Category Archives: Exhibitions

Digging up cold cases, a useful metaphor

The start of the Cold cases exhibit in Museum Flehite, AmersfoortA few weeks ago I visited an exhibition with a title which I had associated first of all with law and justice, Cold Cases Amersfoort at Museum Flehite in Amersfoort. Even its subtitle Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingen [Old skeletons, new discoveries] did not turn me away from making the short journey by train from Utrecht to the lovely small city of Amersfoort. The exhibition was certainly not exactly what I had in mind, but in fact the very difference between my expectations and the actual exhibition made me think. While walking in beautiful old Amersfoort and visiting two other historic locations it seemed these three locations each bring their own perspective. In a way this post is about some of the metaphors we often use almost without noticing them. In the light of a sunny Saturday afternoon they became visible again.

An archaeological approach
Logo Museum Flehite

Cold cases, these words worked for me like a trigger. You might associate it first with reconstructing and analyzing cases, but here archaeologists worked with some five hundred human skeletons, a reminder that however abstract analysis can become you meet here the physical remains of people who walked on the surface of the earth, just as we do now. These skeletons were found during the excavations of cemeteries on four locations, some of them attached to monasteries. Some excavations took place a few decades ago, but with new technical equipment the skeletons can now be studied in far greater depth than a generation ago. Think only about the way tiny fragments containing DNA can now be analysed in a way simply impossible twenty years ago. In this respect the title Cold cases is certainly aptly chosen.

Harm and violenceIn this exhibition you do not just have complete and incomplete skeletons. There is general information, there are showcases about individuals whose skeleton in some way can tell us vital information about their life. There is for example attention for the way you can determine gender and age, or detect traces of diseases. Some skeletons, in particular skulls, show the signs of accidents or violence, others are marked by the deadly effects of a disease. Syphilis came to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and its harmful presence is clearly visible once you know the tell-tale symptoms.

Reconstructing a girlPerhaps the most telling part of the exhibition is the room showing the reconstruction of the face of a young girl. She has received the nickname “The Girl with the Ear Clamp” because of the iron clamp used for head caps found in her grave. A lot of techniques and skills are necessary to reach the final result, a startling lifelike face. In order to bring especially young visitors closer to the work done to achieve such results part of the exhibition is a kind of study room with a laboratory. Every Wednesday an archaeologist can give you more explanations about the exhibition and the way archaeologists can now approach human remains. On other days a story-teller takes you back to late medieval Amersfoort, and on Sunday afternoons you can meet the challenge to reconstruct yourself a skeleton.

Food for thought

When I left a bit earlier than expected the exhibition at Museum Flehite I had enough time to visit two other historic locations. I went first to a museum housed in the remaining buildings of an Early Modern hospital, the Sint Pieters en Bloklandsgasthuis at the Westsingel. In fact it is the only still existing one of its kind in my country. The chapel built around 1500 and the men’s hall from 1536 have survived the centuries. On weekdays visitor can meet actors dressed as inhabitants who re-enact some inhabitants in the year 1907, just before the removal to new premises at Achter Davidshof. The choice to play out this situation with as its surroundings the situation of the nineteenth century might seem startling, but it would indeed be more difficult to stage people from the sixteenth century. The actors tell the visitors they do not yet know the new place and that they are excited and anxious about their new housing. Instead of telling in ample detail about their daily life, as indicated in an ordinance you can read in the main hall, they prefigure almost the way a historian approaches the past. You do not know what is around the corner of what someone will day or do in a few moments, unless a lifetime of patient attention, study and reflection over the years has taught you something fundamental about people living in particular times and circumstances.

My third visit on this afternoon in August was to the Mondriaanhuis, a museum documenting the life and works of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), a pioneer of modern art, often associated with the De Stijl [The Style] group whose members favoured cubic forms and sparse use of colors. The museum is located in the very house where Mondrian was born. On the first floor there is a faithful reconstruction of his humble apartment and atelier on the attic of a Parisian house. Even the background noises and fragments of songs from the roaring twenties add to the atmosphere, as if the painter could walk in here any moment. Apart from documenting the life and works of Mondriaan this museum has also space for exhibitions that show his impact on contemporary art. To be honest, the Mondriaanhuis does have only a few works by Mondriaan himself in its holdings. I use the Dutch spelling Mondriaan on purpose!

Looking at the different approaches in these three museums is certainly interesting. At Museum Flehite there is much attention for the how of a reconstruction. At the old hospital there is a sharp contrast between the seemingly timeless space and the expectations of the last inhabitants about their new home. In the Mondriaanhuis the reconstruction of the attic in Paris evokes almost to perfection the surroundings of an artist in the world capital of art. Every approach has its values and shortcomings. I bring these museums together fully aware they cannot be compared completely at the same level, but any comparison goes faulty. We use metaphors from all kind of spheres of life together, often without noticing the funny effect of for example naval terms side by side with agricultural words.

Has archaeology any uses for legal historians? I was hoping this question would show up here sooner or later. When reviewing in my mind the three museums at Amersfoort I would say that any discipline can be important, either on its own or more as a kind of handmaiden in the role of an auxiliary science. At Bordeaux a symposium will be held on February 8-10, 2017 concerning the theme (Re)lecture archéologique de la justice en Europe médiévale et moderne, “An archaeological (re-)reading of justice in medieval and Early Modern Europe”. There will be three main sections, one focusing on justice and space, another on justice and the body, and the third on objects associated with justice. The way archaeological approaches and methods used more commonly by legal historians can interact with each other will be explicitly addressed. The deadline of the call for papers is September 15, 2016. If you think you can convince scholars to use with great benefit the ways archaeologists approach the past, or make inversely them aware of the particular and fruitful ways legal historians work, you are most welcome. Hopefully this post helps you to consider the role of archaeology for legal history, not to solve just one cold case, but to gain perspectives on cases that might be closer connected than you can see at the surface.

Cold cases. Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingenMuseum Flehite, Amersfoort – June 19 to September 25, 2016

250 years freedom of the press

TheSwedish royal ordinance of 1766The freedom of bloggers is not something you should take for granted. In some countries of the world blogging is really dangerous because governments are not at all at ease about the freedom to express oneself. 250 years ago Sweden saw the first legislation for freedom of print. In Sweden and Finland special websites gave been launched to celebrate this commemoration. Anders Chydenius, the Swedish minister responsible for the epoch-making law, came from Finland. In this post I would like to look at the celebrations and at eighteenth-century Sweden and the impact of this act of legislation.

