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 term 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

Check for a more extensive and updated version of this page my website Rechtshistorie!

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).
  • H.A. Diederiks, S. Faber and A.H. Huussen jr. (eds.), Strafrecht en criminaliteit (Zutphen 1988; Cahiers voor lokale en regionale geschiedenis, 1) – a concise guide to the history of criminal law and justice from the Dutch Republic onwards
  • G.A.M. van Synghel (ed.), Bronnen voor de criminaliteit en strafrechtspleging vanaf 1811 tot heden  (Broncommentaren, vol. 7; Den Haag 2009) – a guide to major record series concerning criminal law and justice and their use – you can view online PDF’s of the chapters (ING/Huygens Instituut); other volumes contain interesting chapters, too; there are two series of introductions to sources, the first published by the Stichting Archief Publicaties, I-XII, 4 vol., 1987-1990, the second by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 1-8, 8 vol., 1994-2010

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).

For Belgian legal history some books stand out:

  • R.C. van Caenegem, Geschiedenis van het strafrecht in Vlaanderen van de XIe tot de XIVe eeuw (Brussels 1954) – the history of criminal law in medieval Flanders
  • R.C. van Caenegem, Geschiedenis van het strafprocesrecht in Vlaanderen van de XIe tot de XIVe eeuw (Brussels 1956) – the history of medieval procedure in Flemish criminal courts
  • J. Monballyu, Six centuries of criminal law : history of criminal law in the Southern Netherlands and Belgium (1400-2000) (Leiden 2014) – first edition: Zes eeuwen strafrecht : de geschiedenis van het Belgische strafrecht (1400-2000) (Leuven 2006).
  • Patricia Van den Eeckhout and Guy Vanthemsche (eds.) Bronnen voor de studie van het hedendaagse België,19e-21e eeuw [Sources for the study of modern Belgium, 19th-21st centuries)] (3rd ed., 2 vol., Brussels 2017) – the Royal Commission for History offers this guide also online, with due attention to collections in archives and libraries.

For the history of institutions you can use the following works:

  • I.H. Gosses, Handboek tot de staatkundige geschiedenis der Nederlanden I: De Middeleeuwen, R.R. Post (ed.) (first edition 1959; reprint The Hague 1979) – old but still serviceable for the medieval period
  • R.C. van Caenegem, De instellingen van de Middeleeuwen : geschiedenis van de westerse staatsinstellingen van de Ve tot de XVe eeuw (2nd ed., 2 vol., Ghent 1977) – a manual on medieval institutions with a focus on the Low Countries
  • H. de Schepper, E. Aerts, M. Baelde et alii (eds.), De centrale overheidsinstellingen van de Habsburgse Nederlanden, 1482-1795 (Brussels 1994) – an indispensable guide to the history of the main institutions of the Habsburgian Low Countries
  • J. Kuys, Kerkelijke organisatie in het middeleeuwse bisdom Utrecht (Nijmegen 2004) – a manual for the study of the ecclesiastical organisation in the medieval diocese Utrecht, with a range and importance beyond its subject, because it was also a principality in the Holy Roman Empire
  • R. Fruin, Geschiedenis der staatsinstellingen in Nederland tot den val der Republiek, H.T. Colenbrander (ed.) (2nd ed., 1922; reprint The Hague 1980) – the classic work
  • C.W. van der Pot, Bestuurs- en rechtsinstellingen der Nederlandse Provinciën (Zwolle 1949) – focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth century, strong for regional authorities

It is certainly useful to turn also to general histories of the Low Countries. Some books stand out:

  • Algemene geschiedenis der Nederlanden, D.P. Blok et alii (eds.) (15 vol., Haarlem 1977-1983) – a major reference work.
  • Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its rise, greatness and fall 1477-1806 (Oxford 1995) – a masterwork for the Early Modern period, an instant classic.
  • E.H. Kossmann, The Low Countries 1780-1940 (Oxford 1976).
  • H. Lademacher, Geschichte der Niederlande (Darmstadt 1983).
  • De geschiedenis van Nederland (8 vol., Amsterdam 2004-2007) – eight separate volumes, with for example Marco Mostert for the early Middle Ages [In de marge van de beschaving, 2009], Wim Blockmans for the period 1100-1560 [Metropolen aan de zee, 2010], A.Th. van Deursen for the Dutch Republic (1555-1702) [De last van veel geluk, 2006) and for colonial history between 1600 and 1800 J.J.L Gommans and P.C. Emmer (Rijk aan de rand van de wereld, 2012), and for the period since 1800 H.W. van der Doel (Zo ver de wereld strekt, 2011).

For some subjects in Dutch history separate guides to archival sources have been published. They oiften touch upon legal and institutional history. Many of these guides are also accessible online at the Huygens Institute/ING, here a selection:

A number of dictionaries help you to interpret old legal terms:

  • F.L. Kersteman, Practisyns woordenboekje, of Verzameling van meest alle de woorden in de rechtskunde gebruikelyk (Dordrecht 1785; reprints Groningen-Hilversum 1988, Groningen-Den Haag 1996, Den Haag 2005) – an eighteenth-century dictionary which still can help – online, Delpher
  • K.F. Stallaert, Glossarium van verouderde rechtstermen, kunstwoorden en andere uitdrukkingen uit Vlaamsche, Brabantsche en Limburgsche oorkonden (3 vol., Leiden 1890; reprint Handzame 1977) –  online, vol. 1 (A-Huwen), DBNL;  vol. 1 and 2, Universitätsbibliothek Münster – especially for Flanders, Brabant and Limbourg
  • R. Reinsma, Glossarium van XVe en XVIe-eeuwse rechtstermen ontleend aan sententiën en dossiers van de Grote Raad van Mechelen (Amsterdam 1967) – focusing on records of the Great Council of Malines.
  • M. van Hattum and H. Rooseboom, Glossarium van oude Nederlandse rechtstermen (Amsterdam 1977).
  • N. Wijdeveld, M. van Hattum and R. van Answaarden, Glossarium van oude Franse rechtstermen (Amsterdam 1983).


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



Logo OVR

OVR had for some years its own website with useful information on Dutch and Belgian legal history, but alas technical problems led to ist end. 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, see also the general image gallery and the overview of image databases and digital collections
  • Leesmuseum, Bibliotheek Arnhem – in its digital library this public library has digitized also a number of legal works
  • Digital Collections, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen – here in particular the 127 Papyri Groninganae
  • 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
  • Digital Special Collections, Leiden University Library – a growing variety of digitized books, manuscripts and archival collections
  • 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; there is now also a chronological structured portal of the Bijzondere Collecties, with also digitized manuscripts
  • Early Dutch Books Online – ten thousand digitized books from the period 1780-1800, among them also some books on law and justice
  • The Early Modern Pamphlets Online – Brill – pamphlets from two collections, the Knuttel collection and the Van Alphen collection at the Dutch Royal Library; at least 400 pamphlets deal with law (search for subject “Law”)
  • Digital collections, Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht – an alphabetical list, but the books are searchable


The Dutch Royal Library created in 2014 an 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] had an online database for searching Dutch digital projects, but decided to abandon it.

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:

A number of journals for Dutch – and Belgian – history has been completely of partially digitized:

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:

  • Digithemis: Système numérique d’information historique sur la Justice – a portal for Belgian legal history with several databases
  • Diplomata Belgica – the portal site for research concerning medieval charters in Belgium; interface French and English
  • 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 the Rijksarchief in 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 project 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