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09 February 2015

CONFERENCE REPORT: Dutch-Belgian Legal History Colloquium (Brussels: VUB, 11-12 Dec 2014) (by Maarten Vankeersbilck, Ghent)


Maarten Vankeersbilck graduated as Master in Law (Ghent, 2011) and took a specialized Master in European and International Law (VUB, 2012). From 1 October 2012 on, he works as an academic assistant at the Ghent Legal History Institute, where he focuses on the codification and development of civil procedure in Belgium, under the direction of Prof. D. Heirbaut.


On Thursday December 11 and Friday December 12, 2014, the Belgian-Dutch Legal Historian Colloquium took place at the Free University of Brussels (VUB, see announcement earlier on this blog). Since the early 1970s, this bi-annual (and at times annual event) has been alternately organized by either a Belgian or a Dutch university.  From the start, this forum promoted inter-universitary cooperation in the Low Countries. Young researchers traditionally receive the opportunity to disperse their findings to their peers. 

Fertile ground indeed, as we were welcomed by professor dr. Dirk Heirbaut (Ghent University), who himself is a longtime participant and presided the first panel on comparative legal history. First speaker was dr. Agustin Parise (Maastricht University) who applied the methodology developed in his dissertation to the case of the Dutch Burgerlijk Wetboek (1838) and the Argentinian Código Civil (1871), studying the influence of aforementioned Burgerlijk Wetboek on Argentines own codification. Next was Dr. Janwillem Oosterhuis (Maastricht University)  who presented his research on the impact of World War I (and its aftermath) on the concept of ‘Unexpected Circumstances’.

The organizer, professor dr. Dave De ruysscher, presided the next panel on Public Law in which Matthias Castelein (Catholic University of Leuven) presented his first findings of his dissertational research on the complicated relationship between the divided local traditions of Corsica and those of the new sovereign rulers of Liguria who had a more egalitarian and centralistic approach. Maarten Colette (Free University of Brussels) closed the morning sessions discussing Rousseau’s concept of liberty sparking a lively discussion on the interpretation of Rousseau himself.

The afternoon session on International Law opened under de presidency of professor dr. Randall Lesaffer (Tilburg University and Catholic University of Leuven). Dr. Mieke van der Linden (Catholic University of Leuven), who recently successfully defended her dissertation, gave us a glimpse on her thesis by presenting Euro-centrism within 19th Century International Law by studying the legal and political justification of New Imperialism (1870-1914). Could international law be applied to all peoples? Was it a European creation or a product of the confrontation between European states with non-European political entities? Shavana Mussa (Tilburg University) took us to the 17th century and discussed the end of the first Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654) and the negotiations leading up to the Treaty of Westminster (1654). She focused on the remarkable arbitration commission that resulted from it, adding another peacemaking-tool to the arsenal of International Law. From one conflict to another, dr. Frederik Dhondt (Ghent University) discussed the Spanish Succession. He demonstrated how Vattel and Réal de Curban took a different strand of argumentation from respectively a Protestant-Swiss and a French point of view. Both used historical material implying a degree of objectivity but by the selective use of exempla continued the war on paper. Where Vattel rose to fame in International Law, Réal is less known resulting in a one-sided image of the war in legal doctrine.

French revolutionaries committed themselves to draft a constitution that would reconcile the organisation of the French state with modern ideas such as sovereignty of the people and the separation of powers. Amongst other things, this refers to the question of who can declare war, supervise diplomatic relations,… Dr. Raymond Kubben painted the picture of the administrative direction of foreign relations in Benjamin Constants constitutional thinking. Inge Van Hulle (Catholic University of Leuven) closed the first day with a contribution on the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ in International Law (1870-1920). Even though this concept is strongly associated with the Cold War, Ms. Van Hulle proved its relevance  in the international discourse and state practice at the end of the 19th century.

The forum resumed its operations the next day with an extensive session on administrative  and constitutional law under the presidency of Kees Cappon (University of Amsterdam). Nestor professor dr. Paul Nève (Tilburg University) shed his light on the transformations of Maastricht’s double government (the city had two schepenbanken and two ‘mayors’, the bishop of Liège and the duke of Brabant) at the end of the 14th century (1378-1409) and the defining role of Anthony of Burgundy. Lukas van den Berge (Utrecht University) discussed the admissibility of administrative jurisdiction in Dutch doctrine by studying the arguments made in the beginning of the 19th century by legal scholar Antonius Struycken and Jan Loeff. From the Netherlands Brecht Deseure (Free University of Brussels) brought us back to Belgium by studying the (degree of) recuperation of the ideas of old constitutions, as symbols of the old freedoms, by Belgian revolutionaries in 1830 and in which way these constitutions were a beacon of resistance under the French occupation.

After the coffee break, the colloquium resumed with a session on Private Law. Wouter Druwé (Catholic University of Leuven) addressed the question of whether or not the writ of debt was actually an English condictio, Marten Reijntjes (Groningen University) presented a historical perspective on the civil responsibility of judges overstepping the deontological boundaries of their function. Lastly, Benoît Lagasse (University of Liège) presented his planned dissertation on 17th century Liégois lawyer Charles de Méan, detectingthe influence of roman law and Liège customary law aspects of Private Law in Charles de Méans’ work Observationes et res judicatae ad jus civile Leodiensium.


Respecting the chronology, the final panel was  on contemporary legal history. In the spirit of the Belgian-Dutch cooperation, dr. Sebastiaan Vandenbogaerde (Ghent University) discussed the use of Dutch language in Belgium’s legal periodicals and tried to unveil possible international relations, or is law really a nationalist theme? Dr. Bruno Debaenst (Ghent University) on the other hand turned his gaze to the international forum again with a contribution on the cradle of a social Europe indicating the role played by the international congresses on labour accidents and social insurances.

The colloquium was formally closed by the dean of the Brussels Law Faculty, professor dr. Wilfried Rauws, who showed his sympathy towards legal history. He emphasized and reminded the attendees of the importance of legal history and plead for its conservation in Belgian universities. Encouraging, in times were academic curricula are under pressure by an abundance of ever more specialized courses on positive law.


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