A long history

Header Frittord 250

The commemoration website Frittord 250 [The Free Word 250] created by the Swedish Academy of Sciences is the first point of access to find out about the law of 1766. The corner with source materials (Källmaterial & resurser) is the only point where you will find information about the historical legislation. You can download a PDF with a digital version of the original law (24 MB) or read it online at the website of the university library in Lund. With fifteen articles in a few pages it is a remarkable concise law. However, this evidentially led rather quickly to changes. Before 1800 there were already five new laws dealing with the freedom of print. The section offers the texts of seventeen ordinances and laws up to 2001. When you press the button In English you will find only a brief summary of the matter at the center of the commemoration. The calendar of activities and blog posts form the major part of the project website. One of the activities is a travelling exhibition Ordets akt [The act of the word], now at the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm.

Saying the focus of Frittord 250 is on the present is an understatement. I happened to find at The Constitution Unit website of University College London in the foreign corner of the section Freedom of Information an introduction about the Swedish freedom of press. Here, too, the story jumps from just one short paragraph about the original law to the current state of affairs. It is one thing to acknowledge the importance of current debates about freedom of speech, freedom of information and the way governments try to interfere with the public sphere, it is another thing to study developments and backgrounds which could be rather important in understanding and interpreting contemporary issues. For the United Kingdom the website of the Constitution Unit gives you at least a short history of developments since the sixties. The links section brings you for example to the international portal Right2Info where you can find much more. Its resources section is very impressive, even when you might wonder whether it is sufficient to mention for some countries only the national ombudsman.

Banner Freedom of Information 250 years

The historical background of the 1766 law gets more space and attention at the Finnish website Freedom of Information: Anders Chydenius 250 years, a website accessible as often is the case in Finland in Finnish, Swedish and English. It is invigorating to read here about the historical, cultural and political background of Sweden’s pioneering law. Chydenius can be termed a very active exponent and propagator of Enlightenment ideas. His plea for freedom of press was part of his campaign in 1765 and 1766 for free trading rights. Maren Jonasson and Perti Hyttinen translated a number of Chydenius’ works in English [Anticipating The Wealth of Nations. The selected works of Anders Chydenius, 1723-1809 (London, etc., 2011)]. This book contains also a translation of the 1766 law. When preparing this post I also visited the website on copyright history of Karl-Erik Tallmo who looks not only at Sweden, but also at the history of copyright in England and Germany. Bournemouth University and University of Cambridge have created the well-known portal Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), and you can also learn something from the digitized texts in the Archivio Marini (Università degli Studi di Pisa).

Instead of only looking at the context of this law we might as well look at this piece of legislation in some detail to establish the width of its impact on information. The law’s full title Kongl. Maj:ts Nådige Förordning, Angående Skrif- och Tryck-friheten, “His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press”, promises much. In the preamble censorship is nominally abolished but technically transferred to the royal chancery. The stress on the benefit for the enlightenment of the people and the observance of laws is remarkable. In the first article a clear limit for the freedom of expression is posed by forbidding anything that goes against the Christian faith. Writings criticising the form of the state and the king himself are prohibited in the second and third article. Publications have to be printed with full names or with the printer’s responsibility to disclose the author’s name. The need for due process in cases in which this is disputed is made explicit. The fifth article stresses the fact only the limitations of the three first articles can set a limit to any expression in print. The following articles deal with matters we would describe today as freedom of information, in particular concerning actions of the government and the judiciary, including the verdicts of judges. The support in the fifth and twelfth article for those wanting to write honestly and correctly about history is not only pleasing for historians, but indeed important. Article 13 is a clause to ensure any subject not included or mentioned falls under the freedom of press, and article 14 expresses the wish to make this law irrevocable. In my view this law can stand scrutiny from modern perspectives in a number of aspects. The law was issued on December 2, 1766. For Chydenius freedom was a crucial element in all his plans for reform and renewal of contemporary Sweden.

The Finnish website shows how exactly this wish for perennial and unchanged force was soon thwarted. It makes abundantly clear that the Swedish road was not a linear road of and to freedom of speech, print and information. Alas for those wanting things to be entirely black or white, good or bad, a success or a failure, the Swedish story shows history does not fit into their dualistic world view. Thus history can be perceived as a possible nuisance, a luxury good of elites or something a nation cannot afford anymore. I feel ashamed to live in a country where we have to face the threat of the disappearance of history as a part of the secondary school curriculum . Baron Raoul van Caenegem, the famous Flemish legal historian, wrote already many years ago: “Who hinders, forbids or abolishes the study of history, condemns people to ignorance and gullibility”.

Logo Anders Chydenius Foundation

It is up to you to look at both the Swedish and the Finnish websites, and also to the website of the Anders Chydenius Foundation, yet another example of a trilingual site, to expand your knowledge, deepen your understanding, in short to use your critical faculties to see the values history can provide and the ways it can sharpen our understanding of contemporary society. However, history can be more than a handmaiden guiding you to act wisely in current affairs, it can teach you much about women and men in the past, the ways they faced the problems of their times and aspired to be as much human as we do.

An age of lawyers and literature

Flyer The Age of LawyersThe power of words seduces every honest writer to do his or her very best to write in a unique way to convey what you want to say and to add to the expressive qualities of language and literature. Only seldom people succeed in achieving immortal fame and enduring influence on a living language. In this post I want to look at an author who conjured up scenes of unforgettable power using the language of his time in ways unheard of. In fact his works were in some periods considered too rough and therefore edited and censored. Together with the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible the works of William Shakespeare still have immeasurable influence on the English language and culture.

Shakespeare’s works have the power to stir our emotions and imagination. Until today his portraits of English kings and their courts influence our views of English history and royal circles. No doubt this year’s commemoration of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616 will bring a flood of activities and events. A few weeks ahead of the central day there is still a chance to look here in a more sober setting at some of the digital initiatives which try to shed new light on one of the greatest people in world literature. At least one of them, an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., focused on lawyers in Shakespeare’s age, but it comes into better relief surrounded by other projects of The Folger, and by a selection of recently launched online Shakespeare projects and digital projects dealing with Early Modern letters.

Surrounded by lawyers

Even without the Shakespeare connection the exhibition Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain is really interesting. The Folger showed the exhibition from September 4, 2015 until January 4, 2016, but luckily there is an accompanying virtual exhibit. The concept for the exhibition was developed in cooperation with the Georgetown Law Library, a library with early printed legal books in its own digital collection. There are four main sections, Legal LivesThe Great Courts, Law and Communities and The King and the Law. In contrast to usual virtual exhibitions it has not been placed in a clearly defined corner or subdomain of the website, but as a seemingly unconnected item on the Folgerpedia, the website of The Folger for general information. More remarkable is the absence of illustrations. It took me some time before reaching the list of exhibitions at this library’s website. You can only applaud the inclusion of transcriptions of several exhibition items, but they yet have to appear for the fourth section. The very heart of the exhibition is an extended introduction to the materials put on show, to be read side-by-side with the list of items.

