Changing images of the legal past.
Legal theory shaping legal history during the 20th century

A research project on the history of legal history

Above pictured is a session of the 1962 conference held in Todi (Italy) celebrating Bartolus’ sixth centenary. The event was inaugurated by the leading legal historian Francesco Calasso’s prolusion on “Bartolism”. A half century later (2013) came the next celebration. In that occasion I presented a paper on “Bartolus without Bartolism”. I wanted to answer the former Master by asserting the need to look at the legal past with fresh eyes unencumbered by 19th and 20th c. categories (bartolism, humanism, ius commune, Western legal tradition and others) and even more importantly, to clarify the position of a legal historian writing in the 21st century. The research project illustrated below grows from that seminal paper.




What a change. Until a few decades ago legal historians thought in terms of the ius commune Europaeum, the rise of the Golden Age of Legal Humanism, the demise of obscurantist Bartolism, the Western legal tradition and its unstoppable expansion of rationality. Today they think of normativity, plurinormativity, legality, hybridity, legal traditions, normative regimes, legal information, data mining, production of normative knowledge, translation of legal information and other categories rich in epistemic connotations. What happened?

This book tries to answer this question. The premise is that legal historiography cannot operate without a philosophical idea of “law” that summarises how law should be created, by whom and how. As a consequence, legal history should be better explained looking not at historians but at what philosophers have to say about “law”.  The main turns in the writing of legal history are in fact the reflection of changing images of law.

To understand legal history we should look at what legal theorists have to say about “law”

Methodologically, this research views the history of law evolving within a broader history of knowledge, which has been moving from epistemology (Kant and Savigny: “how do we know reality?”) to language (Kantorowicz, Wittgenstein, Kelsen, Hart: “what is the appropriate language to know reality?”) to information (“what is the cognitive material that connects humans in their interactions?”). In this perspective, the history of law can be seen as a chapter in the history of knowledge.

The research is divided in three parts. Part I begins from the age of Savigny, namely, the legacy that the early-20th century (free law, legal sociology, jurisprudence of interests, logical empiricism, Nordic realism) wanted to overturn. Part 2 focuses on the main categories produced during the 20th century: European ius commune, legal humanism, judicial history, and the Western legal tradition. Part 3 ends with the present time, whose distance from the 20th c. is apparent from the fading grip of those conceptions. 




Table of contents


Introduction: Changing images of the legal past

I. The age of Savigny




II. The age of language

Kantorowicz and the linguistic turn

Ius commune europaeum and the crisis of legal science, 1930-60

The rise of comparative legal history

The post-WWII defence of legal humanism

The Western Legal Tradition and Soviet Russia

III. The age of information

Law as information

What is information?

Legal historians as designers

Legal history as the study of tradition, information and normativity


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 753427 ).