Tag Archives: Belgium

500 years Utopia

Quentin Matsys, portrait of Pieter Gilles

Portrait of Pieter Gillis by Quentin Matsys – Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica – source: Wikimedia Commons

This year I have succeeded so far in avoiding centenary celebrations, but some of them are definitely interesting from the perspective of legal historians. In 1516 Erasmus published his edition of the Greek text of the New Testament, the Novum Testamentum graece, with for us a remarkable title, Novum Instrumentum (…) (Basel: Johann Froben, 1516; VD16 B 4196; online for example at the Swiss portal e-Rara). Even with all its shortcoming this edition proved to be a starting point for many developments in scholarship and theology. Legal historians might prefer to leave the onset of the Reformation to church historians and theologians, but they will certainly not want to forget another book published in 1516, Thomas More’s Utopia (Louvain: Dirk Martens, 1516; more bibliographic details in the Short Title Catalogue Vlaanderen).

The flood of literature about More, his book and his circle make it almost impossible to look at it without preconceived opinions and views. Is it possible to say something new, something worth reading at all within the compass of a blog post? However you may think about this state of affairs, I would like to present one of the main figures appearing in More’s Utopia. Pieter Gillis was a humanist scholar who merits attention for his work in the field of legal history, in particular with his edition of a source for the history of Roman law, yet another book printed by Martens in Louvain. In fact, it is seldom noted at all Gillis was a trained lawyer, and thus certainly prepared for his tasks as the city registrar of Antwerp. He is not the only lawyer you will encounter here.

First editions from Louvain

Why should authors in the early sixteenth century turn to Dirk (Thierry) Martens (1446-1534) for the publication of their books? The Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek has a fine article on him (vol. VI, col. 633-637). Martens printed his first book already in 1473 in his native city Aalst. He was among the earliest printers of the Low Countries. His first publication – published together with Johann of Paderborn – was a religious work, the Speculum conversionis peccatorum of Dionysius Cartusianus (Denis of Ryckel), a book digitized in the Flemish digital library Flandrica (GW 8420). From 1492 onwards Martens had his firm in Antwerp and since 1512 in Louvain, the only university town of the Low Countries. In 1491 he used for the first time in the Low Countries Greek type fonts. Printing the works students needed provided him with a stable market. Martens is even credited with promoting the use of the Roman type font. He was definitely a printer with some remarkable feats on his record.

Pieter Gillis (latinized Petrus Aegidius) (1486-1533) initially studied law at Orléans (1501). However, soon he became active as a corrector for the printing firm of Dirk Martens. Already in 1503 or 1504 he met Desiderius Erasmus, one of the authors coming to Antwerp to have his books published by Martens. In 1504 Gillis registered as a student at the university of Louvain, and in 1509 Gillis became the city registrar of Antwerp. In 1512 he got the degree of a licentiatus in law from the university of Orléans. Dealing with Gillis is indeed entering also the book trade of his time, one of the reasons I supply for the book titles in this post at least some bibliographical references. The NBW has a good biographical article on Gillis by M. Nauwelaerts (vol. I (1970), col. 4-7). A much older article in German by A. Rivier for the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie can also be consulted online (ADB (1875) 125-126).

The road to More’s Utopia

Ambrosius Holbein, image with More, Aegidius and Hythlodaeus

Ambrosius Holbein’s illustration with the protagonists of More’s Utopia – edition Basel 1518, p. 25; copy Yale University, Beinecke Library

Before going to More’s Utopia I must acknowledge here the great assistance offered in writing this post by the very useful and extensive International Thomas More Bibliography of Romuald Lakowski. The story of how More came to write Utopia scarcely needs retelling. As a diplomatic envoy he met Pieter Gillis in 1515. The two men became friends, and one of the fruits of their meeting was More’s book. In the prologue of Utopia More tells about his encounters with Gillis and Raphael Hythlodaeus, the stranger recently arrived from Brazil whose stories are the very heart of his book. When preparing this post I wondered where people would have found the famous images taken from the first edition of Utopia, the image of the island and the Utopian alphabet. Surely this last feature came into existence thanks to the suggestions and expertise of both Gillis and Martens. Lakowski provided me with the link to a digital version of the first edition of Utopia at a library where you probably will not expect a copy, the Gleeson Library of the Geschke Center at the University of San Francisco. The digital books in this library cannot be found using regular online search tools such as the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog and the Universal Short Title Catalogue (University of St. Andrews). Other early editions such as the one published in Paris by Gilles de Gourmont in 1517 (Gallica) and the famous edition by Froben (Basel 1518) can readily be found in various libraries, the latter for example in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

The Latin text of More’s Utopia can be searched in several ways. You will find just the text in The Latin Library, and a colourful version at the Bibliotheca Augustana of Ulrich Harsch, based on the version created at the Oxford Text Archive. For a linguistic approach you can benefit from the search functions offered in the version at IntraText. At first I would have preferred to leave translations out, and thus honour the principle ad fontes so dear to sixteenth-century humanists, but having a translation within your reach is most helpful. The first translation of More’s Utopia was the work of a legal humanist, Claude Chansonnette (Claudius Cantiuncula). Interestingly Cantiuncula (around 1493-1560) had been at Louvain before going to Basle where he published his translation Von der wunderbarlichen Innsel Utopia genannt das andere Buch (…) (Basel: Bebelius, 1524; digitized at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich). Cantiuncula decided to translate only the second part of More’s book, not the first half. At this point it is most welcome to point to the bibliographical survey of people connected to Desiderius Erasmus, Contemporaries of Erasmus. A biographical register of the Renaissance and Reformation, [CE] P.G. Bietenholz and T.B. Deutscher (eds.) (3 vol., Toronto-Buffalo-London 1985-1987; reprint 2003). This work contains entries for Pieter Gillis (CE II, 99-101), Dirk Martens (CE I, 394-396) and Claude Chansonnette (CE I, 259-261), and of course for Thomas More (CE II, 456-459).

Among the modern German translations of Utopia the version of historian Gerhard Ritter (1898-1967) is still being reprinted. Ritter made his translation early in his career (1922). You can see in a post from last year my photograph of several pocket law books accompanied by the modern incarnation of Ritter’s translation which gives you also the Latin text.

A meeting of lawyers

Title page of Gillis' edition with the Epitome Aegidii

The title page of Pieter Gillis’ edition of the Epitome Aegidii – Louvain: Martens, 1517 – copy Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

The excellent website of Lakowski with its most useful bibliographies for many subjects concerning Thomas More and his Utopia taught me looking at legal matters around Thomas More is not something new. In this post I will just look at a few aspects. Let’s go back to Pieter Gillis who published in 1517 a number of sources in the field of Roman law. Dirk Martens printed his Summae sive argumenta legum diversorum imperatorum… Caii et Iulii Pauli Sententiis (USTC 403069; digital copy at the Digitale Sammlungen, Munich). The Latin title of his book is certainly long, but it does clearly indicate the constituing parts edited by Gillis. His work contains the editio princeps of the Epitome Aegidii, a shortened version of the Breviarium Alaricianum/Lex Romana Visigothorum, in itself a reworking of the Codex Theodosianus. The manuscript he used contained also a shortened version of Gaius’ Institutiones (Epitome Gai) and the Sententiae Pauli. Among the rare Early Modern editions of these texts is a very rare book by the famous Dutch book collector Gerard Meerman, Specimen animadversationum criticarum in Caii Jcti Institutiones (…) (Lutetiae Parisiorum: apud Merigot, 1747).

The story of Pieter Gillis’ edition is intriguing. What manuscript did he use? Surprisingly Marcel Nauwelaerts wrote in his article for Contemporaries of Erasmus about Gillis’ edition “of which is a manuscript is preserved in the library of the University of Leiden (MS BPL 191 ba)” (CE II, 101). Is there truly a manuscript once owned or written by Petrus Aegidius? Many manuscript catalogues at Leiden can be consulted online in its Digital Special Collections. The manuscript Leiden, UL, BPL 191 BA can even be viewed online. The catalogue entry by P.C. Molhuysen makes it very clear this manuscript belonged to Paul Petau who wrote a brief summary of the content on the flyleaf. It seems Nauwelaerts was too eager to find a manuscript connected with Gillis. The manuscript has also been described within the online project Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections, but here, too, things are not completely straightforward. Searching for the Epitome Aegidii yields only the manuscript Leiden, UL, VLQ [Vossiani Latini in quarto] 119. When searching directly for BPL 191 BA you find it with as its title Epitome legis Romanae Visigothorum, which is in itself not wrong, but not complete either.