The four sections of Age of Lawyers give us a good idea of the world of Elizabethan lawyers. The first section looks at legal education, the Inns of Courts and the various legal professions. The various royal courts are the core of the second section. In the third section legal practice comes into view, its impact on daily life and local communities. The last section shows a great variety of subjects around the central theme of royal power, from major figures such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke to subjects as Magna Charta and the influence of English developments on early American law and politics, with for example attention to Thomas Jefferson. The wealth of materials put on show in this virtual exhibition is impressive, and it is even more interesting to see how many of them come from the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In my opinion this virtual exhibition gives you a very valuable introduction to the legal history of England in the decades around 1600.

Logo Shakespeare Documented

The Folger is one of the institutions contributing to a major virtual exhibition of documents from and about Shakespeare, Shakespeare Documented. Documents, archival records and manuscripts from such institutions the National Archives (Kew), the Bodleian Library, the British Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – and from a host of other institutions worldwide – make this exhibition into a real gem. It amounts to a digital collection divided in four main categories: playwright, actor and shareholder; poet, family, legal and property records, and his seventeenth-century afterlife. With 186 of the nearly 500 items the category connecting to legal history is the second largest category of this exhibition. More documents and transcriptions will be added this year. You can search at will using a free text search or preset filters. Shakespeare’s involvement as a shareholder is mostly shown in the conflict about The Globe. It is really not feasible to pick here even among the highlights an absolute must. For me this virtual exhibit is a bridge between only reading Shakespeare’s works or searching your way among the vast literature on him. It also is in a very real sense the connection and life thread between the major projects presented here.

Close to the sources

The Folger Shakespeare Library offers more things online worth exploring. Among its latest projects is Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourcing project of The Folger, the Zooniverse project for crowdsourcing and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). One of the objectives of this project is finding words that so far have not been included in the OED. People volunteering to cooperate can choose a genre to transcribe. At first the choice between recipes and letters seems a thing to wonder about, but recipes have not been among the resources used by the founders of the OED. Letters can show words less often used, new uses of words, and, perhaps more importantly for the aim of this post, they might show the impact of literary imagination. An apparent drawback is the lack of an overview of senders and recipients.

Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE) is the Folger’s online adaptation of the printed version of this reference work. It is really a database that helps you to execute queries which you will want to check in the original edition. You can get a closer view of books from this period by looking at the section on bindings of The Folger’s LUNA image database.

Logo EMMO - EWaerly Modern Manuscripts Online

Another project is in the development phase. As for now Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has not yet resulted in a separate website. Since 2014 a lot of workshops and events has been organized. You will find the links section particularly useful, with for example an overview by The Folger of links concerning Early Modern English palaeography and digitized manuscripts.

fdtlogo

For my brief introductions to some of The Folger’s own digital projects I use the overview in the Folgerpedia. Personally I would prefer to have this overview on the main website of The Folger, but I suppose we are dealing here with a kind of planetary system around it. The Folger has also prepared a dedicated website for Shakespeare’s works, Folger Digital Texts. For quick reference and easy access this collection is very welcome, even though scholars might want to have a version under PhiloLogic or similar linguistic tools. For this you can turn to Early Modern Print, a project of the Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and the Early English Books Online-Text Creative Partnership. You will find here tools to gain insights into changes in word frequencies, KWIC (Key Words In Context) and a N-gram browser. The very example of KWIC in this project shows results for the word slander, which might inspire legal historians, too, to have a look at it. This overview at The Folger of digital projects and tools, even the subscription-only resources most times only accessible at research libraries, is actually a splendid nutshell guide to the study of Renaissance England. The University of Chicago provides us with a special subdomain to use its Philologic technology on editions and adaptations of Shakespeare.

Lives and letters around Shakespeare

Banner Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

If lawyers played such a large role in Shakespeare’s life you will probably want to know more exactly which lawyers, and more generally which people were closest to Shakespeare. On my journeys around the web I found recently the website Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. The aim of this Anglo-American project is collecting and visualizing data which show you the Early Modern social network. After registration you can download data, and also add new data. Everyone can look at the visualizations or relationships. Bacon (1561-1626) was originally also trained as a lawyer. Even if a similar website could already exist for Shakespeare it becomes quickly clear that you can immensely benefit from using this website when researching Shakespeare’s entourage, especially when you fortify your results with the letters of the project for Shakespeare’s World and the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented.

Choosing Bacon is just an example of the many projects dealing with English letters and correspondents. The most generous portal to them is certainly Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 (University College London). Perhaps its main offspring, and certainly one closely connected to the theme of this post, is the project Early Modern Letters Online under the aegis of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where you can search directly in letters written in many countries. Some of the resources at Cultures of Knowledge stem from the Lives and Letters project developed and led by the late Lisa Jardine. Among its projects is the edition of the correspondence of Francis Bacon, the main resource behind Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. For those wanting to look at more online projects dealing with letters the overview at Digitizing Correspondence should quench a lot of your thirst, and you might also contemplate the examples of interfaces for these projects. If you add to this wealth the links page at Cultures of Knowledge you can start to investigate for yourself the epistolary culture of Early Modern Europe. Going back to the subject of this post it is the project for the letters of Edmund Spenser which comes close to the sphere of action of William Shakespeare.

Celebrating Shakespeare

How can one avoid the obvious things around Shakespeare and have a fresh look at him? The Folger has created its own list of quatercentenary online projects. When preparing this post I thought about the manifold activities of another American research library, The Newberry in Chicago. Among nearly fifty online educational resources you might have a look at three virtual exhibitions concerning William Shakespeare, Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare’s Romans: Politics and Ethics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Utopias of the European Renaissance, the last item providing me with a connection to my recent blog post about More’s Utopia.

Instead of going to one of the sections of library websites about their copy of the First Folio, an object for which the label Holy Grail seems almost too simple, it is possible to have a look at digitized First Quartos and to compare various editions. They bring you closer to the times of Shakespeare himself than the posthumous First Folio. However, if you had rather stay with a time-tested resource, there is all reason to visit the section Discover Literature: Shakespeare of the British Library’s website with for example an article by Liza Picard on crime and punishment in Elizabethan England. Andrew Dickson looks at the only existing literary manuscript with Shakespeare’s handwriting, The Booke of Sir Thomas More. The play contains a plea for tolerance towards immigrants, and I cannot help feeling touched by the poignancy of this subject. More was a man for all seasons, and Shakespeare is indeed a writer for all times! The play seems to have been never performed during his life. In the project England’s immigrants 1350-1550: Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages curated by the universities of Sheffield (HRI Online) and York in cooperation with the National Archives at Kew you can find out about 64,000 persons coming to England during two centuries.

Drawing of The Swan. London, by Buchelius

Drawing of The Swan theatre, London, 1596 – Aernout van Buchell, Adversaria – Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132r – image: http://objects.library.uu.nl

The customary Dutch view shown here has in fact figured here in 2013, but without the famous illustration. The image has been used in countless printed publications. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1646), an antiquarian scholar from Utrecht, copied a drawing around 1596 of The Swan theatre in London (Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132 r). In my earlier post where I wrote about Buchelius you can find the links to more digitized manuscripts of this author.

