Guidance to Early Modern legal procedure in the Dutch Republic

Cover "Procesgids Hof van Utrecht"Finding your way as a party or an advocate in trials in Early Modern Europe could be a daunting task. In our century some legal historians consider it important to offer some guidance to the way old courts worked. The Society for the History of Old Dutch Law has created a series called Procesgidsen with already nine volumes since 2000. This month appeared a guide written by J.M. Milo and E.G.D. van Dongen for the former provincial court of Utrecht [Procesgids Hof van Utrecht. Hoofdlijnen van het procederen in civiele zaken (Hilversum 2018; Procesgidsen, 10)]. A book presentation was held on June 8, 2018 in the inner city of Utrecht at the former building of this court, now one of the locations of Het Utrechts Archief. This post looks at the book presentation and of course at the new guide itself.

Ten guides

The former court of justice at Utrecht

Kaj van Vliet (Het Utrechts Archief) opened the session with a quick history of the historical premises of the old court. The Court of Utrecht was founded in 1530. At first its seat was close to the Habsburgian fortress Vredenburg (“Castle of Peace”). When the Dutch had freed themselves from the Spaniards, and after the demolition of the Vredenburg castle in 1579 the close association with the Spanish powers and authorities was no longer necessary or sensible. In 1580 the Reformation definitely took over in Utrecht. The court could move into the buildings of the former Benedictine St. Paul’s abbey. In the nineteenth century city architect Christiaan Kramm devised the facade still seen today. I show a part of the facade in the very banner of my blog. In the late twentieth century the rechtbank in Utrecht had to deal with a kind of diaspora with at least fifteen buildings. Some fifteen years ago a new building finally solved problems of space and coordination. I showed this building in my post on Lady Justice’s square.

Paul Brood (Nationaal Archief, The Hague), the editor of the guide series, invited us to imagine the fragmentation of the Dutch Republic which becomes very visible when you think of the different territories you will cross when travelling from the north, let’s say Groningen, to Holland. You had to face different jurisdictions, too. Brood underlined the way Marijke van de Vrugt wrote a draft for the Utrecht guide. At least two other guides are being prepared for the Society for the Study of Old Dutch law; these, too, will be published by Verloren. Emanuel van Dongen (Law School, Utrecht University) looked at one of the cases used in the guide to show the proceedings of the court. This case involved a charge of rape against lawyer and history professor Pieter Burman (1668-1741) in the early eighteenth century. The case kindled great interest among contemporary pamphleteers. Milo and Van Dongen had already discussed this case in their article ‘Echte mannen, woorden en daden. Eer en schuld voor het Hof van Utrecht in de achttiende eeuw’ [Real men, words and actions. Honour and guilt at the Court of Utrecht in the eighteenth century], Pro Memorie 19/2 (2017) 160-175. Kees van Schaik, a retired barrister who has mastered in three decades as few others the archival records of the Court of Utrecht (Het Utrechts Archief, finding aid (toegang) no. 239-1, Hof van Utrecht, 1530-1811), looked at a sixteenth-century case involving a lease of land by a farmer who had signed on purpose a very favorable contract which gave him space to escaping even these conditions.

Philip Langbroek, professor of justice administration and judicial organisation at Utrecht University, mused about the legitimation of Early Modern lawyers and their impact on law and justice. Did the overlap between the judicial elite and other elites damage the actual proceedings? This question is interesting, but Langbroek did not attempt to look at actual Early Modern cases, nor did he focus on the nomination of judges and lawyers admitted to the bar. J.O. Zuurmond, a judge at the current Rechtbank Midden-Nederland, put the proceedings of the second eighteenth-century case discussed in the guide – concerning an obligation to pay goods –  into the current way such cases are dealt with now by Dutch courts under new regulations – and computer systems – for civil procedure. The role of written documents will diminish radically. Finally, Michael Milo gave the first copy of the guide to E. Messer, vice-president of the Rechtbank Midden-Ned4erland

A new guide to the old Court of Utrecht

The volumes in the series Procesgidsen follow an established pattern of an introduction to the history of courts and the applicable laws, chapters about the jurisdiction, the judges and staff, the way proceedings in cases run according to the stilus curiae, the instructions and ordinances for court proceedings; a chapter or chapters showing one or more cases, sometimes also with an appeal procedure, and a guide to archival records and a concluding bibliography. The guides are mostly restricted to civil procedure. In this guide attention to archival records is shown by the effective use of images of procedural documents, but there is little guidance to the actual use of the records for the Early Modern court of Utrecht. However, all core elements of the series figure in this book, and the good use of photographs of legal documents is surely an asset, to be repeated in the upcoming volumes. Key passages of these documents have been translated which inter alia gives you an opening to Dutch palaeography in the way I lately discussed here.

Until recently researchers dealing with the former Court of Utrecht could benefit in particular from a book by Willem van der Muelen, Ordonnantie ende instructie op de stijl ende maniere van procederen, voor den hove van Utrecht, zoo in civile als crimineele zaken (…) (2 vol., Utrecht 1706-1707; online). He published a similar work for the city court, Costumen, usantien, policien ende styl van procederen der stadt, jurisdictie ende vryheid van Utrecht (…) (Utrecht 1709; online, Hathi Trust Digital Library). The phrase Costumen, usantien, policien ende stijl van procederen, to be translated as “Customary law, policy and procedural ordinance”, was used since the late sixteenth-century for similar works. The library of Het Utrechts Archief is home to a number of copies of these editions.

Sometimes a book or article can help you to overcome justifiable doubts about the feasibility of archival research into Early Modern courts. The series of books with essays on medieval ecclesiastical courts, edited by Charles Donahue Jr., did even more by inviting you to compare courts. The Dutch series Procesgidsen helps you to get quicker to the themes and subjects you want to study, and they help you to put these courts into perspective.

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