Finding out more about the Epitome Aegidii

Logo Bibliotheca legum

A few years ago Karl Ubl (Universität Köln) started the Bibliotheca legum, a project dealing with early medieval law in France. The project deals with many texts and a multitude of manuscripts, including those with Roman law texts and the early medieval codes conveniently known as the Völkerrechte, “laws of the nations”, because they were addressed to the populations of certain territories. The Breviarium Alaricianum, also known as the Lex Romana Visigothorum, is among them. The Epitome Aegidii, too, figures in this project, currently with thirty manuscripts. Here it becomes clear the Dutch manuscript portal should also refer to Leiden, UL, BPL 114, also consultable online. When you search for “Epitome edited by Aegidius” you will find it together with BPL 191 BA, but without Voss. lat. qu. 119. The Manuscripta juridica database at Frankfurt am Main uses the term “Lex Romana Visigothorum (“Breviarium Alarici”) (Epitome Aegidii)” and offers 25 manuscripts.

The Epitome Aegidii is also among the many subjects in the opus magnum of the late José Maria Coma Fort. His book Codex Theodosianus: historia de un texto (Madrid 2014) is also available online in the digital repository of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (PDF; 3,8 MB). Last year Faustino Martinez Martinez reviewed this book most approvingly for the online journal Forum Historiae Iuris. Here I can scarcely do justice to the efforts of José Coma Fort. He mentions Gillis at several turns and discusses his edition in detail at p. 371-375. He concluded the manuscript Gillis used is probably no longer extant. Coma Fort brings into relief the way Gillis’ edition was almost unknown until Meerman’s reimpression, and he looks in particular at the discussions concerning the Epitome Aegidii of humanist scholars such as Bonifacius Amerbach, Johannes Sichard and Johannes Cujacius. Did they willingly ignore the editio princeps? Even today it can be considered a rare book. One of the earliest general bibliographies, Konrad Gessner’s famous Bibliotheca universalis (Tiguri [Zürich] : Froschauer 1545; online at e-Rara) has an entry for Petrus Aegidius without his legal work (p. 543). The USTC has references to eleven copies. Using the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog I could add copies at Lausanne, Vienna (ÖNB, online) and Heidelberg. The Vatican Library, too, has a copy. The tenacity of Wouter Nijhoff and especially M.E. Kronenberg in creating together the Nederlandsche bibliographie van 1500 tot 1540 (‘s-Gravenhage 1923-1971) comes only sharper into view for current scholars with so many resources within easy reach online. In their bibliography NK 15 is the entry for Pieter Gillis’ book, and NK 1550 deals with Martens’ edition of More’s Utopia.

Dirk Martens of Aalst printed at Louvain in 1516 yet another editio princeps, the first edition of the book on legal argumentation by a Dutch lawyer, Nicolaus Everardi (around 1462-1532), his Topicorum seu de locis legalibus liber, a work I studied for my Ph.D. thesis. In 2011 I presented here a post about the digital versions of several sixteenth-century editions of this book, incidentally one of my most often read posts. It is only fitting to revisit in the 200th post of my blog Louvain in 1516. At the end of this post I realize how I like to bring things together in one post. Hopefully you will not mind the way I led you here to such important resources as the Bibliotheca legum and José Maria Coma Fort’s great book on the transmission of the Codex Theodosianus!

A postscript

University College London organizes on June 30 and July 1, 2016 the graduate conference Imagined Worlds in the History of Political Thought, an event also in coniunction with the quincentenary of Thomas More’s Utopia. You can send a proposal for papers before April 15, 2016, by mail to conference@historyofpoliticalthought.net.

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).

Going the long roads: Legal history and The History Manifesto

Cover This year saw in June some twenty conferences in the field of legal history, but now in August the congress calendar of my blog shows no events. It is summertime and scholarly life, too, goes at a slower pace and in different rhythms! During my holiday I could find much time for reading, and without events to attend I hope to read more this month.

One of the books offering itself for a reading in calm and quiet surroundings bristles with energy. Last year Cambridge University Press published The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, both as a book in print, as an e-book, in a web version and as a PDF. In 2014 I read it very quickly, and indeed its style helped me to fly through its pages. However, if the proposals and visions of the two authors make any sense, a more detached second reading is needed. What’s in it for legal historians? Do Guldi and Armitage have a message for them, or even multiple messages? What are the challenges facing the various fields and corners of legal history? Can we safely follow its recommendations and examples, or are there different directions which will be more rewarding? In this post I offer a personal view about this provocative book.

A call to arms

The opening words of The History Manifesto echo the Communist Manifesto which did indeed stir minds and governments. Both texts are divided into an introduction and four chapters, and they share the use of incisive and trenchant statements. However, with 125 pages for the main text the 2014 manifesto is really a book, not just a pamphlet-length treatise, In addition forty pages of notes and an index for persons and subjects place it in another category.

A summary of the book by Guldi and Armitage is not out-of-place here. The authors start with an introduction which depicts the humanities in a state of crisis. The following chapter looks at the origins of the modern concept of the longue durée, associated with Fernard Braudel and the impact of the French Annales school of historiography. In the second chapter they investigate the place of research concerning long-term developments in historical research between 1950 and 2000. The third chapter discusses the amount of attention historians paid in the twentieth century to such matters as worldwide changes in climate, inequality and the ways governments function. The last chapter is a plea to ask the great questions and to use Big Data in new ways that bring sound analyses for the problems of our times leading to actions for the future. One of the themes in the conclusion is the public role of history and historians in our century.

The great seduction of Guldi and Armitage is the invitation to combine without questioning two assumptions, the importance of history and the urgent need to follow the directions they indicate. I would not be a historian if I did not believe in and practice history with all its qualities. The second assumption is presented in a most enticing way. Guldi and Armitage are skilled story tellers, and it feels safe to join them in their explorations. The prophetic tone of the new manifesto brings a smile, because it makes you feel you are at last in good company with people who can see through the layers of society and open vistas of a world where historians and their research are almost bed fellows to power, guardians of the truth and the common good, and councillors with sound counsels. “Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late”. Even if there is a spectre haunting the modern world, you can find here a benevolent spirit ready to save mankind.

Guldi and Armitage are serious historians, but you cannot miss the ideological overtones of the manifesto. It would be wrong to dismiss the manifesto as nothing but a resurfacing of left ideologies. In fact they point not only to values and visions worth defending and promoting in their view, but they are also clear about the supposed neutrality of a world reigned by capitalism and neoliberalism. They point to research showing the impact of capitalism not only for the economy, but in particular also for the environment.

On the website promoting The History Manifesto there is ample space for discussion and criticism. The original version published in October 2014 has been followed in February 2015 by a corrected version with an accompanying revision notice. One of the salient features revised is a graph at page 44 depicting the percentage of Ph.D. theses written in the United States dealing with historical subjects during long periods. The alleged “downfall” of interest in long periods was less steep than suggested. One can frown about the very choice of American theses where a comparative perspective or a similar sample of published history books might have been more convincing. British and American history together provide the majority of examples, even if former British colonies are present, too. China gets more space than Japan.

At first I had no intent of looking at this book through Dutch glasses, but on second thought this, too, is useful. At page 65 Guldi and Armitage list a number of infrastructural projects “where nations have assumed responsibility for preserving life into the future”, among them “the government-built dykes of the early modern Netherlands”. The typical Dutch thing about the medieval and later dykes up to 1700 is that the overwhelming majority has been built by local governing bodies with whom resided full authority and jurisdiction. Centralized efforts to restore areas claimed by the floods of 1530 did utterly fail. In the seventeenth century the large land reclamations north of Amsterdam such as the Beemster (1612) and the Schermer (1635) succeeded thanks to the efforts of private investment companies. In the same paragraph the authors make the point that central authority is not always a prime mover, and here the Dutch dykes would have fit in excellently. This might seem a tiny detail, but historians have to deal with both details and larger contexts, especially when you want to give tell-tale details. As for the importance of the history of water management the manifesto does point to the studies of Terje Tvedt.