Of course much more can be said, and has already been said this year. Today I looked briefly at the fine aggregator of Early Modern blogs created by Sharon Howard. If you follow her tag for Shakespeare at Early Modern Commons you will find already dozens of celebratory articles. Hopefully you will appreciate the urgent need to restrict myself here to only a few dozen projects. A search for Shakespeare at Early Modern Resources brings us ten online resources mentioning him. No doubt Sharon Howard will soon add a number of the new Shakespeare projects to Early Modern Resources.

However large and inviting the temptation to end here with one of the countless proverbial words of Shakespeare I had rather invite you to look yourself again and again at this writer whose works breathed life into the English language. His imagination both as a playwright and poet is at many turns so powerful that its glow will last as long people care for the right words which do justice to the humanity living in his works.

A postscript

One of the possible follow-ups to this contribution is looking in more detail at Shakespeare’s plays and the role of law. You can get a taste of this subject by looking at free accessible recent articles in the journals Law and Literature and Law and Humanities.

Images and the road to the French Revolution

After all attention given to texts from and concerning the French Revolution it is now time to turn to resources for digitized images from the eighteenth century. Texts about tolerance and its counterpart intolerance create – deliberately or inadvertently – images of targets, and also of cherished values and attitudes. Take Voltaire: he was a playwright, and apart from his obvious rhetoric talents we should acknowledge his ability to present matters in a dramatic way, to stage stories and bring them vividly before the eyes of the mind and into the hearts of his public. How to find French caricatures from his time, and what did Voltaire think himself about them? This post continues the series starting with Laws and the French Revolution and followed by Some notes on the history of tolerance.

Among French pictorial resources one of the best starting points is the image database of the BnF. You will encounter a rich choice of French historical images at the portal L’histoire par l’image, 1789-1939. Images from the nineteenth century with also five years of the century before it can be traced in the records of the French legal deposit at Images of France, 1795-1880, yet another ARTFL resource. The Joconde database enables you to search for images in the collections of French museums. Another major resource is the Bibliothèque numérique de l’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art where you can also search for books, manuscripts and archival records. The Moteur des collections at Culture is a very useful meta-catalogue to French collections, even when filtering your search results is sometimes difficult. We encountered already the images section of the French Revolution Digital Archives, a vast collection that luckily is not strictly limited to images created since 1789. Some two hundred images can be found at Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, a virtual exhibition of the Georg Mason University and City of New York University.

Looking at Voltaire

Saeculi Lumen - j'éclaire - anonymous copy after a silhouette by Jean 'Voltaire' Huber - London, Beritish Museum

Saeculi Lumen – J’éclaire – anonymous copy after a silhouette by Jean ‘Voltaire’ Huber – London, British Museum

Images of Voltaire himself are also part and parcel of virtual exhibitions such as those of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris about Candide (1759) and a similar one of the New York Public Library. The BnF has also a dossier about Voltaire and the collections about him at Paris at Saint Petersburg, with a useful list of works by Voltaire digitized at Gallica. At Trier, too, a virtual exhibition about Candide has been created. Yet two kinds of images are really hard to find online, caricatures showing Voltaire, and images of him using an almost archetypical technique of the late eighteenth century, the silhouette. One of the greatest masters of this art is directly related to Voltaire’s life, the Swiss artist Jean ‘Voltaire’ Huber (1721-1786). I have to confess that I had hoped to retrace a complete series of his silhouettes of Voltaire, but this is very hard to find. Tantalizing the image database of the BnF has two cartons from which Huber made a number of his silhouettes with Voltaire. Both the Château de Voltaire at Ferney-Voltaire and the Musée historique de Lausanne are currently closed for renovation. The collections web site of the museums in Lausanne brings me some paintings by Jean Huber, including the intimate portrait showing Voltaire in the early morning, the Lever de monsieur Voltaire. In the database of the Swiss Institute for Art Research I did find some silhouettes by Huber, but alas not his famous images of Voltaire. A more systematic search using the links collection of the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford brought me to the iconography section of the online bibliography of the Société des Études Voltairiennes in Lyon, but here, too, I searched in vain. The blog of the Voltaire Foundation is most interesting , but one has not added yet a search function. However, this institution provides us also with a good dossier on Huber’s painting La Sainte Cène du Patriarche (around 1772) for which sketches exist.

"Voltaire: Départ pour les Délices", drawing by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin - Waddesdon Manor

“Voltaire: Départ pour les Délices”, drawing by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin – Waddesdon Manor

It is only natural that Voltaire as a master of satire became himself the object of caricatures. On my legal history website I have included among the virtual exhibitions a number of image collections containing eighteenth-century caricatures, but it lacks a specific resource for the French Revolution. With some luck I found a wonderful online resource at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The collections of this stately house were brought together by members of the Rotschild family. You can search directly in the Saint-Aubin collection with drawings by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin (1721-1786). Two of his comic drawings in the unique album with some 400 items called Livre de caricatures tant bonnes que mauvaises show Voltaire. In 2012 the digitization of this album was completed. It is surely surprising to find this rare resource among the more august objects of the collections at this location. In my view this album is a splendid source which enriches and changes considerably our views of visions on eighteenth-century France.

Finding old cartoons and caricatures

There is a great gateway to online collections of cartoons and caricatures at EIRIS, the Équipe Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l’Image Satirique. The very useful links section will bring you for example to a great list at arthistoricum of French creators of satirical drawings. The major drawback for me it is its focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The image section of the French Revolution Digital Archive contains ten satirical scenes among the nearly eighty pictures with Voltaire. You will find more than one thousand satirical scenes among the 13,000 images, and some 35 items mentioning or showing silhouettes. The search functions in the FRDA are indeed superior to those at the images website of the BnF, but the FRDA is restricted to the period 1787-1799. The BnF did its very best to provide FRDA with new photographs of relevant items.

One of the points worth noticing here is that French cartoons were already an established genre long before Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) started creating his famous drawings of French society. The title of the BnF’s virtual exhibition Daumier et ses héritiers is therefore somewhat misleading, even though admittedly his images of lawyers are among the most stereotyped cartoons of any profession. Dieter and Lilian Noack have created The Daumier Register, a database with an overview of Daumier’s work, and Brandeis University offers online some 4,000 lithographed drawings by Daumier. Another point is that a set of drawings or engravings in a particular collection can almost make a prolonged search for more general digital collections superfluous. The digitized Lexikon der Revolutions-Ikonographie in der europäischen Druckgraphik 1789-1889 (Universität Giessen) contains nearly 11,000 images with pictorial representations in European printed art of revolutions between 1789 and 1889, but more importantly it gives a theoretical framework to the role and importance of graphic images.

