The Law's Beginnings

The Law's Beginnings

The Law's Beginnings

The Law's Beginnings


Law, as we know it, with its rules and rituals, its procedures and professionals, has not been around forever. It came into being, it emerged, at different places and different times. Sources which allow us to observe the processes of law's beginnings have survived in some cases. In this book, scholars from various disciplines linguists, lawyers, historians, anthropologists present their findings concerning the earliest legal systems of a great variety of peoples and civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Ancient India to Greece and Rome, from the early Germanic, Celtic and Slavic nations, but also from other parts of the world. The general picture is complemented by an investigation into the Indo-European roots of a number of ancient legal systems, contributions from the point of view of legal philosophy and theory, and an overview of the insights gained.


Anybody familiar with academic research management will be aware of the strength of the research model dominant in the natural sciences: on the basis of available knowledge, an hypothesis is put forward, information is collected in order to prove the veracity of the statement contained therein, and after analyzing and evaluating this information a conclusion is reached about this statement (true, untrue, or unproven).

In other areas of academic endeavour – e.g. the humanities, social sciences, jurisprudence – there are other valid approaches which nowadays can do with some active support. One of these is the investigation of a broader field, where, at least initially, no specific questions are asked, but a wider range of phenomena is observed and described. This procedure may then yield various alternative avenues for further research and may suggest a variety of more specific questions. The researcher is like a 19th century explorer who enters an area which is still blank on the available maps. He does not really know what he is looking for.

In this spirit I devoted my farewell lecture as professor of East Europea Russkaia Pravda. Although this is a much-studied subject, it is still bristling with unsolved problems. Some of these concern predominantly the history of medieval Russia and its legal institutions. Others fit very well into a comparative framework. By this I mean that their solution may be helped by looking beyond the borders of medieval Russia, and, conversely, that information gleaned from the study of the Russkaia Pravda may be useful outside the field of study of medieval Russian law.

One of the most important clusters of problems coming to the fore in a comparative framework could be identified roughly as 'early law'. Even a cursory acquaintance with the Russkaia Pravda suggests parallels with other early Slavic law codes and with the Germanic leges barbarorum. The next step would be a comparison with the earliest laws of other Indo-European peoples: archaic Greek and Roman law, Old Irish law, the early laws of India and of the Hittites.

Extending the range further the oldest laws of Mesopotamia come into view and then comparable legal systems outside the sphere of Western civilization: China and Japan, Africa, the native Americans, etc.

A small group of experts in some of these fields met in Leiden on 23 and 24 May 2002 at a symposium entitled 'Beginnend recht' (more about this title below). Two papers on the overall theme were contributed additionally by a legal philosopher and a legal theorist. The symposium was organized under the aegis of the E.M. Meijers

1 Het oudste Russische recht; Gedachten naar aanleiding van de Russkaia Pravda, Leiden 1998.

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