Short periods, long periods and legal history

Logo The Republic of Letters

Instead of picking at possible faults and mistakes it is perhaps more rewarding to look at the fruits of The History Manifesto that are interesting for legal historians. Do Guldi and Armitage look at legal matters in the past apart from inequality and injustice, and cite research in the fields of legal history? They do indeed, and I will give here a summary overview.

In the first chapter the influence of Theodor Mommsen and Henry Maine is mentioned with approval as an influence on various social history studies by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Paolo Grossi’s research about the history of property figures in a footnote. Later on it is no surprise that ownership figures prominently, for example Aaron Sakolski’s Land Tenure and Land Taxation in America (1957) who wrote about the views of major legal historians about the history of ownership. The two authors point to older studies such as Eugène Garsonnet, Histoire des locations perpétuelles et des baux à longue durée (Paris 1878) which helped Braudel during the fifties in creating his concept of the longue durée. Paul Warde traced the impact of real and perceived wood shortage on emigration using court records from many places in Europe. The series of digitized criminal court records of the Old Bailey between 1673 and 1914 is proudly present, as is Colin Wilder’s project Republic of Literature (RL) where legal texts are linked to a vast network of scholars and students and the ways they influenced German society in the Early Modern period. The datasets and the conceptual model behind RL are open to scholars for doing their own research. Paul Johnson and Stephen Nicholas studied criminal records in England and Wales between 1812 and 1867 which contain the height of the accused in order to find evidence for any improvement in living conditions. The history of slavery and its changing interpretations appear in every chapter. Using the contents of probate inventories as a kind of testing ground for all kind of changes is another example of sources familiar to at least a number of legal historians, In the final chapter Guldi and Armitage cite a possible study to words for emotions in court records as an example of future research for which historians are in their view exceptionally well equipped.

While looking for the relationship between attention to long periods and legal history I was somewhat mystified by the role allegedly played by Quentin Skinner. Guldi and Armitage present him (pp. 47-48) as a defender of contextual scholarship who attacked those favoring grand theories including attempts at long-term history. Skinner did certainly criticize those who tried to construct fanciful histories of ideas, but in his later publications he certainly did not avoid major subjects such as republicanism and freedom in Early Modern Europe, a time range of three centuries. I cannot help thinking about the proverb coined by George Bush “Who is not against us is for us”. Another saying, “Why should facts hamper my theory?”, is probably closer to the mark.

Blessings in disguise

As a medievalist I am used to the fact that results in studies dealing with long periods and major themes cannot be transplanted ceteris paribus to medieval studies. For The History Manifesto legal history mainly serves as a stepping stone or sometimes as an approved guide for a particular subject or problem. To do justice to the facts one should note that the website of the Republic of Literature, too, does in its present state only refer to the titles of legal texts as examples chosen from Roman and medieval law.

However, it is one thing to depreciate a book completely. and another thing to signal problems concerning the aims, scope, scale and value of a book. If I would make here only negative remarks about their book, I would take the trees for the forest. Guldi and Armitage express their genuine and sincere concern about the practice of history and its impact on society. The authors did a sincere job, and they could benefit from comments on lectures and early drafts by noted historians such as Peter Burke, Paul Freedman. Lynn Hunt and John Witt. You might have heard too often about crises in the historical trade and within the humanities, but even the ideological tone of The History Manifesto does not harm the main argument about the importance of choosing relevant subjects to be studied within a sufficiently long time span. Sometimes it is necessary to look just before and after a particular period to gain real insights, but even so often the micro-historic approach of telescoping into very short periods will pay off.

One of my greatest hesitations with the summons of The History Manifesto is the wish to be close to those in power, in order to give sound counsels and guide long-term policies. We had better watch out to remain independent as far as possible, and not sacrifice this for a clear role in current affairs. The results of historical research can shed light on the present, but they seldom contain infallible guidance for the immediate future or decades ahead of us.

The second major fault of The History Manifesto is perhaps more devastating. The authors highlight at several turns aspects of legal history, but somehow for me it sounds hollow. Generally I do not like to attack the main thrust of a book, but is it not very strange that a book with much attention to struggles against racism, inequality, slavery, environmental threats and the unfair distribution of wealth does not put legal history at its center? Uses and abuses of powers, legal doctrine and institutions, legislation and justice are not just at the periphery of such matters. They are part and parcel of these problems, prime movers and causes, channels of consequences to many events and solutions.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage want historians to tell stories that matter. Just choosing a long period in itself is not enough, and just dreaming about the chances of Big Data is no help, but creating and presenting sizeable answers when accessing and analyzing massive information is an aim not easily to accomplish. This book needs to be read with a red pencil. Your copy should be full with question marks and underlinings, emoticons and marks of approval, wonder and disbelief. The real question is not what these two distinguished scholars do within the provocative chapters of their double-length pamphlet, but what does it mean for your own future research practice, or from a reader perspective, what kind of history might be more rewarding than the studies I preferred until now? Combining the strengths of micro-history and a more synthetic approach within serial contextualism is one of the roads advocated by Guldi and Armitage. The study of revolutions, be it the French, the Industrial, the Russian or the Green Revolution, is helped both by studies with a narrow focus in location and time to look beyond the glamour and clamor of the great cities, and by attempts to create new syntheses building on existing studies, studies that will cover much longer periods. In the manifesto revolutions are a clear example, but it could be as helpful to look in this way, too, at the similarities and differences in riots and revolts, surely somewhat smaller events, but nevertheless often resonating long afterwards. You might find some inspiration in a post about the history of riots on my blog.

In fact studying riots can take you right into living history. The riots after the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, got world-wide attention. The Washington University in St. Louis, MO, has created the digital archive Documenting Ferguson, and you can look also for example at a Ferguson research guide created by the University of Arizona and a similar guide from Michigan State University. This university has also put online a special guide concerning riots and trials touching upon African-American history, Outrageous Justice: Riots, Lynchings, False Accusations and Court Trials with numerous links to websites about trials and courts.

As far as the world extends

Cover Entanglements in Legal History

What are the new roads, scopes and aims of legal historians nowadays? A few paragraphs ago I wrote on purpose about transplanting. Looking at different legal systems is not only a practice in the field of comparative law. In the twentieth century Stephan Kuttner, David Daube and Alan Watson looked across the supposed borders of legal systems, and other scholars have followed their example. The latest issue of the journal Rechtsgeschichte-Legal History / Rg 22 (2014) is dedicated to transnational legal history. The preface by Thomas Duve, one of the two directors of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main, makes clear how this institute seeks to include the whole world in is research, without forgetting its own history of research focusing on European legal history, fittingly symbolized by the new Helmut-Coing-Weg near the institute. It points to new roads with its publication series Global Perspectives on Legal History (GPLH), with the first two volumes already available not only in print but also as PDF’s. The first volume, Entanglements in Legal History: Conceptual Approaches, Thomas Duve (ed.) (GPLH, 1; 2014), sets an agenda for future research. The essays in this volumes look back at the positive and negative sides of earlier research, they chart the impact of colonial and imperial history, and look in more depth at legal transfers and reception of law in the field of international law since 1800. The second volume, Derecho privado y modernización. América Latina y Europa en la primera mitad del siglo XX, María Rosario Polotto, Thorsten Keiser and Thomas Duve (eds.) (GPLH, 2; 2015), looks at the interplay between European and Latin-American history in the field of private law during the first half of the twentieth century.

Closer to my country I am happy to see the very quick publication of the papers read during the last Dutch-Belgian Legal History Days in Brussels, December 2014, a biennial event which gives the floor in particular to young legal historians. Dave de ruysscher and four other scholars edited the volume Rechtsgeschiedenis op nieuwe wegen / Legal history, moving in new directions (Antwerpen-Apeldoorn 2015). Not only the Low Countries, but also the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Argentina figure in this volume. Of course much more could be mentioned. Let three examples suffice: John W. Cairns published this summer Codification, Transplants and History: Law Reform in Louisiana (1808) and Quebec (1866) (Clark, NJ, 2015) and Martin Vranken published Western Legal Traditions: A Comparison of Civil Law and Common Law (Sydney 2015). Earlier I wrote here about the Digital Panopticon, a larger than life offspring of the Old Bailey Online project, spanning the oceans and centuries between Britain and Australia with court records as its backbone.

