Dutch legal history

Studying Dutch legal history is traditionally called studying Old Dutch law. No nationalism is implied in this word, for dealing with it means studying a lot of varying regional and local legal systems. Apart from that, one has to see whether one is interested not only in the present Netherlands, but also in its sometime southern part, Belgium. Anyway, the Dutch word oud-vaderlands recht can be used for both Dutch and Belgian legal history. To the legal history of the Netherlands and Belgium one has to add the colonial past: Indonesia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Congo are among the countries involved.

The Gravensteen, Leiden

The Gravensteen at Leiden, once the county prison, later the city prison, for many years home of the Departement of Legal History

The study of Old Dutch law

One can consult some major collections for the old printed sources of and concerning the old Dutch law, such as law books, statutes, ordinances, collections of ordinances and placards, and collections of sentences or juridical advice. On the spot or nearby these libraries there is in most cases a collection of the relevant scientific literature on Dutch legal history.

  • The collection of E.M. Meijers (1880-1954) was housed for many years at the Legal History Institute of Leiden University at the old Count’s Prison, the “Gravensteen”, but now one can find it at Leiden University Library – catalogue : R. Feenstra, M. Duynstee and W. Schwab (eds.), Catalogue des imprimés de la collection Meijers de la Bibliothèque de l’Université de Leyde (Leiden-Zwolle 1980).
  • The collection of old imprints at the Hoge Raad, the Dutch Supreme Court in The Hague, contains a large number of books for Dutch legal history, see the catalogue – P.P. Schmidt, Catalogus Oude drukken in de bibliotheek van de Hoge Raad der Nederlanden (Zwolle 1988) – and Joost Pikkemaat, The Old Library of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands (Hilversum 2008).
  • At the Law Library of Utrecht University there is a sizable collection of old juridical books, amounting to some 3000 books – a succinct overview of them is to be found at the website of Utrecht University Library.

Outside the Netherlands one should in particular consult the library of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main, which houses a very large collection of old Dutch juridical books, see Douglas Osler, Catalogue of books printed in Spain, Portugal and the Southern and Northern Netherlands from the beginning of printing to 1800 in the library of the Max-Planck-Institut für Europäische Rechtsgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main 2000). The Herzog-August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel is another German library with rich holdings of Dutch books. One could also recommend some British libraries, starting perhaps with the British Library and its Dutch department. In Paris the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Bibliothèque Cujas of the Université Paris I-Sorbonne provide a sensible starting point, as do in Italy the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the library of the Archiginnasio in Bologna.

The study of the Old Dutch law has been furthered in particular by some learned societies. Already at the end of the eighteenth century the society Pro iure patria excolendo was founded in Groningen. In 1860 the Vereeniging tot beoefening van Overijsselsch regt en geschiedenis (VORG, the Society for Overijssel’s law and history) was founded. For Gelre (Guelders) the Vereniging Gelre (founded in 1897) published a number of legal sources and studies.

On a more national level the Vereeniging tot Uitgaaf der Bronnen van het oud-vaderlandsche recht came into existence in 1879. Nowadays it is a chartered foundation, often abbreviated as OVR. OVR published its own journal, the Verslagen en Mededeelingen, of which two series appeared. Since 1999 OVR has got a new journal, Pro Memorie. OVR supports the edition of sources for legal history in their Werken (Works), of which the fourth series is appearing now. Lately OVR has supported the publication of procesgidsen, a number of guides to legal procedures at several Dutch courts. Many older editions of Dutch municipal statutes published for OVR have been digitized in the wake of the project for the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch.

A special place was occupied by the former NCRD, the Dutch Center for Documentation in Legal History and Iconography in The Hague, housed in the Royal Library. Each of the departments of legal history in the Dutch and Belgian universities has its own specialties in subjects, periods and themes. The Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis, too, has been an important vehicle for articles on Old Dutch law ever since its first appearance in 1918.

Introductions to Dutch legal history

A number of more or less classic introductions exist. Traditionally universities put one or two of them on the reading program of students. The order here is purely alphabetical on author name.

  • A.S. de Blécourt [revised by H.F.W.D. Fischer], Kort begrip van het oud-vaderlands burgerlijk recht (8th ed., Groningen 1968).
  • P. Gerbenzon and N. Algra, Voortgangh des rechtes. De ontwikkeling van het Nederlandse recht tegen de achtergrond van de Westeuropese cultuur (5th ed., Alphen aan den Rijn 1979).
  • E.J.J. van der Heijden [revised by B.H.D. Hermesdorf], Aantekeningen bij de geschiedenis van het oude vaderlandse recht (8th ed., Nijmegen-Utrecht 1968).
  • B.H.D. Hermesdorf [published by P.J. Verdam], Rechtsspiegel. Een rechtshistorische terugblik in de Lage Landen van het Herfsttij (Nijmegen 1980).
  • J.Ph. de Monté ver Loren [revised by J.E. Spruit], Hoofdlijnen uit de ontwikkeling der rechterlijke organisatie in de Noordelijke Nederlanden tot de Bataafse omwenteling (7th ed., Deventer 2000).

For literature on 19th century Dutch legal history the following bibliography is very useful:

  • G.W.F. Brüggemann and E.C. Coppens, Bibliografische inleiding in de Nederlandse rechtsgeschiedenis van de negentiende eeuw (Zutphen 1985).

