California's Legal Heritage exhibition posterCalifornia's Legal Heritage
2012 digital exhibition
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

On the eve of California's statehood, numerous debates raged among the drafters of its constitution. One argument centered upon the proposed retention of civil law principles inherited from Spain and Mexico, which offered community property rights not conferred by the common law. Delegates for and against the incorporation of civil law elements into California's common law future used dramatic, fiery language to make their cases, with parties on both sides taking opportunities to deride the “barbarous principles of the early ages.” Though invoked for drama, such statements were surprisingly accurate. The civil law tradition in question was one that in fact derived from the time when the Visigoths, one of the so-called “barbarian” tribes, invaded and won Spanish territory from a waning Roman Empire. This feat set in motion a trajectory that would take the Spanish law from Europe to all parts of Spanish America, eventually reaching its last settled territory, Alta California.

This migration of legal tradition happened over the course of more than a millennium. New and changing frontiers produced territorial, political and social demands that shaped legal culture and practice. The story begins in Iberia, a contested territory at the western edge of the Roman Empire that within three centuries would change from Roman to Visigothic to Muslim rule. The Christian kingdoms of medieval Spain emerged victorious from centuries of military contest with great complexity of legal traditions. As a result, Spanish monarchs from the great thirteenth-century legislator Alfonso the Wise to empire-builders Ferdinand and Isabel, endeavored to order and refine the multiplicity of legal codes to build royal authority and legislative unity.

The next great chapter in the story of California's legal tradition was the exportation of Spanish law to the New World. After 1492, Spain found itself in control of a vast and complex territory. As Spanish-American institutions were created and the demands of colonial administration grew, there was a greater need than ever for order and clarity in the Castilian law, which carried over to Spain's colonies, as well as a new need to create and systematize laws specific to the Indies.

As one of the last frontiers of Spanish settlement in America, California did not have a civilian population until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, over two hundred years after a vast system of royal courts had been established to administer justice from central Mexico to South America. When Spanish settlers did arrive in Alta California in the 1770s, they brought with them the civil law system that would govern the territory through Mexican independence from Spain to US statehood, bringing Spain's ancient past to the farthest corner of this new society.


The Medieval Law School exhibit posterThe Medieval Law School
August 12 - October 11, 2009
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

The origins of Europe's first university can be traced to the late eleventh century, when the teaching of Roman law began at Bologna. The university that formed there was the site of a new birth in Roman jurisprudence sparked by the rediscovery of the Digest, Justinian's compilation of Roman law that had been lost to scholars for five centuries. Within a few decades of this new birth of Roman law study, Gratian's Decretum, a monumental compilation and synthesis of church law, was also introduced at Bologna and launched the study of canon law as a legal science. These texts and the work they inspired were catalysts to the emergence of a medieval legal tradition in both civil and canon law that soon extended across Europe and provided the foundation for centuries of Western legal development.

The advancement of medieval jurisprudence was a driving force in the development of universities in the Middle Ages, as the legal revival at Bologna traveled with many of its greatest professors to the schools emerging at Paris, Oxford, and throughout the continent. Inevitably, the expansion of legal education transformed legal culture and practice. Medieval law texts and commentaries increasingly focused on procedural and practical elements of law, reflecting the professionalization of civil and canon lawyers and the importance of knowledge in both the laws for practitioners. New demand both for legal teaching and practice also had a profound impact on the history of the book, fostering new systems of book production and presentation that influenced the way that legal manuscripts, and later, printed works, were organized, read, and reproduced for centuries.

The selections highlighted in this exhibit trace some of the most important contributions to legal theory, education, and tradition generated by these new centers of learning and the professors and students who peopled them. They also offer a glimpse into the world of the medieval law school, and to ideas and practices still recognizable today.


The Roman-Dutch Legal Tradition exhibit posterThe Roman-Dutch Legal Tradition
January 19 - March 15, 2009
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

The rediscovery of Justinian’s compilation of Roman law by Italian jurists in the twelfth century launched a new legal scholarship in Europe. This new scholarship flourished and evolved into what was known as the ius commune, a shared legal tradition combining Roman law and canon law into a common system of legal thought, inflected in each particular country or region by local law and custom. Reintroducing Justinian’s sixth-century Digest, Codex, and Institutes to Europe as the Corpus iuris civilis, the Italians were the foremost scholars of Roman law until the French took over that role in the sixteenth century, when legal humanism refocused emphasis on the original sources and context of classical Roman law.

This new legal humanism culminated with the Dutch jurists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who brought new insight to the examination of the Roman sources while innovating approaches to the study and synthesis of local customary law within a classical Roman framework. The flowering of Dutch scholarship and its prominence in European legal culture went hand in hand with the expansion of Dutch economic and political power in Europe and abroad as it expanded trade through its colonial territories in Africa and South Asia.

The Dutch system of law that was exported to its colonies was thus dominated by the Roman-Dutch tradition of the time. The codification of Dutch law based upon the French civil code replaced the early modern system in the Netherlands in 1809, but Roman-Dutch law has remained part of the legal systems of many other countries as they moved from Dutch and then British colonial rule to independence. It continues to be a source of law to the present day, most significantly in South Africa and Sri Lanka, but also in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho. The persistence in these countries of a civil law tradition based directly upon classical Roman law is a fascinating chapter in the evolution of modern law that preserves a link to the practice of law in ancient Rome.

This exhibit highlights several rare volumes from the recent gift of Mrs. Elizabeth J.S. Scholtens Dalhuisen to the Robbins Collection in honor of her father, Professor J.E. Scholtens, former chair of Roman-Dutch law at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Famous Trials exhibit posterFamous Trials and their Legacies
August 14 - September 20, 2008
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

In fall 2007, the Robbins Collection acquired one of the 799 limited edition copies of the Processus Contra Templarios, a facsimile reproduction of the parchments containing the minutes of the 14th-century trial under Pope Clement V against the order of the Knights Templar; this served as a centerpiece for the Robbins Collection's Fall 2008 exhibit.

Inspired by the vivid afterlife the Knights Templar—their order, their rituals, their persecution—have had in the popular imagination, this exhibit presented three historic trials as they were formally documented at the time and as they have continued to be represented and interpreted in the centuries since. Different in scope— from the trial of a wealthy and powerful medieval organization, the Knights Templar, to the far-reaching trend of persecution in communities from Early Modern Europe to Colonial America that culminated in the Salem Witch Trials, to a trial to prove (or disprove) the identity of a single individual, Martin Guerre—each of these three trials was a sensational legal drama that had at its heart issues of power and control, whether political, social, or communal.

The religious mysticism and secrecy surrounding the Knights Templar, the accusations of sorcery and witchcraft leveled against ordinary townspeople during the witch trials; or the family drama, intrigue, and questions of memory and identity in Martin Guerre story—what ties these trials together is the manner in which they have each captured people's imaginations for centuries, giving rise not only to a wealth of scholarship, but becoming part of popular culture in the form of paintings, novels, plays, and films.


Milestones exhibit posterMilestones in Legal Culture and Traditions
August 16 - September 30, 2007
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

Each text featured in this exhibit represents a milestone in the development of law in one of its manifold forms, from the traditions of scholarship and practice that developed through centuries and across continents, to the diverse and complex legal cultures of the present day. These landmark works in civil law, common law, international and comparative law, religious law, and world legal cultures range from manuscript and early printed texts to new groundbreaking material, and demonstrate the depth and diversity of resources of the Robbins Collection and the Berkeley Law Library.