Qua Patet Orbis, “as far as the world extends”, is the motto of the Dutch Marine Corps founded in 1665. Its history of world-wide presence right until now reminds me that we cannot shake off entirely the impact of colonial history and imperialism. Being aware of traditional perspectives and biases is often already an effort, and taking new directions might easily become just a slogan. The book of Jo Guldi and David Armitage deserves at the very least your attention to check for cobwebs in your own thinking and actions. Legal historians might not be able to change the world by the force of their research, but they cannot completely ignore the major problems of our century, such as violence, racial tensions, slavery, human traffic, fundamentalist movements, the weaknesses of civil society and the destruction of natural resources. Legal historians are well equipped to gauge the impact or lack of impact of laws, the workings of bureaucracies, the shifting meanings and connotations of words associated with justice and injustice, equality and equity. It would be a shame to create only results to save yourself a place within the ivory towers of the academic world, and luckily I trust that many legal historians are simply too human and wise to enclose themselves.

Creating convincing arguments in court

Banner image of two muses, Themis and ClioLately I was gently pressed to add a particular blog to my blogroll. I argued that it does not deal primarily with legal history, although it is in many respects a most valuable blog. Even after a second plea, accompanied with a nice variant on Ceterum censeo… I still stick with my argument, but in fact this blog had already been included in my blogroll…  On closer inspection of the links now present I also looked at the growing number of online journals in open access dealing with legal history. The latest issue of Clio@Themis [8 (2014)] deals with the history of legal argumentation, a theme which has had my interest since many years. I also spotted the announcement of an upcoming scholarly event in May on this subject. Nomôdos, the blog of Clio@Themis, is most useful in tracing new publications and announcements concerning legal history in France. Thus it is a source for my congress calendar, and of course it is listed in my blogroll. These two subjects give me enough materials for this post.

Arguments in courts

Clio@Themis is a French scientific journal with most of its articles in French, with abstracts in English added to them. The journal has a tradition of including as a bonus a French version of classic legal articles. Its latest issue called L’argumentation au cœur du processus judiciaire skips this feature. Seven articles deal with legal argumentation in court proceedings. Two other contributions are only loosely connected with the general subject of this issue.

Logo CHJ Université-Lille 2

Catherine Denys and Naoko Seriu introduce the theme of this number and elucidate briefly the subjects of the seven articles which originated at three days of scholarly encounters around this theme in 2012 at the Centre d’Histoire Judiciaire (Université Lille-2). They describe a shift from viewing legal argumentation solely as part of legal doctrine to an approach akin to the way philosophers, sociologists and linguists deal with speech acts. The history of the judiciary and legal practice is here the primary field of investigation. The use of arguments is seen here as a part of a strategy to get favorable results in court.

The focus of all articles is on three European countries during the Early Modern period, with the exception of two articles dealing with subjects from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first two articles the sixteenth century comes into light. Alain Wijffels discusses procedures claiming revisions of earlier trials at the Grand Conseil de Malines, the highest court of the Habsburgian Low Countries. The appeals for revision should be allowed in cases of factual errors (error facti) and in principle not for any legal error (error iuris), but in actual practice both kinds or error could be redeemed. The interesting thing is how lawyers at Malines argued about this state of affairs.

Marco Cavina deals in his contribution – in Italian – with the views of Carlo Ruini and Andrea Alciato concerning the different types of legal counseling in consilia. Alciato sketched a model with different approaches used by lawyers. Some went for subtle reasonings (subtilitates), others for the archetypical Renaissance – but essential medieval – abundance (copia) of allegations from Roman and canon law, and a third group imitated the brevitas of the classical Roman lawyers and their compact way of expressing opinions. Alciato frowned upon publishing consilia for several reasons, but his own contributions to this genre, too, were posthumously printed.

Isabelle Arnal-Corthier looks at materials sometimes presented to the Parlement de Toulouse in criminal appeal cases between 1670 and 1700. Instead of just a hearing of the accused for an appeal in criminal cases as punctuated in the royal ordinance of 1670 barristers often brought also a lettre de cassation to this court. The defense adduced in these cases mainly arguments about the competence of lower courts, insufficient evidence or irregularities during judicial procedures.

Yet another French court, the Parlement de Tournai and its third chamber in the late seventeenth century, figures in an article by Jacques Lorgnier who deals with cases concerning property rights and conflicts about the cost of church repairs. This foray into actual argumentation leads him to the hypothesis that the justiciables, the people going to court and their legal representatives, trusted the workings of rational arguments in the face of solid proofs within the framework of legal procedure.

Logo ADN

At this point I would like to mention the great resource created by legal historians at Lille for doing research into the history of the Parlement de Flandre. In the database ParleFlandre you can find more than 30,000 dossiers from the série 8B1 at the Archives Départementales du Nord (ADN) in Lille. Lorgnier uses cases from another series of dossiers at the ADN, the série 8B2. For the history of the Low Countries the archival collections at the ADN contain many important documents. At Fontes Historiae Iuris, the virtual portal at Lille to digitized resources concerning French legal history, is a section with further resources for the Parlement de Flandre.

Naoko Seriu looks at a scarcely known crime at the end of the Ancien Régime, the illegal sale of military goods by deserters, in particular uniforms. Records of trials survive in which individuals were charged with buying these illegal uniforms or the vendors themselves were charged with this crime. Seriu compares the verbal strategies used and the particular differences in approach to exculpate themselves. I could not help noticing that the examples of cases stem mainly from Brittany, in fact from just one modern département, Ille-et-Vilaine. A comparison with other regions might be useful. At the EHESS in Paris Seriu studied with Arlette Farge, a French historian who has devoted much attention to the way stories are told in historical sources, recently in Condamnés au XVIIIe siècle (Lormont 2013).

Forays into the twentieth century

Bruno Debaenst (Ghent) brings us from France to Belgium and much closer to the twentieth-first century. In his contribution (in English) he has studied trials concerning accidents during work in around Mons between 1870 and 1914. Using dangerous machinery, imperfectly prepared surroundings, shortcomings in labor organization, and workmanship not up to demands were among the arguments heard around these cases. In these years the Belgian code of civil law still was a virtually unchanged version of the French Code civil, with scarcely attention to actual circumstances in an industrial society. Debaenst describes also the use of reports by experts, criminal investigations and testimonies. In the face of inadequate means to deal conclusively with liability defendants had much opportunity to evade responsibility for what happened in their firms, thus reaffirming the gap between workers and patrons.

In the last article of this special Frédéric Chavaud brings us to familiar scenes from modern crime series on television. He looks at the use of emotions between 1880 and 1940 as arguments at the Cour des Assises, the highest criminal court in French departments. Tears, laughter and fear were not only used by barristers and defendants, but also by others in court. Studying the history of emotions is not without its pitfalls, and Chavaud rightfully points to some pivotal studies. He uses mainly contemporary public reports about trials, and not the actual dossiers of the cases. These reports do convey a vivid image or proceedings, but one can suspect that their authors also follow well-known tracks to please the expectations of their readers. Of course it is exactly important to notice such bias and detect changes in them. Emotions can and could break rational arguments and reasonings, specially when directed at juries. Chavaud clearly focuses on the contemporary perception of emotions, and he rightly mentions studies about emotions in court published between 1920 and 1940.

The range in time of this special is pleasing, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and we read about both civil and criminal law. The geographic focus, however, is on France, even when admittedly you get a most varied view of French legal history. Luckily the Low Countries, Belgium and Italy add a European dimension. Lorgnier is the only author to mention the use of topical argumentation. I am afraid it is not quite possible to expand here very much on any of the articles presented here. You can always wish for more, and therefore I invite you now to the second section of this post about a congress where you might pursue this aim very soon.

Studying legal controversies

Banner Rennes 2015

La controverse. Études de l’histoire d’argumentation juridique [Controversy. Studies on the history of legal argumentation] is the title of the coming Journées internationales, the yearly congress organized by the Société d’Histoire du Droit. This year’s congress will be held at Rennes from May 28 to 31, 2015 with the Centre d’Histoire du Droit of the Université de Rennes-1 acting as its hosts. You might want to have a good look at the generous links section of their website and at its own digital library. Rennes is the capital of the département Ille-et-Vilaine mentioned above, and participants might want to visit the Archives départementales. The call for papers is still active. Proposals should be sent before March 10, 2015, and this is the closing date, too, for registration (mail: shd.rennes@gmail.com). Rennes is well worth visiting, in particular for the building of the old Parlement de Bretagne. Saint-Malo and the Mont-Saint-Michel are not far away.