A fine annotated introduction in English to Dutch legal history is the chapter by Randall Lesaffer, ‘A short legal history of the Netherlands‘, in: Understanding Dutch law, H.S. Taekema (ed.) (The Hague 2004) 31-58. For the legal history of Belgium it is useful to read an article by Dirk Heirbaut, ‘Legal history in Belgium’, Clio@Themis 1 (2009).


First the departments of legal history at Belgian and Dutch universities:



Logo OVR

OVR has its own website with useful information on Dutch and Belgian legal history. Here a number of other interesting websites:

An overview of Dutch digital libraries, starting with general collections:

  • Delpher, Royal Library, The Hague – with in fact three digital book colections, some 11,000 from the project Early Dutch Books Online (1780-1800), 1,200 books from the period 1913-1929, and 80,000 books digitized in co-operation with Google
  • Boeken en handschriften, Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteit van Amsterdam – both books and manuscripts
  • Leesmuseum, Bibliotheek Arnhem – in its digital library this public library has digitized also a number of legal works
  • Digital Collections, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen – with also the Institutional Repository; the law faculty has its own collection with a section for Ph.D. theses
  • Digitale Collectie, Tresoar, Leeuwarden
  • Digital Special Collections, Leiden University Library – a relatively small collection with digitized books and manuscripts
  • Colonial Collection, Royal Tropical Institute – this digital collection contains some 1300 books and many scientific journals; since 2013 the collection is managed at Leiden
  • Project Digitalisering Erfgoed, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen – simple but effective access to digitized books with six alphabetical lists
  • Early Dutch Books Online – ten thousand digitized books from the period 1780-1800, among them also some books on law and justice
  • Delpher: Boeken 1700-1870, Royal Library, The Hague – a project in cooperation with Google to digitize some 160,000 titles
  • Sources for Dutch History, Digitale Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht – digitized editions of sources on urban history from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and also the major collection of ordinances for Holland and Zeeland, the Groot Placaet-Boeck (9 vol., The Hague 1658-1796) – unfortunately the digital collections at Utrecht have abandoned this presentation and the pre-selection of sources for an objects website where you have to search using your browser
  • Jurisprudence, Digitale Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht – only a small number of books, but among them major authors such as Grotius, Van Leeuwen, Noodt, Voet and Huber, and the 1809 Dutch version of the Code civil
  • Digital Collection, Tresoar, Leeuwarden – a nice number of books on the history of Frisia have been digitized here, including manuscripts with texts on medieval Frisian law
  • Wumkes, Digital historical library for Frisia – here you will find a number of studies and source editions for Frisian law
  • Belgica, Koninklijke Bibliotheek Albert I, Brussels – the digital library of the KBR
  • Opteron, Koninklike Biblotheek Albert I, Brussels – a digital subcollection for official documents and works from the nineteenth century
  • Flandrica: Erfgoedbibliotheken online – six Flemish public libraries have partnered in this digital library with both books and manuscripts; legal books are to be found with the theme Recht en politiek [Law and politics]
  • Recueil des Circulaires, National Archives, Brussels – official letters sent by the Belgian Ministry of Justice

The Dutch Royal Library has created a new overview of Dutch digital projects (PDF) where you can find not only books, but also maps, journals, newspapers, images and graphic materials. Digitaal Erfgoed Nederland [Digital Heritage Netherlands] has an online database for searching Dutch digital projects.

Academic theses can be found online at the following websites:

  • NARCIS – the main Dutch online theses repository
  • Scripties Online – a portal to digital recent M.A. theses written at Dutch universities
  • HBO Kennisbank – B.A. and M.A. theses written at Dutch Higher Education institutions
  • Bictel – Ph.D. theses written in French at Belgian universities
  • E-thesis – digital versions of recent master theses defended at Belgian universities (in Dutch), with also subjects concerning legal history
  • Vlaamse Scriptiebank – M.A. theses written in Flemish defended at Belgian universities

For your convenience is here a list of digitzed legal journals:

And finally some more specific sites for aspects of Dutch and Belgian legal history:

The Huygens Instituut / Institute for Dutch History has digitized a large number of its publications in searchable online versions.

For Belgium:

  • Cabinet minutes, National Archives, Brussels – a digital version of the cabinet minutes created between 1917 and 1979
  • Finding aid Raad van Vlaanderen, National Archives – the archive of the high court of Flanders kept at Ghent [Inventaris van het archief van de Raad van Vlaanderen (Rijksarchief te Gent) (9 vol., Brussels 1964-1979)]
  • Just-his.be – The socio-political history of justice administration in Belgium (1795-2005), databases at Louvain on Belgian judicial magistrates between 1795 and 1950, a research repository and Belgian criminal statistics (only accessible after registration)
  • Justice & Populations – a research projetc of fourteen institutions concerning the Belgian judiciary in its widest sense and Belgian society in an international context from 1795 onwards until the present
  • Sammlung Alff, Pamphlets on the revolution in Brabant and Liège, Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek Köln – at Cologne some 600 pamphlets from the end of the eighteenth century have been digitized
  • Scabinatus 4000, Université de Liège – verdicts of the échevins in Liège between 1409 and 1797; registers for 1409 to 1510 are also separately available online
  • Itinera Nova, Stadsarchief Leuven and Universität Köln – scabinal registers from 1362 to 1795