Let’s end here with a remark about digitized portraits: you might want to search yourself for other portraits of Voltaire. A large number of links to digital portrait collections has been put together on the website of the Trierer Porträtdatenbank.

For some readers the link with legal history in this contribution might seem very weak or simple absent! However, I would adduce here the fact how art can be a law to itself. Cartoons have a peculiar position between more elitist art forms and popular culture. Caricatures seize upon imagination, but surely are linked to facts and opinions, too. The role of law and justice in Ancien Régime France was a hotly debated matter, and this debate must have touched all kinds of contemporary media. One of the things meriting further research is the role of illustrations in French pamphlets and broadsides. A quick first search using the relevant digital collections for France list on my own page for digitized pamphlets did not yield anything, but my impression could be wrong. Perhaps one can extend such questions also to illustrated chapbooks – in particular the Bibliothèque Bleue de Troyes – and ballads. However, my habit to put too many subjects in a single post should not prevail again. Having here links to many interesting collections only one mouse click away should form an invitation to explore things yourself. In future posts you will encounter legal history again in its widest possible variety!

A fortress of social history

Logo IISH, Amsterdam

More than once I have expressed here my concern to connect legal history with major issues, but preferably without breathlessly following the daily news. When discussing here this summer The History Manifesto I singled out legal history as a discipline particularly equipped to study and analyze for example slavery, inequality, racism and the unfair distribution of wealth, because laws and regulations, legal institutions and their policies, and the ideas and visions of those people trained in legal matters do touch these issues into their very heart. Add violence and immigration to these issues and you have covered major issues in contemporary society. Last week I saw the announcements of four upcoming conferences and symposia confronting these issues, all of them organized this month by or created in close cooperation with the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam.

Earlier this year the IISH reached already headlines with its digitization of the papers of Karl Marx. For me the four scholarly events form only the last push to write here an entire contribution about this marvellous institution, its holdings and importance for historians. In the process of writing it turned out to be rewarding to devote a second section to a number of similar institutions in Europe. Hopefully this comparison makes the strenghts and opportunities of the IISH clearer for you.

Four events

On December 9, 2015, the IISH organizes with the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and its Academy of Arts a symposium about science and the immigration crisis. The speakers will be introduced by IISH research director Leo Lucassen, a specialist in the field of migration history who actively participates in the current public debates concerning the impact of immigration into Europe, not in the least with tweets – in Dutch – as @LeoLucassen.

A photo of the attack by Auguste Valilant on the French Chambre des Deputés, 1893

The attack of Auguste Vaillant on the French Chambre des Deputés, December 9, 1893 – image IISH, Amsterdam

Since 1979 the IISH is one of the research institutes of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, and thus it is only naturally to find them cooperating also on December 10, 2015, for a one-day symposium Utopie en geweld [Utopia and violence]. Utopianism is one the branches within the socialist movements for which the IISH has important holdings from numerous countries. In fact it is the very presence at the IISH of a great variety of collections, from personal papers to party archives coming from all over the world that gives this institution its prominent position. This event is almost too close to current world news, but there is also attention for utopian visions within capitalism.

In Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) the IISH brings from December 10 to 12, 2015, the authors together of the project for The General Labour History of Africa. This project has a number of aims, for example bringing Africa’s history into focus, supporting African scholars, creating new perspectives on the history of slavery and its impact, and contributing to the centenary in 2019 of the International Labour Organization.

From December 14 to 16, 2015, the first conference of the European Labour History Network [ELHN] will take place at Turin. The ELHN was founded in Amsterdam in 2013. One of the recent initiatives of the IISH and sister institutions is the Social History Portal, hosted at a server of the IISH, but there is evidently space needed for similar cooperation in the field of labour history. At this conference the business of working groups will be the main activity, and their range is impressive.

Multiple constellations

Anyone trying to do justice to the IISH, the history of its holdings and initiatives faces the challenge of striking a balance between its apparent core activities and actual main business, and this balance is not found so easily. Around the IISH are a number of institutions, and you cannot properly assess its doings without looking also at sister organizations, partners in international projects, and the offsprings of the IISH. Let’s have a brief look at the origin and history of the IISH. N.W. Posthumus (1880-1960), the principal founder of the IISH, had already founded in 1914 the Nederlands Economisch Historisch Archief (NEHA). The collections of the NEHA can to a large extent be searched using the online catalogues of the IISH. Important donations for Posthumus’ new project came from Nehemia de Lieme (1882-1940), the director of a labourers’ insurance and banking company with close relations to the Dutch social-democratic party. In 1934 Lieme helped acquiring the archives of the Jewish Bund, an association of Jewish workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, and a year later he joined the board of directors of the newly founded institute. Soon afterwards the IISH acquired the archives of the German socialist party. Librarian Annie Adama van Scheltema-Kleefstra succeeded in smuggling the manuscripts of Bakunin out of Vienna just before the Anschluss, and the IISH got the archives of Marx and Engels in its possession. Posthumus had set up branch offices of the IISH in Paris and in Britain. In the face of all threats during the Second World War the losses in materials were surprisingly low. A part of the collections resurfaced only in 1991 in a secret archive in Moscow.

The history of the socialist movement in all its diversity during the nineteenth and twentieth century can safely be dubbed the original heart of the IISH, but adjacent branches of history, in particular labour history and economic history were always near. Today Dutch social and economic history are surely not neglected, and the international dimensions have grown far beyond the homelands of European socialism. In its current form the IISH truly aims at covering the history of work, labour and labour relations in the fullest possible sense. Writing this I feel forced to show here at least some of the IISH activities, but it is quite a feat to write concisely about the IISH. For my First World War blog Digital 1418 I wrote in 2014 about the IISH and its collections concerning this war. There is not only a special research guide for this period dealing with some twenty collections, but also a similar guide for the war and peace movements. At the Social History Portal the IISH contributed to the online exhibition about the 1917 Stockholm Peace Conference, and the IISH contributes relevant digitized items to the portal Europeana 1914-1918.

In 2011 I could point my readers already to the Virtual Library Women’s History and ViVa Women’s History, an online current bibliography of women’s and gender history, both maintained by the IISH. In the field of Big Data the IISH offers you a lot of data hubs, for example Historical Prices and Wages and a database on strikes in the Netherlands from 1372 to 2008. Among digitized works are the editions of two economic enquêtes from late medieval Holland, the Enqueste from 1494 and the Informacie from 1514, with a bibliography on both documents. If you search images of economic activities you might benefit from the History of Work Information System with occupational titles from five centuries accompanied by contemporary images. The eleven online exhibitions also show the sheer width and variety of the IISH’s holdings. Where else can you find together online exhibits on posters from China, Cuba and the Soviet Union, the images of a rare seventeenth-century tulip manuscript illustrating the tulipomania, the history of censorship, Red-Haired Barbarians, the Japanese expression for Europeans in Japan between 1800 and 1865, and Rebels with a cause, the 75 year jubilee exhibit about the major figures of the socialist movements and parties?