Young scholars, too, get a chance at Rennes. There will be a atélier doctoral organized in cooperation with the Association française des jeunes historiens du droit, a society of young legal historians founded in 2013. You can send your proposals until March 30, 2015 (mail: assofjhd@gmail.com).

The congress wants to approach controversies both as a phenomenon within the territories of law, be it the judiciary, legislation or doctrine, and as historical cases of conflicts about a plethora of possible subjects. What was the impact of certain schools of thought? Which impact had other disciplines on legal theory and practice? It is perhaps necessary to keep in thought that the international dimension of the Journées was and is traditional that of the French-speaking world at large, the francophonie. The blog like website at Rennes nicely mentions the exceptional use of English for any communication. In a region with many British and Dutch visitors one might expect the start of a change to that tradition.

This post with a French flavor should also remind readers from the Anglophone world that those speaking and writing English are not the only possible center of the world of science. It can be truly useful and illuminating to know about different approaches in other countries, to practice them yourself or to use your approach on foreign ground in order to see how universal it really is. Anyway, I have tried to convey something of my joy in discovering this special of an online legal history journal, and I might well do this here again. In my blogroll or for example at Nomôdos or the blog of the European Society for Comparative Legal History you can choose from many online journals in the fields of legal history.

Defending Belgium’s cultural heritage

Logo State Archives BelgiumLast week many media published the news about a drastic cut in the budgets of major cultural institutions in Belgium. In particular federal institutions such as the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I in Brussels and the Archives de l’État en Belgique, also in Brussels, face next year a loss of 20 percent of their yearly budget. I use here the French name of both institutions, but in particular on the website of the Belgian National archives you can immediately gauge the multilingual character of Belgian society. Belgium can be roughly divided in three parts, Flanders, Wallonie and the central region in and around Brussels, Belgium’s capital. The German-speaking minority in the region along the German border has in principle the same rights as the Flemish and Wallon communities.

An online petition has been launched to give the protest against these plans a loud and clear voice, and I cordially invite you to share your concern about these proposals by signing this petition. You can read the content of this petition in four languages, Dutch, French, English and German. In this post I would like to offer a quick overview of some important digital projects in Belgium which help presenting Belgium’s cultural heritage. Some of these projects offer access to resources which are also important for the research of legal historians and for research projects concerning the rich history of law and justice in Belgium.

Digitization and the safeguarding of cultural heritage

Logo KBRWhen you look at the digital projects of the Royal Library and the Belgian National Archives it can seem at a first look Belgium’s national library has more to offer online than its counterpart in the world of archives. Just now there is very appropriately an exhibition about the First World War. However, in order to find the projects in the digital domain you will have to browse through various sections of the library’s website. A number of projects can be found under the heading Activités, but the digital library Belgica is tucked away among the catalogues. The variety of its contents, with apart from books and manuscripts also coins and medals, engravings, maps, newspapers and music scores, is such that it clearly merits a place of its own on the library’s website that shows a design which has changed little over the years. A number of manuscripts has been digitized for the project Europeana Regia. On my blog I have written twice about the presence of legal manuscripts in this project. Among the manuscripts is for example an illuminated French version of the Liber novum iudicum written in the second half of the fourteenth century (KBR, ms. 10319). You can search directly for digitized books in a special subcatalogue; a search for books concerning law (droit) brings you already some 160 books, and more can be found. The first look of rich digital repositories is somewhat dimmed by the fact that the actual number of digitized items is fairly restricted.

Logo FlandricaThe KBR does cooperate in many international projects: for example, the digital version of the Gazette de Leyden has been created in cooperation with the Belgian national library. On the national level the KBR supports the Flemish digital library Flandrica. This website with digitized books and manuscripts from six libraries working together in the Vlaamse Erfgoedbibliotheek [Flemish Heritage Library]  is strictly in Dutch. For items touching upon law and justice you have to choose the theme Recht en politiek [Law and politics] which brings you to thirty digitized printed books and manuscripts. The number of items with a legal context in Flandrica is quite small but they cover a wide range of subjects and periods, from a canon law manuscript to the procedure at law in the county of Looz, and from medieval times to the early twentieth century. As for editions of books printed in Flanders between 1500 and 1800 you can search for them online with the Short Title Catalogue Vlaanderen. Digitized literature in Flemish can be consulted online in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL), where you will find also literature in Frisian and Afrikaans.

Until recent the Belgian National Archives looked to outsiders as a very much centralized and not very active organization, but the first impression is not completely justified. The year 2010 saw the launch of a virtual exhibition about the dark sides of Belgian colonial history in Congo, Archives I presume? Traces of a colonial past in the State Archives. This year they launched a virtual exhibition concerning the First World War in Wallonie, Archives 14-18 en Wallonie. The website in four languages is being overhauled, and some parts are not yet available in English, in fact the overview of online databases did not exist at all at the time of writing. The search in archival inventories is an example. Here you can search both in scanned inventories and in digitized finding aids. Among the digitized inventories is for example the finding aid created by Jan Buntinx to the archival records of the Raad van Vlaanderen, the high court of Flanders [Inventaris van het archief van de Raad van Vlaanderen (Rijksarchief te Gent) (9 vol., Brussels 1964-1979)]. Recently the National Archives digitized the cabinet minutes created between 1917 and 1979; you can access these documents both in Dutch and French. The Recueil des Circulaires, official letters sent by the Ministry of Justice, have been digitized, too, as are a yearbook, the Annuaire statistique de la Belgique (et du Congo Belge) (1870-1995), and two juridical journals, the Revue Belge de la police administrative et judiciaire and La Belgique judiciaire.

Logo CegesomaA third institution threatened by the budgetary cuts is the Cegesoma, Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society. Precisely the attention of the research centre for periods in recent Belgian history with some very black pages and political reverberations until the very present has made it already earlier a target of Belgian politicians.

Characteristically Cegesoma is among the first institutions to react in public to the announcement of the new Belgian cabinet. The institute argues that the proposed cuts will harm most drastically the work accomplished during decades and future activities as well. Cegesoma holds archival and audiovisual collections and a research library. You can search online for digitized materials, such as photographs, sound recordings, tracts, posters, archival records, diaries and manuscripts. One of the archives coming from the Ministry of Justice now in the holdings of Cegesoma deals with the Rijkswacht, the Belgian national police, between 1931 and 1947. One of the largest and most visible online projects of Cegesoma is The Belgian War Press which offers online access to numerous newspapers published during the First and Second World War, both by the official censored press and the clandestine press. The website of the Cegesoma has a very well-stocked choice of links to other research institutions and a fine selection of websites concerning the First World War.

Logo Justice & PopulationsLegal history comes particularly into focus at Justice & Populations, a project with Cegesoma among the fourteen participating institutions. This project focuses on the long-term relations and impact of the Belgian judiciary in its widest sense and Belgian society in an international context from 1795 onwards until the present. it is unclear in which way this project will be affected by the new plans, but surely any change in the role of Cegesoma will have side-effects here, too. By the way, another Belgian project, Just-His, is very important for Justice & Populations.At Just-His you will find actually three databases, one on Belgian judicial magistrates between 1795 and 1950, a research repository and Belgian criminal statistics (only accessible after registration).

Among the institutions governed by the national government is also the Commission Royale pour la Publication des Anciennes Lois, founded in 1846. This committee is responsible for many important editions of sources concerning the legal history of Belgium from the Middle Ages onwards, ranging from ordinances, charters and customary law to legal treatises and collections of verdicts. On its website you can find an overview of the publications and projects. The issues of the Bulletin des anciennes lois et ordonnances de Belgique published between 1909 and 1999 are available online (PDF’s). Let’s hope the projects coordinated and often done by members of the committee themselves will not be harmed by any of the proposed measures.

