Towards Better Democracy

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Notes on Books – A Short History of European Law: The Last Two and a Half Millennia, Tamar Herzog


A Short History of European Law: The Last Two and a Half Millennia, Tamar Herzog.
See below for details of the book and about the author.

I have not taste for reviews of books in a general sense. I don’t want to read of plot or what the book is about. Nor do I  in a general sense like the academic writings of books, the critical analyses.

In calling this post Notes on Books this allows me to make jottings without a call to be coherent and, even more importantly, without any necessity of a narrative.

Instead what I intend to do is to mention some of those passages of the book that strike in a particular way within a particular context. This sound more ambitious than I think I will be able to be. Still. I don’t have the book in front on me which allows me to not be sidetracked. After all, should I wish to I can write a future post of more substance or come back and elaborate on this post. Or do neither of these and leave well alone.

Let’s us first mention some of the defiiciences of her writing. By far and away the most significant of the omissions for a person writing about the History of Law in Europe and beginning at its origins. Now you could argue that she is only concerned with development on the European mainland. But Greece is that. To have not explored the beginnins of law in Greece is a major omission. Should you writing about origins then you have to acknowledge the fact that all law, codified law of any kind, has in gemination in Sumer and the Sumerians. There are many such examples. Another is the lack of mention of Law Merchant.  You could argue that the emergence of this body of law is not significant in the history of European I am at a loss as to how you might say that. Quite apart form the set of laws upon the general body of law is the fact that this set of laws, Law Merchant, allowed the development of merchant activity throughout Europe. The contribution of those merchants, those that formulated the law set, to the development of Europe as a place where these was a significant network of shared practices and of commerce and trade. Our present economic system owes a very great deal to their activity and to the fact that, through Law Merchant, that they could work as a unified group with the ease of being able to trade and exchange goods and of course, the exchange of monies. The extent of the impact of all theses development is both wide and deep.

Before leaving talk of Law Merchant, one has to nod towards the fact that their activities in Italy, where the coherence of the practices in which they engaged in was first manifested. Not least of the impacts of this is the riches that the efforts on their part made the Renaissance possible and led, among many, many other outcomes to what we now refer to in a backward sense to the Glory of Venice, the epitome of the results of what these merchants did.

Before I move off the continent of Europe, let us mention the most glaring of Harzog’s missing pieces and that is the lack of mention of Hammurabi’s Code. To have not mention this set of Codes of Laws when writing a book about about the development of bodies of law in Europe is akin to writing about Ancient Egypt and not mentioning the pyramids. Or writing of the colonisation of the Americas without speaking of Columbus.

The absence of mention of an event so fundamental the foundation of European law is breathtaking in its impact on this reader.

There are many aspect of the book to admire. Since this post is intended to be short one can only make short mention of some of these.

Her writing, though not without significant faults, has a structure which is striking. For the most part she begins many sections and paragraphs by asking a set of questions and then says that she will go on to attempt to answer them. Which she does sometimes and on other occasions does not.

The impact of the book on me is very great. Which of course what drove me to write at least some comments about the book. To leave this post open I will simply say that law, as written by Herzog, is a set of concepts which developed greatly as time went by.

I shall finish up by mentioning a personal impact on me as a citizen.

I grew up in both Scotland and England where the body of law is referred to as Common Law. Since living outside the UK, I have frequently hear others say or have read of how admirable English Common Law is. What I gained as an individual is an understanding of at least some of the words which are grist to Common Law’s mill. All those words I heard, simply accepted and never thought for a moment of their origins or their meaning with the whole of what English Common Law constitutes.

I may read parts of the book a second time, something I never do. 

Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 17 January, 2018

Further information

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 8, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674980344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674980341
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.4 inches

About the Author: Tamar Herzog, born 10 April 1965 in Israel, is a historian and Juristist and is  Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor in the History Department at Harvard University, and Affiliated Faculty Member at Harvard Law School.

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