Lately the IISH has made great progress in digitizing some of its most important collections. By now you might conclude more easily with me that it is wise to start your visit of the IISH website with some of the nearly twenty online research guides. Those who think British scholars can find everything in London either at the British Library or the London School of Economics might want to visit Amsterdam for the Kashnor collection in the IISH library, where legal historians, too, can find materials ranging from laws ordered by Oliver Cromwell to the Corn Laws and Indian colonial history. The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences is creating an online version of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe) of which you can now consult online a number of economical writings, including Das Kapital. The IISH has digitized the original papers of Marx and Engels from the archive of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands in their holdings. By the way, this year’s publication of a new Dutch translation of Das Kapital would be another reason to contemplate writing about Marx. There is a useful overview of the main socialist collections and their finding aids at the IISH website, but for quick access it is wise to look also at the general overview of the IISH socialist archival collections. The IISH does provide you online with a general introduction to its archives. Using the guide by Jaap Haag and Atie van der Horst (eds), Guide to the International Archives and Collections at the IISH, Amsterdam  (Amsterdam 1999) is a must. Looking at the spectacular time-table of the socialist collections did exceed even my expectations.

I will not hide from you the Dutch connections of Karl Marx. He often visited in Zaltbommel Lion Philips, the grandfather of Anton and Gerard Philips, the two founders of the Philips multinational firm. Lion Philips actually sponsored Marx who constantly needed money. Marx worked often in the reading room of the British Museum, but large parts of Das Kapital were written in Zaltbommel. Marx’ father’s stepfather was a rabbi at Amsterdam, and Henriette Presburg, Karl’s mother, came from Nijmegen. Last year the Dutch television series De IJzeren Eeuw [The Iron Century] about the Netherlands in the nineteenth century devoted time to this period of Marx’ life. Jan Gielkens edited a number of family documents and letters in ‘Was ik maar weer in Bommel’ . Karl Marx en zijn Nederlandse verwanten. Een familiegeschiedenis in documenten (Amsterdam 1997) and Karl Marx und seine niederländischen Verwandten. Eine kommentierte Quellenedition (Trier 1999).

Violence and its history

Alas we must leave the peaceful surroundings of Zaltbommel on the Waal river and return to the start of this post, the history of violence and other contemporary issues which sometimes seem to move to the background but never totally absent. We had best look at the rather brief introduction to the IISH anarchism collection guide and use the relevant parts of the online exhibit Rebels with a cause to get a taste of what follows. The following sections on archives, literature and highlights redeem its conciseness. Among the many anarchist archives Michael Bakunin, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, the Provo movement in Amsterdam and the May-June’ 68 revolt in Paris are just the familiar landmarks. Having access in the IISH library to really rare collections of relevant literature, including the magazines and journals of movements, personal photographs, and perhaps best of all, access to the collections of people such as Max Nettau and Augustin Hamon documenting the history of anarchism, is the thing that you will search for in vain at other major institutions in the field of social and economic history.

Flag with De Strijd logo

It needs perhaps stressing that anarchism historically was not just a movement choosing tu use violence as its exclusive means, but an attempt to rethink and reshape politics and the use of power and the role of authority, and of course anarchism was marked by its great diversity in thought, aims and actions. I confess to a slight passing bias in the direction of violence because of my admiration for a current television series about the history and role of Dutch socialism with the suggestive title De Strijd [The struggle].

Banner Social History Portal

Have I fallen victim to a misplaced belief that the IISH is really outstanding and almost unique, or do I have to correct my views? For a start it will help to look at the Social History Portal mentioned above. In the news section is a notice about yet another scholarly event at the IISH where at December 4 and 5, 2015 a two-day conference was held on Global Capitalism and Commodity Frontiers: A Research Agenda. Last week the IISH awarded a prize for a M.Litt thesis about the Amna Suraka torture museum in Irak. Let’s compare this with some upcoming and recent activities of sister institutions listed in the news section of the Social History Portal. This year the library of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn organized meetings around books documenting right-wing populist movements in Germany. The Open Society Archives and Museum in Budapest has on December 8, 2015 a symposium around an exhibition concerning privacy in an open society. The Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv in Zürich has acquired the archives of a movement fighting against human trafficking. The BDIC at Paris-Nanterre organized a two-day conference about the deportation of women in France during the Second World War.

The resources section of the Social History Portal does much to redress the balance. Here all partner institutions contribute to at least one and often more online exhibits. When you look finally at the digital collections section of this portal, and check for instance the number of collections from the various institutions, you will find the IISH with eleven collections. Six other institutions show more digital collections, the institute at Budapest even 46 collections and the archive at Zürich with 45 collections. The Press Museum at Amsterdam, a sister institute of the IISH, is present with one collection, the early twentieth-century caricatures of Albert Hahn depicting Dutch political life and events in a very powerful way, sometimes as aggressively as some of today’s cartoonists. Disappointingly the IISH and the Press Museum have to bow in front of recent claims about image right to keep them out of view, which makes the inclusion of this collection at this moment rather futile. Behind the Social History Portal is the Heritage of People’s Europe network which brings digitized materials also to the Europeana portal.

Comparing institutions

Logo BDIC

When looking somewhat longer at the major European research institutions which share the fields and interests of the IISH in Amsterdam it is in particular the Bibliothèque de Documentation et Information Contemporaine (BDIC) in Paris-Nanterre which has a similar wide scope in time and space as the IISH. The department and collections dealing with the First World War are a world in itself. If you think that the BDIC’s website was not easy to navigate the new design does make things easier, although the English version has not yet been completed. There is a separate digital library, L’Argonnaute. The IISH is still in transition between its old URL and the present incarnation of its bilingual website, and every now and then you will encounter dead links. The list of themes and countries are helpful, but I do miss dearly the old site map. A separate entrance or portal for the IISH’s digital collections might be helpful in creating rapid access to the riches of the collections.

Logo FES, Bonn

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Bonn has several institutions under its aegis or collections amounting to separate institutions, including for example the Karl-Marx-Haus in Trier. Instead of trying to fit everything into one portal the institute at Trier can be reached online through the Archiv der sozialen Demokratie. This archive is in particular home to the Portal zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, a portal for the history of German labour movements with much choice in materials and databases. The library of the FES has it own digital library. In view of the number of themes presented by the FES there is a clear case for having not just one website but several platforms, though this hampers gaining a unified overview.