A wider threat


Apart from archives and libraries museums, too, are included in the budgetary threats, but before looking at some museums I will look briefly at a higher level. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen (KVAB) [Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Arts and Sciences] published in 2013 reports on the reform of the Belgian judiciary [De gerechtelijke hervorming: een globale visie (“The judicial reform, a global vision”)] and the role and significance of archives in Belgian society [Archieven, de politiek en de burger (“Archives, politics and the citizen”)]. One of the standing commissions of the KVAB has legal history as its core business, with projects such as the bibliography of current research on Belgian legal history and the critical edition of the works of Philips Wielant. The KVAB provides on its website a searchable version of the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek [National Biographical Dictionary], a useful tool for legal historians, too.

Among the targets of the cuts proposed by the Belgian government are a number of famous museums, for example the Royal Museum for Fine Artsthe Royal Museums for Art and History, and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, all in Brussels. Another royal museum, the Royal Museum for Middle-Africa in Tervuren, closed in 2013 for renovation. Its buildings and outlook had not changed substantially since its start in 1910 after a temporary exposition about Belgian colonial activities in 1897 instigated by king Leopold II. The museum had become an icon of Belgian colonialism, and later an outright offensive institution. A part of the ethnographic collections of the KMMA can be consulted online, including the Stanley collection. Hopefully the drastic renovation can be completed, but anyway it seems wise not to reckon absolutely with the projected reopening in 2017.

What will happen exactly with all these institutions is not yet clear. It is necessary to look at both their physical and virtual existence. Federal support could be withdrawn or become less substantial in many ways. Flanders and Wallonie can boast cultural institutions with rich collections. The portal Numériques – BE: Images et histoires des patrimoines numérisés can bring you quickly to a selection of images from some thirty cultural institutions in Wallonie. Belgian Art Links and Tools is a portal guiding you to some 600,000 images concerning art in Belgium, and to several repertories. This portal has been created by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, yet another threatened institution.

The Flemish heritage portal FARO – accessible in Dutch, French and English – is in my opinion a good starting point for finding out more about the different forms of cultural heritage in Flanders and news about them, be they digital, immaterial or very material. If you think digital collections will more easily survive, the actual absence of several links pages at FARO is a healthy reminder of the fragility of virtual existence and preservation. It is quite a feat to maintain a multilingual website, and thus it is a bit too easy to grumble about such problems! Luckily the page with links to several Flemish portal sites can be viewed, with due attention for initiatives in Wallonie, and there is also a general links selection in English. Among recent news items at FARO I saw an announcement about a masterclass on Food in Prison, held at Brussels on October, 16, 2014.

As for me I am genuinely surprised to learn much more about all these projects than i knew before. It serves me as a reminder that we Dutch are not always completely aware of what happens in Belgium, a sorry situation. Here I have tried to honour Belgium by creating in this post also a kind of nutshell guide to digital projects in the field of cultural heritage and legal history. Let’s support Belgian scholars and cultural institutions in their struggle to change the plans scheduled for the coming years, and help them finding the spiritual power and financial means to maintain existing activities and to work on new initiatives. These things will enrich Belgium and us more than any financial contribution can do, however welcome of course any support in hard money is.

Pronouncing the city’s law: aldermen as judges

In pre-modern European cities the aldermen were not just members of a city council charged with deciding on city policies. Creating and maintaining policy in the more pregnant sense of daily law and order was one of their prime tasks. In many cities a number of aldermen sat regularly as the city’s judges. In the past years a number of archives has created online databases to search for cases and verdicts in the records of aldermen. Outside the cities schepenen functioned within regional and manorial jurisdictions. We will meet some of them here, too. This post aims at showing you a wide variety of online search possibilities and presentations. The main focus of my post are aldermen in the Low Countries, called schepenen or in French-speaking regions échevins, I will look at seven projects. The Netherlands and Belgium will bring most of the examples adduced here, but I am sure elsewhere more can be found that would merit as much attention as the cities mentioned here.

Pronouncing the law

Curiosity to find out about recent projects for the digitization of the records of medieval and Early Modern aldermen was my first reason to starting looking for online databases and other projects. I was surprised I did not encounter quickly somewhere a list of relevant projects, or at least some links to similar projects at the websites with a particular database. Unfortunately this might suggest such projects are developed in at least relative isolation, or in the worst cases in splendid ignorance or with complete disregard of similar efforts.

The first project I would like to present concerns the records of a number of villages situated in the very heart of the Rhine and Meuse estuary. The schepenen conveyed at Tuil, the village most to the west of the contemporary province Gelderland, now a part of the municipality Neerijnen. Tuil gives the project its name, De Hoge Bank van Tuil, “The High Court of Tuil”. Nowadays we say in Dutch parlance these villages are positioned in the Rivierenland, the Rivers’ Country. Geographically it is more sensible to say they are situated in the Tielerwaard, “The March of Tiel”, between the cities of Tiel and Gorinchem.

The website for the Hoge Bank van Tuil is a project of three historians, Peter van Maanen, Gijsbert van Ton and Marco Schelling. It presents transcriptions of some 1,300 records from 1335 to 1525, from 1631 to 1637, and a number of scattered records yet to be integrated. The team has used records from several archives and printed editions. For some records the transcriptions are accompanied by images of the documents. This project aims at a reconstruction of the activities of this high court by combining data from a large variety of resources. As for now the records are not yet part of a searchable database, but they can be searched with the normal web browser search function. It is one thing to bring these materials together, but the material still needs editing before it can become the contents of a database. Exactly the preparation of this step is probably the main hindrance to tackle for further research in these regional records. Consultation with for example the Gelders Archief in Arnhem, the Regionaal Archief Rivierenland, Tiel, and the Regionaal Archief Gorinchem will surely be most helpful to start preparing a new phase for this project.

The very beginning

The Hoge Bank van Tuil came first in my post because it presents in a nutshell a number of very real questions and problems you face when you start with a project for the digitization of the records of aldermen. What period do you choose? Do you aim at a full reconstruction of archival records concerning a particular institution or jurisdiction, in this case a schepenbank? Do you restrict yourself to the records from one resource, be it records kept at an archive or records surviving sometimes only in print? Do you prepare from the start onwards for the creation of an online database, or would you like to stick with simple web pages? Sometimes you have to wait for the creation of proper archival guides and finding aids before even contemplating a project… Cities and their archival services often choose themselves for the digitization of judicial records. In the case of the Hoge Bank van Tuil three researchers decided to combine efforts for their project.

Logo Scabinatus

The project that prompted me to write about digitized verdicts of aldermen is concerned with verdicts of the échevins in Liège. The website Scabinatus 4000 was launched last autumn by the Université de Liège. The actual database contains acts from the vast series of scabinal registers kept at the Archives de l’État in Liège dating from 1409 until 1797. Some 1,750 (!) registers exist with each around 400 pages, good for some 750 acts. The registers 1 to 67 could be searched online already at a website of the Belgian National Archives, but this website with registers for the period 1409 to 1510 was last updated in 2007.

On the new Scabinatus website the registers 68 to 153 have been added, reaching now 1558. You can search for particular registers, a particular kind of acts (e.g. approbation, arbitrage, wills and witness statements), toponyms, a particular date or period, the kind of goods at stake, names, professions and social status. The website of the National Archives offered drop down lists for the kind of acts and the kind of goods. The scale of this project is clearly staggering. The functionality of the search screen is very detailed, and you are thus able to conduct all kind of searches. Comparisons in activities over long periods become here possible and fairly reliable. However, this database does not offer the complete text of acts, but only a summary with a lot of details. You will need to view the original registers for further research. This project has clear limits in time and resources which seems understandable in view of the sheer number of records to be processed.

New roads to the records of aldermen

Logo Itinera Nova

At Louvain (Leuven) the municipal record-office has combined forces with a German partner, the Universität Köln, for its joint project Itinera Nova. The city of Louvain can boast a series of 1128 scabinal registers from 1362 to 1795. The project started in 2009, and more than one million pages will be transcribed by volunteers. 255 registers are now available online, mainly for the periods 1362-1460 and 1550-1590. Knowing the difficulties sixteenth-century handwriting can pose it becomes very interesting which role the transcribing software MONK, a tool created at the university of Groningen, has played here. The MONK website presents extensive word samples from the Louvain registers. The Itinera Nova project in cooperation with the department at Cologne for Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Informationsverarbeitung involves crowd-sourcing. An online tutorial helps volunteers to start transcribing pages with a basic knowledge of palaeography. On April 25 and 26, 2013, Louvain hosted an international congress with the title Itinera Nova: Tools, People & History, The blog De Digitale Archivaris [The Digital Archivist] published a series of posts in Dutch about this congress. The website of Itinera Nova can be viewed in Dutch, English and French. You can browse at will and conduct general searches, and there is an advanced search option with drop down menus. You can also restrict a search to a particular register or period. From the transcriptions you can go directly to images of the original register. Registered users can get access to the annotation screen.

