Welcome to this website about legal history. Rechtshistorie is one of two Dutch words for legal history; rechtsgeschiedenis is the other one. For me the presence of these two words rightly stresses the many aspects of legal history: The legal history does not exist, legal histories do. This site tries to provide introductions to the history of a number of legal systems and periods. For some part information will come from my earlier homepage (ended Autumn 2023). Law and history do touch each other, and the picture of a bridge symbolises the connection between them. I try to offer a kind of bridge to events and news concerning legal history on my legal history blog, with regular postings and links to online journals, other blogs – for example those of law libraries – and a congress calendar. I send short messages and notices on Twitter.
Legal history is a discipline situated on the crossroads of law and history. Already early on some people were interested in the history of law. In the Digestae, the sixth-century anthology of the classical Roman lawyers, we find fragments from a book on the history of Roman law (D. 1.2, De origine iuris). The Italian law professor Odofredo de Denariis offers a thirteenth-century example of a writer who regularly made remarks about his colleagues from a century before his time. In the sixteenth century antiquarians developed an interest for the history of law side by side with an interest for a better understanding of Roman law by looking at its history and integrating the results into modern law. In the nineteenth century the new wave of academic scientific research touched the discipline of legal history as well. The twentieth century saw a deeper treatment of existing interests and a vast widening of subjects in periods, countries and aspects of law. This development is reflected in a great variety of websites and online databases. A substantial part of this website is devoted to digital collections, libraries and archives. The image of aspects of law and legal matters, and the representation of law and justice is the subject of a special discipline, legal iconography, mentioned here in particular in the context of digital collections.
Legal history is interesting for several reasons: It offers a form of comparative law in time, it relates facts, developments and institutions to each other and puts them into perspective. Legal history brings into view not just courts of law and the judiciary, but also legislation, juridical education, the development of doctrine and legal institutions. In some countries the legal cases at stake get most attention, in other countries the consistency of the legal system itself is a paramount factor. Apart from civil or private law, state law, penal law and legal procedure, many other branches of law call for attention. The Catholic church, one of the world’s longest existing institutions, has its own legal system, called canon law, and this shows in its long history both influences of law created by the state, and its own influence on many aspects of law and society, for example for legal procedure and matrimonial law
Legal history can show the gaps between aspirations about law and the day-to-day reality of legal practice. However, legal reality is not unchangeable, and legal history can show you the problems of legal change, its impact and the need for careful preparation of such changes. The history of law, its uses and abuse contribute definitely to cultural history, and thus neglecting or ignoring legal history is not without danger. History can offer us a mirror for our times, showing continuities, superficial and deep changes, and true renewals. Law and justice can put things right, but alas they can be also a force against true justice. As a factor touching often directly on injustice, inequality and discrimination, both in the past and now, it deserves careful attention. Legal history is a kind of mirror of the law, helping to show the nature of (failed) solutions, and in particular how and where law and justice are themselves a major problem.
Apart from sections for particular legal systems I have created pages on museums and legal history, virtual exhibitions, palaeography (the study of old scripts) and abbreviations. Digital collections, both general collections and image collections, and those created by archives, libraries and museums receive substantial attention, too. The variety of fields associated with digital humanities comes also into view.
If you want to ask questions about this website, report broken links, suggest additions or comment on the information presented here, you can send an email to info [at] rechtshistorie.nl. Especially alerts about broken links are most welcome!
Portals for legal history
For the field of legal history several portal sites exist. The portals mentioned here help to guide your search for documentation and information concerning legal history.
- Legal History on the Web – the website of the Triangle Legal History Seminar, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, offers among many things a whole page on portals for legal history
- Portail Numérique de l’Histoire du Droit – this website is mainly concerned with France, but brings you also to a wide range of international websites
- Portal Iberoamericano de Historia del Derecho, Universidad de Girona – a portal to legal history for the Iberian peninsula and Latin America; interface in Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and English
- Research Guide: History of International Law, Peace Palace Library, The Hague – a guide in a nutshell, but certainly useful, with a concise bibliography, librarian’s reading tips, links, and nearly sixty similar research guides, for example on Islamic law and comparative law
- Resources for Doing Legal History, American Society for Legal History – a very generous selection of weblinks for American and British legal history
For some years the Society for the History of Old Dutch Law had its own portalsite with much information on this subject. Unfortunately this website had to be taken offline in 2015, but you can access the website for its scholarly journal Pro Memorie. You can also check here the page on the history of Dutch law.