Rare Books Blog

October 22, 2009

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 3

The tension generated by Spanish and Portuguese claims to maritime dominion intensified at the start of the 17th century. An exponential growth in world trade and, especially, aggressive efforts by the Dutch East India Company to protect its right to engage in it, brought the issue to a head. The Company was organized by the Dutch government in 1602 with a view to expanding the capital base, and enhancing the collective security, of the individual ship owners and captains who up to that point had had to fend off Spanish and Portuguese naval vessels on their own.

The stage was set for a dramatic confrontation. It took place in February 1603, when a small fleet belonging to the Company attacked and overwhelmed a richly laden Portuguese vessel, the Santa Catarina, near Singapore. The captured vessel and cargo were brought back to the Netherlands, where a Dutch court ordered the proceeds of its sale distributed to the Company, the admiral of the fleet and his crew. A furious row erupted over the legality of the seizure, which struck many as immoral – in fact, scarcely distinguishable from outright piracy.

The case presented complex legal issues. The need to defend its right to participate in the East India trade had arisen in the course of the young Dutch republic’s war of independence against Spain, which by then held dominion over Portugal and regarded the Dutch as no more than rebellious subjects. Moreover, as some of the Company’s dissident shareholders themselves pointed out, the Company had been organized as a private mercantile enterprise, not as a vehicle for engaging in an aggressive war, much less for enriching itself in the process.

Some of the shareholders threatened to withdraw their capital, to form a new enterprise in competition, even to make common cause with a French company projected by Henry IV. The Company’s very existence was thought to be at risk – and with it the future of the young republic’s burgeoning overseas commerce.

To win over popular support, the Company turned to Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), then only twenty-one years old and too new to the practice of law to have been hired to handle the Santa Catarina litigation itself, but already renown throughout Europe for his prodigious erudition, his knowledge of the wisdom and practices of nations from biblical and classical times. Henry IV himself had greeted Grotius’s arrival in France as a fifteen-year-old diplomatic attaché by having a medal struck in his honor, declaring the young man to be nothing less than “the miracle of Holland.” In effect, Grotius’s defense of the Company’s position was tantamount to a celebrity endorsement, as valuable to the Company in this respect as by the persuasiveness of whatever legal argument he could muster in support of its actions.

Grotius immediately set about preparing a treatise that would portray the Company’s action in the context of a comprehensive theory of the law of prize. But before he could finish it, it had already been overtaken by events. The dissident shareholders had made good on their threat, to the extent of withdrawing their capital, but had failed to organize another company or to persuade the French to do so. Just as important, the Company’s commercial success had precipitated a change in public sentiment, effectively silencing critics of its aggressiveness. Moreover, and perhaps even more critically, an end was in sight to Holland’s decades-old war of independence from Spain. The moment, perforce, was inauspicious for a verbal assault on Spain and Portugal’s claims to a global monopoly. Grotius’s monograph, substantially completed by 1604, went unpublished – for the time being.

Grotius seems to have been dissatisfied with the work, anyway. In a letter written in November 1606, he says: “My little work on Indian affairs is finished, but I do not know whether it ought to appear in its present form, or only those parts which relate to the general law of war and prize.”

By 1608, however, events had taken another turn. The Company was becoming increasingly alarmed over reports that, in pursuit of a truce with Spain and of obtaining its recognition of Dutch independence, the Dutch government was prepared to concede Spain’s right to’exclude the Dutch from the eastern seas. At the Company’s urging, Grotius returned to his manuscript, rewriting the introduction and expanding the conclusion of one of its chapters, Chapter XII – the one in which he dealt specifically with the legal basis of the freedom of the seas.

This one chapter, entitled Mare liberum, was published the following spring, by itself, as a pamphlet. No mention was made of the identity of its author (although the fact that it was none other than the celebrated Grotius quickly became known locally and in England). The rest of the monograph was consigned to Grotius’s personal papers. Though alluded to in his private correspondence, its existence was practically unknown until a manuscript copy was discovered nearly three centuries later and published, in 1868, under the title De jure praedae (On the Law of Prize).