One of the major assets is a search interface for annotations. Compared to the project for Liège the texts of the records seems to be the focus and very heart of the project at Louvain. The Scabinatus project allows much more the serial analysis of similar acts, but the website does not bring you to the actual records, images or transcriptions. The approach for Liège seems to have been determined by scholars, the approach at Louvain is much closer to the general public. The schepenen of Louvain served as a court of appeal for other cities following the rule of hoofdvaart. Later in this post we will meet Den Bosch, one of the cities which went to Louvain for this purpose.

Dutch projects

For those readers waiting for a regular element of my blog, commonly known as the Dutch view, I will discuss next some Dutch projects. In March 2013 the Regionaal Archief Tilburg launched the Charterbanka charter database, the result of the combined efforts of archivists and visitors of the regional archive working together in a crowdsourcing community with its own website. The Charterbank contains some 450 medieval charters mainly issued by local schepenen from Tilburg and surrounding places. The search interface has fields for place, date, record number, inventory number, and persons adding their seal. In the result view you can enjoy images of the document, read the transcription in a rather small column, consult information about the seal or seals when present, and check for relevant literature and comments. This project focuses on the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period with a regional approach. Charters until 1312 from Noord-Brabant can be found online in the Digitaal Oorkondeboek van Noord-Brabant.

At ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), commonly called Den Bosch, the regional record office, with as its current name Brabants Historisch Infomatiecentrum, has created an online database with records created by both schepenen and notaries in small towns and villages in the present-day province Noord-Brabant. With some 180,000 records the harvest seems at first rich, but only in a few cases you can study a long period, mainly for Lith and Veghel. Resolutions of the Dutch Supreme Council for Brabant, the Raad van State in The Hague, from 1629 onwards, are also present in this database. In my view they constitute a very important source, but they are in a different class, even if they deal with the villages and towns of Brabant. The Dutch description of the database emphasises the possibility to search for persons in these records. Online projects with a genealogical approach flourish at this regional record office, and I could trace many of my own ancestors using the results of these efforts, but for dealing in real depth with other records this approach is narrow. Scans of many records are available, but you will encounter many items which surely touch upon history and legal history but do not strictly concern the activities of aldermen. The useful overview of processed records and items bears witness to the wide range of records deemed fit for inclusion. However, the word genealogie (genealogy) in its URL seemed at first telling. By choosing in the left-hand menu Gescande bronnen (“Scanned resources”) you can already search directly in a number of digitized registers of schepenen, by selecting the schepenprotocollen.

Very much city-centered are the efforts at the Stadsarchief Den Bosch for the analysis of and access to the series of aldermen’s charters and registers starting with the famous Bosch’ Schepenprotocol. In this massive series running from 1360 to 1811 the schepenen of Den Bosch dealt with matters concerning voluntary jurisdiction, passing acts on the purchase and sales of real estate, probate inventories, acts concerning guardianship, etc. I must strike a harsh note: to my surprise there is here no online database. The information for a database concerning the criminal jurisdiction has been assembled in the project Dataschurk (“Data Villain”). You can download all relevant inventories, an inventory of criminal dossiers and summaries of the dossiers themselves, and there are indexes on record number and name.

Decades of painstaking research have resulted in a rich harvest of materials. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol itself can be consulted on microfiches. It will certainly take courage to create a workable database which brings all information together and makes them accessible in a most reliable way. Luckily archivist Geertrui van Synghel can guide your research with her guide Het Bosch’ Protocol: een praktische handleiding (‘s-Hertogenbosch 1993), and her study “Actum in camera scriptorum oppidi de Buscoducis”: de stedelijke secretarie van ‘s-Hertogenbosch tot ca. 1450 (Ph.D. thesis Leiden 2006; Hilversum 2007) with a cd-rom containing 5735 scabinal charters and acts written by the city’s secretaries until 1450. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol transcends the city borders with the letters of surety enabling the confinement of psychiatric patients, even at institutions as far away as Liège. In his comment Christian van der Ven (Den Bosch, BHIC) announces that preparations for a digital version of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol are in a final phase.

Making choices about periods and subjects

Logo Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Last week The Guardian included the city archives of Amsterdam in a survey of Europe’s best free museums. The building of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam is surely imposing, but the reason for being featured here are the archival records kept here and the way their contents are disclosed more and more online. When I look at sources with a relation to legal history you can choose from a substantial variety of resources. The example I present here is restricted to a particular class of verdicts, those concerning “averij grosse“, general average or in German “Grosse Haverei”, cases in maritime law in which either a ship, a cargo or both had suffered unavoidable damage in emergency situations, and costs thus made or yet to be made or recovered had to be divided in an equal way [Archief van Schout en Schepenen, nos. 2806-2924, Vonnissen terzake van averij grosse, 1700-1810]. A separate chamber of the schepenen for “Assurantiën, Averijen en Zeezaken” dealt with relevant affairs.

Two splendid overviews of the history of European private law, Helmut Coing’s Europäische Privatrecht, I: Älteres Gemeines Recht (1500 bis 1800) (Munich 1985) 554-555, and Reinhard Zimmermann’s The law of obligations. Roman foundations of the civilian tradition (Oxford 1996) 406-412, provide you with basic information about the legal principles at stake, the role of the Lex Rhodia de iactu (D. 14.2.2), and references to important commentaries, including those issued in the period of the Roman-Dutch law. Zimmermann gives the date of publication of the first edition of Quintyn Weytsen’s early treatise in Dutch on general average as 1651. According to the information in the Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands this can be corrected to a first appearance in print in 1617 as an appendix to Cornelis van Nieustad’s Curiae Hollandiae, Zelandiae & West-Frisiae decisiones (…) Item een tractaet van avarien gemaeckt door Quintijn Weytsen (…) (Leiden 1617), and a first separate edition in 1631 [Een tractaet van avarien, dat is Ghemeene contributie vande koopmanschappen ende goederen inden schepe bevonden (Haarlem, 1631)].

Quintyn Weytsen (1518-1565) became a councillor in the Court of Holland only in 1559, and in 1561 and 1562 he was also charged with hearing accounts in the province of Zeeland, information easily gathered from resources such as the Dutch Biografisch Portaal and the Repertorium van ambtsdragers en ambtenaren 1468-1861 (The Hague, Huygens Instituut). Some of the later editions of his work, specifically Adriaen Verwer’s Nederlants see-rechten, avaryen, en bodemeryen (editions e.g. 1711, 1716 and 1730) contain also two ordinances concerning general average from 1551 and 1563 which no doubt prompted him to write his treatise. The lapse of half a century before a printed edition was published is remarkable. The 1617 edition gives no introduction at all for Weytsen’s text, and therefore his short text (from p. 226 onwards) might have been circulating already in manuscript – or perhaps a much read pamphlet? – long before.

The pages on general average at the website of the municipal archive of Amsterdam were launched in Autumn 2013. They offer a succinct introduction to the doctrinal side of things, and introduce you to the procedure before the bailiff and schepenenOne of the important things stated is that both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company did not use the services of this court, because the administrators took care of freighting and transport. Statements confirmed on oath before Amsterdam notaries about cases of avarij formed the starting point of the procedure; you can find them using an index of these scheepsverklaringen (PDF), some 5,400 cases. The hint to check the Amsterdamsche Courant for its notices about shipwrecks and averages in its scheepstijdingen is most useful. You can check this newspaper in digital format at the new Delpher portal of the Dutch Royal Library. Do reckon with variant spellings such as avarieavary, avarij and averij! The suggestions to look in other record series for further information are most helpful. In the database of the Amsterdam city archives you find a digital version of the index created in 1980. The search interface allows you to search for the names of shippers and ships, harbours of depart and arrival, and dates. Two examples of cases from 1726 and 1780 help you to prepare your specific search actions. A search action leads you to further information on a particular case, often supplemented with thumbnail images of the documents.