Logo LSE

Last but not least in this rapid European tour is an institution conspicuously absent at the Social History Portal. Does the London School of Economics and Political Science create its own virtual presence with sufficient character, scope, depth and width to stand alone? Being a research institution of world renown the LSE nicely gives you part of an answer by pointing to its own history of pioneering and leading scholars in a number of related fields. The LSE is celebrating 120 years of LSE, with for example also a number of virtual exhibitions. The library of the LSE is home to some 1,500 archival collections accessible through a special catalogue, a better solution than the time-consuming approach at the IISH. You are sure to find something of interest in the subject guides and topic guides; among the topics are Africa, India, Latin America and the Middle East. The last topic guide amounts to an extensive research guide of its kind which will kindle interest in the intricacies of the Middle East. One of its many virtues is leading you to collections and libraries elsewhere in London.

In the LSE’s library the Women’s Library accounts for a separate unit. You might almost describe the LSE’s digital library as a jewel in the crown. There is much attention for the Fabian society with the original Fabian Tracts and the modern Young Fabian Tracts, the digitized diaries of Beatrice Webb, notes concerning the Bretton Woods agreement, and more than 1,000 recordings of LSE public lectures between 1990 and 2006. However, the number of virtual exhibitions is with four distinctly low, even when one includes the fine but small fifth exhibition World War 1 at LSE: a common cause. The LSE could contribute to research for European social history by creating better access to for example its Russian collections. When you visit the websites of the LSE and the IISH you might find the former more rigorously organized, covering more disciplines and easier to use, the latter more inviting but sometimes more difficult to navigate, but leading you always to social and economic history. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, when you contact them, ask your questions, develop your projects or do actual research with or helped by their vast resources.

At the end of this post I realize much more can be said about the role within contemporary society of institutions with such rich collections in the fields of economic and social history. The comparison of four institutions might have helped me to create here yet another long post, but I think it has been rewarding to enlarge this post with the IISH at its centre into a tour bringing you to these important institutions. Their wealth in archival collections and massive libraries on many subjects, themes, countries and regions do merit the attention of lawyers and historians. Their interactions with the public and their role in today’s world can offer a mirror for scholars in the humanities and other disciplines.

Bruegel’s bewitching legacy

Detail of a print by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Saint James visiting the magician Hermogenes (detail) – Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Exhibitions sometimes make you hesitate to visit them at all. Will they only confirm what you already knew or suspected, or will they offer you food for thought and send you in new directions? Since September 19, 2015 you can see at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, a museum for the history of Christian art in the Low Countries, an exhibition about images and the imagination of witches. Bruegel’s Witches focuses on drawings, prints and paintings by the great Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (around 1525-1569). The exhibition credits Bruegel with creating in a few works the very stereotype of witches, looking as a woman with wild hairs and flying though the air on a broom. In is very best tradition the museum looks also at Bruegel’s contemporaries, shows earlier images of magicians and sorceresses, and it follows the impact of Bruegel’s imagination through the centuries. In 2016 the exhibition will be put on display at the Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges.

This month Museum Catharijneconvent also shows the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, University Library, ms. 32), the most famous medieval manuscript in the holdings of Dutch libraries. This manuscript with vibrantly illuminated pages from the early ninth century is only rarely shown in public, and even scholars seldom are allowed to look at it. If you have your doubts about the Bruegel exhibit, you should come at least for the Utrecht Psalter.

Witches in context

At the Catharijneconvent, a former hospital and convent of the Knights Hospitaller, Christian art is always presented within the context of other expressions of Christian life and practice. In this exhibition, too, you will find objects from daily life and criminal justice, and also books. A particular resource used here are the so-called Wickiana, some 430 illustrated newsletters from the sixteenth century collected by the Swiss protestant vicar Johann Jacob Wick (1522-1580) who also wrote a chronicle about events in Zürich. The Zentralbibliothek in Zürich has digitized the Wickiana. This source is not only a form of communicating news, but it offers also a window to popular culture and protestant views of culture and life. The Wickiana shows the use of images and relate also to the perception of all kind of events and elements of culture at large. From the perspective of book history they belong to the category of pamphlets, or even more precisely to the Einblattdrücke. On my website for legal history I have created an overview of digitized pamphlet collections. Wick’s collection contains also many of his own coloured drawings.

The exhibition shows materials bearing directly on the way courts dealt with witches. There is for example a copy of Joost de Damhouder’s Praxis rerum criminalium (Antverpiae 1556). You can look at archival records from the castle Huis Bergh in ‘s-Heerenberg from 1605 about a trial against Mechteld ten Ham who was accused of sorcery (available online [Archief Huis Bergh, inv. no. 7268]). Interesting is also the so-called schandhuik, the “cover of shame”, from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an object designed to parade infamous women. Among the books on display is also a treatise by the Jesuit Martin Antonio Delrio (1551-1608), Disquisitionum magicarum libri sex (Lovanio 1599), a book dealing both with the theological interpretation of witchcraft and with the role of judicial courts. Delrio was a humanist scholar, a nephew of Michel de Montaigne and a friend of Justus Lipsius. It prompted me to look at the number of books dealing with witchcraft and demonology signalled by the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) in St. Andrews. The USTC gives you hundreds of titles, and you find of many works several editions. By the way, the book of De Damhouder appeared also in Dutch and French. The USTC is one of the portals indicating also access to digital versions of these works.

Firing the imagination

When you visit the exhibition at Utrecht, you can view the works of art, artefacts, books and pamphlets using a summary guide (Dutch or English), use an audio tour or dive into a fine classical exhibition catalogue. Walking through the rooms and corridors of this exhibition can thus be a rather normal contemporary museum experience, or you can choose a multimedia approach to submerge yourself into the dark world of Early Modern imagination. However strong images and imaginary worlds may be, they combined with the forces of churches and courts to create images of women. Even when they escaped from outright persecution women had to cope with very powerful unfavorable representations of their gender. Imagination, perspectives on gender and anxieties were part and parcel of the period which saw the growing impact of real and imagined magic and sorcery. The role of courts in dealing with witchcraft surely did not always do credit to law and justice.

This exhibition at Utrecht is visually attractive and seduces you to some extent to revel in the imagery of witchcraft, but there is a sober and more disconcerting reality behind which should not be lost out of view. Malcolm Gaskill’s volume Witchcraft. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, etc., 2010) has been translated into Dutch in 2011 by Nynke Goinga [Hekserij, Een kort overzicht (Rotterdam 2011)]. I seldom condemn books or translations, but this translator succeeds in utterly missing the crux of the matters under discussion. Many translated sentences sound strange as if she did not understand at all the subject of this book. Alas witchcraft as a historical subject will remain open to the fascination of those people searching for sensation and esoteric phenomena. There is too much at stake around this subject to leave it to thrill seekers and freaks. However, such statements do not make it easier to face the challenges to deal with this complex subject, starting with the oceans of publications about witches and sorcerers. We need the powers of deep thinking and applying all of the (legal) historian’s crafts to do justice to this aspects of Early Modern history. If this exhibition convinces you at least of the value of this conclusion, your visit will be fruitful.