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). De jure praedae commentarius [facsimile] (New York, 1952).
A facsimile of the manuscript Grotius completed in 1604, showing Chapter XII, which was published five years later as Mare liberum.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). De jure praedae commentarius (The Hague, 1868).
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). Mare liberum (Leiden, 1618).
The 2nd edition of Mare liberum, and the first to bear Grotius’s name.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). Hugo Grotius Mari libero et P. Merula De maribus (Leiden, 1633).
This edition includes a related work on maritime affairs by the Dutch scholar Paulus Merula.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). Vrye zeevaert (Haarlem, 1636).
An early Dutch translation of Mare liberum.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

October 22, 2009

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 4

As it happens, the publication of Mare liberum came too late to influence negotiations with Spain. It served instead to ignite a fierce debate over the freedom of the seas that continued throughout the 17th century – what later scholars were to call the “Battle of the Books.” Grotius contended that nature and public utility alike forbid the acquisition of property rights in the sea. Unlike land, the sea (and the air) cannot in practice be occupied, demonstrating that nature intended it to be free to all to use. Being inexhaustible in use, moreover, it is not susceptible of occupation, which is necessary when the utility of things can be preserved only if they become private property.

The defense of Portugal’s imperial claims in the East Indies fell initially to Seraphim de Freitas, a Portuguese theologian-jurist, professor at the University of Valladolid, in a treatise published in 1625 under the name De iusto imperio Lusitanorum Asiatico (On the Just Empire of the Portuguese in Asia). Vastly larger and longer than Grotius’s mere pamphlet, De iusto imperio was highly critical not only of the youthful Grotius’s arguments, but of its factual inaccuracies and misleading references and inferences as well.

Freitas contended that the right to free trade and navigation, whatever its roots in natural law, had never become a part of the law of nations. A sovereign could exclude foreigners from his territories or commerce and could forbid his subjects to trade with them. He conceded that the pope lacked an abstract right to accord dominion over newly discovered territories and peoples, but insisted that his authority as the spiritual dominus mundi entitled him to grant an exclusive right to spread the Christian faith and civilization. Since, to be effective, this right necessarily involves both trade and limited conquest, the pope had the authority to grant Portugal-Spain the right to exclude other powers from the east.

De iusto imperio was expanded upon four years later by a Spanish jurist named Juan de Solórzano Pereira (1575-1655), in a treatise entitled Disputationem de Indiarum iure. Scarcely known or written about by English-speaking scholars, De Indiarum iure is regarded by some Spanish scholars as the most systematic juridical formulation of the legitimacy of Spain and Portugal’s 17th century claims. Unlike Freitas, Solórzano Pereira said that, regardless of the legitimacy of the 15th century papal grants on which they were said to be based, Portugal’s actual control and occupation of the new territories were sufficient in themselves to satisfy the requirements for retrospective ownership (prescription) recognized in both Roman and customary law.

Neither Freitas’s nor Solórzano Pereira’s treatise had as much influence in the 17th century as their intellectual content warranted, perhaps because they were too learned and too long, but in any event because the center of intellectual interest and political power was shifting from Spain to England.

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Solórzano Pereira, Juan de (1575-1655). De Indiarum jure (Lyons, 1672).
This work became the definitive treatise on the laws governing Spain’s overseas colonies.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

October 20, 2009

I was sorry to learn that Charles J. Tanenbaum, Yale Law School Class of 1937, passed away on Oct. 17, 2009, at age 94. Mr. Tanenbaum was a noted book collector and philanthropist. The Lillian Goldman Law Library was one among a great many institutions that benefited from his generosity.

Like many other great book & manuscript collectors, Charles Tanenbaum’s motive for collecting was not to acquire and hoard, but to discover and share. He curated over thirty exhibitions at major U.S. libraries, including Harvard, Penn, Stanford, and the Grolier Club, where he was a member for over 40 years.

Here at Yale, Mr. Tanenbaum endowed the Charles J. Tanenbaum Fund, which supports rare book acquisitions relating to the history of the legal profession. From his personal collection, he donated an important letter from Chief Justice John Marshall (described here) and Yale-College Subject to the General Assembly (New-Haven: Printed by Thomas and Samuel Green, 1784), a brief arguing for the Connecticut General Assembly’s right to regulate Yale College, by the prominent lawyer Samuel Whittelsey Dana.

The last gift we received from Mr. Tanenbaum was not from early American history, but from Mr. Tanenbaum’s personal history. It is a letter of recommendation from Yale law professor Underhill Moore, a letter that documents not only the anti-Semitism prevalent in the 1930s but also the person that Professor Moore described as “an unusually valuable man.” The letter appears below. I extend my deepest condolences to his widow, Mrs. Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum, and his daughter Ann, for their loss.


Rare Book Librarian


October 15, 2009

New exhibit…

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law

October 2009 - January 2010
Rare Book Exhibition Gallery
Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library
Yale Law School

In 1609, a little pamphlet touched off a big debate that shaped modern international law. The Lillian Goldman Law Library marks the 400th anniversary of this event with its exhibition, “Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law.” It will be on display through January 2010 in the Yale Law School.