Can I mention anything negative about this project in Amsterdam? With just two titles about general average this information is rather to short, and the reference to the article by Ivo Schöffer lacks the page numbers (pp. 73-133). Elsewhere on the website a treasure page has been dedicated to the case of the vessel St. Antonio di Padova which was attacked by pirates off La Spezia in 1704. The ship commanded by Jan Lens suffered a lot of damage during a four-hours fight. Repairs were made in Genua. The page shows a part of the notarial statement on this case. Somehow the section on general average does not link directly to this showcase, the only relevant page translated completely into English. In view of the international standing and importance of this archive the maIn point to criticize is alas the absence of a page-to-page translation into English of its marvellous website. The Amsterdam city archives ask people to pay for full-scale images of scanned documents, but before deploring this you must realize they offer a very rapid scanning on demand service.

Different situations, different approaches

In many fields awards and prizes are given yearly for the best project. Is it possible and sensible to do this for this group of six random picked projects? In a bird’s-eye view we saw:

  • transcriptions from the Rivierenland in the Hoge Bank van Tuil
  • large-scale indices and an analytical approach in the Scabinatus 4000 project for Liège,
  • crowdsourcing, transcriptions and images, with even an annotation tool for Itinera Nova at Louvain
  • images and transcriptions of charters at Tilburg
  • indexes for both scabinal and notarial registers, and a growing number of scanned registers for the province of Noord-Brabant
  • inventories, indexes and finding aids concerning the wide judicial functions of the schepenen of Den Bosch – with a printed guide and a cd-rom of the earliest records but without a database –
  • finally the verdicts from Amsterdam concerning maritime law from a distinct period, with an online searchable index and scanned images which have to be paid for.

If you put these seven projects into a grid you can probably more easier see which qualities they share or lack. What makes these projects successful or not? I cannot predict what visitors of these websites will want to know nor what they would like to have at hand on the screen of their computer or tablet. Some researchers might want to start making grand analyses as quickly as possible and therefore applaud transcriptions and online indices, others prefer painstaking transcriptions of the originals or of images provided by an archive. The pioneers for the Rivierenland have not yet reached the phase of building a database. One archive, the city archive at Den Bosch, does not provide a database, and I suppose this is a policy decision, because so much energy has already been put into the resources in question during more than twenty years. For other cities printed critical editions of the verdicts of schepenen exist, and thus the need for an online database might be less urgent.

Even though this is a rather long post I still feel I have treated all projects presented here rather briefly. It is wise not to judge their qualities too quickly! A stronger objection is the choice of examples which is very much personal, but at least also for a part guided by the lack of an easy overview of relevant digitization projects for this particular kind of resource. I would not feel ashamed if this post serves as a stepping stone for more and better.

A postcript

In his comment Christian van der Ven of the BHIC at Den Bosch stresses the actual cooperation of Dutch archives for this kind of projects. I have taken over his factual corrections, and the important information about online access to a number of registers of schepenen already avaiable now at the BHIC, and the appearance of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol in digital form in the near future.

What makes a book rare?

No doubt in 2011 rare books will show up in this blog. But what makes a book rare? I had no idea I would write about rare books in my first posting this year, and perhaps this fact helps to understand the word rare better. Instead of rare, meaning only seldom seen, known to be present at only a few locations, rare often has the added quality of being unlooked for. The departments of research libraries for Rare Books and Special Collections often combine this approach of bringing together manuscripts and books that have survived the centuries, editions of texts once common but now only found after extended research, and books and items brought into the possession of a scientific institution in a remarkable way. A scholar left his book collection, his research notes, lectures or papers to a university library, or a librarian succeeds at an auction in buying books on a particular theme. Sometimes a particular book was already a rarity at the time it left the press because of its contested contents or of its beautiful layout. It could have been printed on expensive paper or even parchment, and a priceless luxury binding increased its value, too.

You might have guessed that I somehow could not help spotting old books today, completely against the planning for new postings. I surfed to Belgica, the digital library of the Royal Library in Brussels. As an example of valuable editions now digitized the Royal Library presents in its showcase a volume with 43 juridical dissertations defended between 1652 and 1655 at the University of Franeker under the aegis of Johann Jacob Wissenbach (1607-1665). The accompanying note states these dissertations are not included in the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN). The STCN aims at presenting data on Dutch imprints between 1540 and 1800 present in a generous selection of major Dutch libraries.

Which facts would enforce the conviction that these old juridical dissertations once defended at a university in Frisia are indeed rare and worth digitizing? The volume came originally from the library of the dukes of Arenberg and was confiscated after the First World War. This story accounts at least for the unexpected way this volume came into the possession of the Belgian Royal Library, but surely more can be done to estimate its rarity. One of the major projects for digitizing old dissertations is housed at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte at Frankfurt am Main. To its holdings belong more than 70,000 juridical dissertations defended at universities within the borders of the former Holy Roman Empire. At Frankfurt 31 dissertations from Franeker have been digitized, and the dissertations at Brussels are not among them. This fact can rightfully form an indication that the 43 mid seventeenth-century dissertations are rare indeed.

I will not make this post any longer than necessary, and therefore I will just indicate which further steps need to be taken to ascertain more about the rarity of this volume. One step is to look at the holdings of libraries worldwide for particular dissertations within this set. Modern meta-catalogues are truly catalogi omnium catalogorum, foremost among them the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog. The KVK enables you to search in many catalogues – including collective catalogues – at the same time with just one search action; text search is one of the latest additions to the KVK. Neither the KVK nor a few other major collective catalogues mention these particular dissertations. The other way to tackle this question is the road of bibliographies. Ferenc Postma and Jacob van Sluis published for the Frysk Akademie a bibliography of publications from Franeker, Auditorium Academiae Franekerensis. Bibliographie der Reden, Disputationen und Gelegenheitsdruckwerke der Universität und des Athenäums in Franeker 1585 – 1843 (Leeuwarden 1995). Postma and Van Sluis did every effort to find disputations from Franeker wherever held. In my opinion one can state safely whether an old edition from Franeker is rare or not by referring to their bibliography. Tracking juridical dissertations and establishing their authorship is something for specialists indeed. On publications by lawyers from Franeker it is also useful to look at the Bibliografie van hoogleraren in de rechten aan de Franeker universiteit tot 1811 by Robert Feenstra, Theo Veen and Margreet Ahsmann (Amsterdam 2003).

Tresoar at Leeuwarden is the institution which combines the forces of the Frysk Riksarchyf and the Provincial Library of Frisia. For curiosity’s sake and because of the rich holdings housed at the former Treasury I checked for Johann Jakob Wissenbach in its catalogue. For Douvo Mellinga who held a disputation in 1654 contained in the set at Brussels a small volume survives with laudatory words by Wissenbach; to guess from the abbreviated title poems are concerned.

To round off for today, some books are certainly unlooked for! You will not expect Frisian books at Brussels. However, take for a random example a digitized book on Danish litterature at Tresoar in Leeuwarden, the edition Hafniae (Copenhagen) 1651 of [Runir] seu Danica literatura antiquissima by Ole Worm, is less surprising in view of the relatively small distance between Frisia and Denmark. I look forward to find more at the Belgica collection at Brussels, even if I have to inform you that the search function for this digital library does not work as expected. Using the normal catalogue and being alert for URL’s in the search results brings you to the digitized items, not just books, but also maps, music scores, drawings, engravings and medals.

A postscript

In this post I did not give a clear and succinct answer to the question whether the Brussels volume is rare indeed, but I can now safely vouch for its rarity. Checking for Douvo Mellinga in the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog led me to the Gemeinsamer Verbund Katalog which shows at the Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg a volume with two sets of disputations from Franeker, 43 in the first and 59 in the second, all presided by Johann Jakob Wissenbach, printed by Arcerius (Franeker 1658). In this volume the first disputation by Bartholomaeus Franck seems to be identical with the first disputation in the Brussels convoluted set, and the eleventh disputation in both sets is by Douvo Mellinga. It seems the Hamburg online catalogue shows old or incomplete bibliographical data, or more probable, one assumed the publisher of the second set to be also the publisher of the earlier “first” set. Cataloguing old juridical dissertations is a task for experts, and I do not want to offend any librarian. Ferenc Postma send me a comment stating he and Jacob van Sluis have found some 500 “new” titles for a supplement to their bibliography.