De heksen van Breugel / Bruegel’s Witches – Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent, September 19, 2015-January 31, 2016, and Bruges, Sint-Janshospitaal, February 25 to June 26, 2016

A postscript

Klaus Graf pointed in one of his latest 2015 posts at Archivalia at the online version [PDF, 200 MB] of the dissertation by Renilde Vervoort: “Vrouwen op den besem en derghelijck ghespoock.” Pieter Bruegel en de traditie van hekserijvoorstellingen in de Nederlanden tussen 1450 en 1700 [“Women on brooms and similar ghostly things”. Pieter Bruegel and the tradition of witchcraft iconography in the Low Countries between 1450 and 1700] (Nijmegen 2011).

At the scene of crime with the Romans

Flyer For a number of very sensible reasons the history of Roman law has a prominent place within the study of legal history. However, in most cases we tend to focus on Roman private law, sometimes we take public law into account, and criminal law holds at its best a marginal place. This blog tries to avoid undue attention to Roman law, but there is no need here to exclude it completely. The current exhibition about Roman criminal law at Nijmegen (Nimwegen / Nimègue) at Museum Het Valkhof is an excellent occasion to look at this subject in some depth. Its title Plaats delict. Misdaad bij de Romeinen [The scene of the crime. Crime among the Romans] suggests correctly that artefacts will help you to get a better view of Roman attitudes towards crime.

The variety of crimes

Inscription about a murdered farmer

The exhibition at Nijmegen has been developed in cooperation with a number of German museums which created the travelling exhibition Gefährliches Pflaster. Kriminalität im römischen Reich [Dangerous pavement. Criminality in the Roman Empire]. At Museum Het Valkhof, a museum for art, history and archaeology, there is a clear stress on a way of presentation suited to young people. There is no accompanying catalogue, but only short texts with brief explanations about the objects put on display. Children are invited to play the role of Quintus, a Roman crime investigator, and to find out who has committed a murder. From Frankfurt am Main there is a skull with traces of a murderous attack. Children can also take a seat in a Roman court and deduce the exact way cases did take place. An inscription concerning a Roman investigator at Nyon (Switzerland) and an inscription telling us about the murder of a farmer certainly help to imagine how crimes touched the lives of very real people. At Nyon Quintus Severius Marcianus had been very successful as a praefectus arcendis latrociniis, and his home town honoured him with an inscription.

The crimes shown in this exhibition offer a wide variety, from theft and counterfeiting coins to playing with prepared dices, and from burglary to murder and the plundering of tombs. Punishments, too, show a great variety: penalties in money, hand cuffs, slavery and forced labour, and the death penalty in various forms, be it as a gladiator, fed to the lions, by beheading or crucifixion.

Waxtable with a fine

From the perspective of legal historians it is remarkable that Roman law is scarcely invoked at this exhibition, often only implicitly or strictly in the context of an object. For lesser crimes your punishment would often be a fine, an amount of money to be paid. It is a pity the exhibition shows only a replica of a second century wax table with such a fine, held at the Archäologisches Museum Baden-Württemberg in Rastatt.

The longest text about Roman law in the exhibition gives a short overview of the various sources of Roman law. The major place of private law is mentioned, as is the efforts under emperor Hadrian (117-138) to unify Roman law. The Codex Justinianus is described as a text-book for students. Just two paragraphs to summarize a development of many centuries is simply too short to bring more than a few things to the attention of people. More to the point is the explanation about the accusatory nature of judicial proceedings. The parties involved had to bring a case themselves to court. The role of provincial governors to hear cases and to ask for judgments from the emperor himself is also mentioned, but none of this information is further corroborated.

Roman burglars at work

The information concerning the objects on display fares better, with nice captions such as Inbrekers aan het werk [Burglars at work] for a box with traces of an attempt to force its lock. Some walls of the exhibition rooms have been decorated with actual Roman wall paintings or evocative artists’ impressions, showing for example a number of inscriptions in a Roman settlement. The exhibition shows small statues of dogs given to the dead in their graves to protect the gifts accompanying their bodies. The ubiquitous Cave canem [Watch out for the dog] is only hinted at by showing a bronze head of a dog.

Objects, stories and history

I left the exhibition at Nijmegen with mixed feelings. It is easy to admire the telling array of objects, to learn about them from the concise information about them, and to get here a general impression of Roman life, crimes and punishments. The immediate involvement of children in an imaginary murder investigation is to be welcomed as an example of teaching a subject by making students play a role in a historical setting. However, I cannot ignore the lack of more information about the Roman judiciary, and in particular about its development. The quality of the information for each object is much better, but this shows also forcefully that texts – or maybe a video presentation – can enhance the understanding of objects.

At the entrance of the exhibition you read the Romans faced much the same crimes as we do nowadays. The very substantial difference in punishments could have been highlighted stronger. The attention paid by Romans to safeguard their possessions could have been easily linked to their veritable obsession with hereditary law, the very heart of Roman private law. In the museum shop at Nijmegen with a nice selection of books on Roman history I searched in vain for the German book published for the original exhibition by Marcus Reuter and Romina Schiavone, Gefährliches Pflaster. Kriminalität im römischen Reich (Mainz 2013). Reuter works at the Archäologischer Park und RömerMuseum in Xanten, a town not far from Nijmegen, which makes this omission even more painful.

Apart from the leaflet for children and a general flyer no printed information is available. In face of the Dutch fondness for English books studies such as Jill Harries, Law and crime in the Roman world (Cambridge 2007) and Olivia Robinson, The criminal law of ancient Rome (London 1995) could at the very least have been shown. For me it seems legal historians at the Radboud University Nijmegen have missed a chance to create for this occasion at least a succinct brochure which might redeem this conspicuous lack of further information. The city of Nijmegen can proudly trace its history back to Roman times, At Museum Het Valkhof is also a permanent exhibition about the Peace of Nijmegen (1678-1679), which without any doubt has benefited from advice by legal historians. Let’s hope they will exploit more actively future chances for cooperation with archives, museums and libraries, starting in their own town or region.

Plaats delict. Misdaad bij de Romeinen, Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen, May 18-October 5, 2014 – www.museumhetvalkhof.nl

A postscript

While finishing this post I visited also the exhibition De Krim / The Crimea at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, the archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam. A splendidly flowing projection of tribes and their movements in the Roman empire from the first to the seventh century and a movie about excavations help here to see the context of the treasures shown. If I had noticed it earlier this year a posting about the Crimea and Ukraine would have been close to current world news, and for that reason the exhibition did not end in May, but will be open until August 31. In fact the museum fears either Russia or Ukraine will come with juridical claims when the objects would return now to the lending museums on the Krim (see a press release of the Allard Pierson Museum (August 20, 2014) and for example the Dutch newspaper Trouw, August 22, 2014). In one of the corridors of the Allard Pierson Museum is a small photo exhibition Culture under attack about the threats to cultural heritage worldwide since 1945.