The Roman-Dutch Legal Tradition

The 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 throman dutch legal traditione 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.