarum : Beiträge zur Geschichte des Zivilprozessrechts in Europa (Goldbach 1993).

In the field of medieval canon law he looked in particular at the way the papacy used law, not only in papal decretals, letters with decisions by papal delegates, usual bishops or abbots, but also at the courts of the papal curia in Rome. Looking at the titles of his articles and their sequence it shines through how he delved new roads to look at the relevant sources. The importance of his work on medieval procedure is perhaps most visible in the creation of the series Der Einfluss der Kanonistik auf die europäische Rechtskultur, Orazio Condorelli et alii (edd.) (4 vol., Cologne-Weimar-Vienna 2009-2014) in which three volumes deal with legal procedure. Thanks to Knut Wolfgang Nörr the very substantial role of canon law in legal procedure is taken into account in any study of the history of legal procedure, an achievement very much also following his teacher Stephan Kuttner who stressed the role of medieval canon law for criminal law.

Some personal notes

I had promised you not to look only at the publications of Knut Wolfgang Nörr, but seeing this overview helps you to understand what a towering figure he was, certainly in the eyes of a young graduate student. In summer 1991 I came to Tübingen for a period of research for my Ph.D. thesis. My second supervisor, Alain Wijffels (Leiden and Louvain-la-Neuve) had helped me to get support from the university of Tübingen. I had made an appointment at the law faculty, but I was not quite prepared for what happened next. Nörr welcomed me friendly, assuming I would defend my thesis at Leiden University, quod non, but after telling him about my purpose and study plan he did something else, too. He gave me the name of a student assistant whom I could contact for practical matters, and he walked me to the university library. In a seemingly old-fashioned but very effective way he introduced me to the staff of the department for rare books and manuscripts. Twenty-five years ago the electronic library catalogue at Tübingen was still in an early phase, and not all old works had yet been entered. Therefore he handed me the old hand written catalogue of legal books, and urged me to look it through completely before starting with reading specific medieval and Early Modern works.

To illustrate the riches of Tübingen’s university library for legal history Nörr told me a story about another visitor. On a certain occasion he had taken Domenico Maffei, a connaisseur of old legal books, to the library stacks, and left him with the old legal books. After half an hour Nörr looked for Maffei, and found him still between the stacks, murmuring again and again: “Scandalo, scandalo!”. “What is the scandal?”, Nörr asked him, and Maffei answered the scandal was not the stunning presence of many rare books, surprisingly often with more than one copy, but the fact this collection had survived the ages and now was only seldom used.

The Bonatzbau (1912) of Tübingen University - image Wikimedia Commons

I spent part of the following summer again in Tübingen to benefit from the rich holdings of the university library. For at least one particular genre of Early Modern legal books it would be impossible to write its history without taking the collections at Tübingen into consideration, but it is closer to the truth to say that only the Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen made me thinking about this genre. I hope to follow and complete my investigations. Most of all, I cherish the foundations I could lay for such research thanks to the gentle support of Professor Nörr and the efforts of the library staff.

A second loss

While musing about my fond memories I remembered another thing. Knut Wolfgang Nörr belonged to a family with three of Germany’s best lawyers, a Dreigestern (three-star). Last year Dieter Nörr (1931-2017), too, passed away. In my Munich years I worked at the Abteilung B for German and Bavarian legal history of the Leopold-Wenger-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte, but luckily I was also in touch with the department for the legal history of Classical Antiquity in its fullest extent. Dieter Nörr, his colleagues and the marvellous library for ancient law ensure that yearly many young scholars come to Munich. For me it was striking to see during the famous Roman law seminar the similarities between the two brothers, in particular his humility and humour in admitting something was too difficult for him to solve. The In Memoriam on the institute’s website says infinitely more about him.

A true professor inspires not only by his research, teaching and publications, but with his whole person, his behaviour and way of living. Knut Wolfgang Nörr set an example of questioning existent views, immersing himself in the matters at stake and charting new territories, and perhaps above all, taking interest in people and sharing his curiosity and wisdom. Even in the few times I met him these qualities were visible. The community of legal historians has lost again one of its giants. Let’s keep alive the sparkle that lived so strong in Knut Wolfgang and Dieter Nörr!

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