At the dawn of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company commissioned a young prodigy named Hugo Grotius to prepare a legal argument rejecting Spanish and Portuguese claims of dominion over the oceans around their overseas empires. His essay, Mare Liberum (“On the Freedom of the Seas”) touched off a “Battle of the Books.” What eventually emerged was a regime of international law to govern humanity’s common interest in shared resources.

At the center of this battle was Grotius and England’s leading legal scholar, John Selden. The exhibition documents their contributions and those from other European jurists, with books from the Rare Book Collection of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Harvard Law School Library, and the private collection of Edward Gordon.

The exhibition was curated by Edward Gordon, Yale Law School Class of 1963, and Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian. Gordon, past President of the American Branch of the International Law Association, was formerly professor of international law at Albany Law School, and has also taught at Rutgers, George Washington University, American University, Wellesley College, and the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

The Rare Books Exhibition Gallery is located in the lower level of the Lillian Goldman Law Library (Level L2), directly in front of the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Reading Room.

For those unable to visit the exhibit in person, it will appear in installments here in the Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog.

For more information, phone Mike Widener at (203) 432-4494 or email him at .

The illustration:
Hugo Grotius Mari libero et P. Merula De maribus (Leiden, 1633). Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

September 4, 2009

My Flickr frenzy continues… Another new portrait gallery in the Rare Book Collection’s section of the Yale Law Library Flickr site comes from Lodovico Vedriani’s Dottori Modonesi di teologia, filosofia, legge canonica, e civile (Modena, 1665). The majority of the 36 portraits are of the leaders of Modena’s legal profession, along with churchmen, diplomats, politicians, and authors. One woman is included: Tarquinia Molza. Each portrait is accompanied by a lengthy panegyric highlighting the individual’s virtues and accomplishments.

The example below is of Aurelio Bellencini, “gran leggista,” one of four Bellencini family members pictured in the book.

Our copy of Dottori Modonesi is bound with Vedriani’s most well-known work, Raccolta de pittori, scultori et architetti modonesi (Modena, 1662), an important source for art historians. Our copy is also notable for having once formed part of the enormous private library of Richard Heber (1773-1833).

Rare Book Librarian

September 3, 2009

One of the first portrait albums ever published featured Italy’s outstanding jurists, Antoine Lafréry’s Illustrium iureconsultorum imagenes (Rome, 1566?). The book consists of 25 portraits, attributed to Niccolò Nelli, that reportedly were based on a set of portraits in the collection of Mantova Benavides, a jurist in Padua. The volume is one of the treasures of the Lillian Goldman Law Library’s Rare Book Collection.

Scanned images of all the portraits are now up in the Law Library’s Flickr site. The portraits are of leading jurists from the 13th to 16th centuries, and include such famous names as Accursius (ca. 1182-1260), the compiler of the standard gloss to the Corpus Juris Civilis, Bartolus of Sassoferrato (1313-1357), and the Renaissance humanist Andrea Alciati (1492-1550). In the midst of the 24 jurists’ portraits is, inexplicably, the image of Dante Alighieri. Below is the portrait of Gerolamo Cagnolo (1491-1551), author of commentaries on the Digest and Code of Justinian.

Rare Book Librarian

August 5, 2009

The Rare Book Collection’s image galleries on Flickr are now part of the Yale Law Library’s Flickr site. All the previous content is still there – Legal Trees, Dutch Court Scenes, and Provenance Markings – and I continue to add images to these sets. New sets include:

  • 21 images from Francesco Maria Pecchio’s profusely illustrated Tractatus de aquaeductu (1713), a 4-volume treatise on the Roman law of aquaducts and riparian rights (see an example at right).
  • Images of Justitia (or Themis), or “blind-folded Justice with her scales.”
  • Title pages from a half-dozen 18th-century German legal dissertations. Our rare book cataloger, Susan Karpuk, spoke at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries on how to decipher their long-winded and complicated titles.
  • Two pamphlets relating to the prosecution of William Lanson, a leader of New Haven’s African-American community in the early 19th century. Lanson built the original Long Wharf and several other developments. In 1845 Lanson was accused of operating a house of ill repute. Isaiah Lanson’s Statement and Inquiry, Concerning the Trial of William Lanson (1845) is a defense of Lanson by his son Isaiah, and William Lanson’s Book of Satisfaction (1848) is William Lanson’s own defence, including a poem describing the events.

More to come…

Rare Book Librarian


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