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European Legal History


Admission requirements

This course can be followed by law students, students from other relevant disciplines and exchange students. A basic understanding of European legal history or political history is helpful but not required.


This course provides an introduction to European Legal History. It takes the concept of a “Western legal tradition” (Berman) as its starting point. For a broad stretch of time, spanning from the Roman empire to the Second World War, we will look at continuity and change in what are considered sources of law. Shifting ideas about the sources of law reflect the political and intellectual history of Europe. In this sense, the course also provides a brief overview of European history. To make the time period manageable, we will focus on the various dominant schools of legal thought. We will also concentrate on the Western European continent and leave the parallel development of the English Common law mostly aside. The course is divided as follows:

  1. Classical Roman law and the codification by Justinian
  2. The medieval reception of Roman law and the advent of Canon law
  3. Centralization and bureaucracy in the early modern period
  4. Natural law and the Enlightenment
  5. Romanticism, nationalism and the codification movement
  6. Positivism, formalism and realism

In the lectures, the authority and impact of customs, judgments, statutes and law codes as well as equity are treated for various time periods and schools of thought. This is set against the institutional framework of the court system and the education of jurists and judges. In the seminars, we will read and discuss selected source materials (in translation) that reflect contemporary thinking about the sources of law.

Course objectives

Objectives of the course
After completing the course, students should be able to critically reflect on the main trends in Western European thinking about law and its sources. They should be able to connect these schools of thought to greater historical developments. They should be able to identify and frame the relevant factors that help to explain the similarities and differences between Western European legal systems.

Achievement levels
The following achievement levels apply with regard to the course:

  • Knowledge of the historical development of law in Western Europe, and in particular of the political, intellectual and institutional factors that helped shape this development.

  • The ability to apply this knowledge by analyzing, interpreting and comparing selected primary sources in an historical context.

  • The ability to present this applied knowledge in written form according to academic standards.


Check MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction


  • Number of (2 hour) lectures: 6

  • Names of lecturers: Professor Egbert Koops

  • Required preparation by students: course readings


  • Number of (2 hour) seminars: 6

  • Names of instructors: Professor Egbert Koops

  • Required preparation by students: preparation of assignments

Assessment method

Examination form(s)

  • Essay outline on 1 page, to be handed in after 5 weeks (20%). The outline shows the structure of the essay and gives a brief description of a primary source, including the reason for selection. Students are required to select a primary source themselves, but guidance is available.

  • Final essay of 2,500 – 3,500 words including footnotes (70%). The final essay should be handed in no more than 5 weeks after course completion. Deadlines will be published on Brightspace. The final essay discusses the selected primary source in depth, and places it within its legal, political and historical context.

  • Class participation (10%).

Grade compensation and resubmissions
The final grade for the course is calculated by combining the grades for the essay outline, the final essay and class participation into one grade. Partial fails may be compensated with a higher partial pass grade, between all three elements. Even so, the essay outline and the final essay are mandatory parts of the examination. No final grade will be provided unless both mandatory requirements are fulfilled. Both the essay outline and the final essay can be resubmitted, either individually or together, but only a) after the grade for the entire course has been released (not during the course), and only b) if the grade for the entire course is not a pass grade (a pass grade is 6/10 or higher). More information on the resubmission process is available in the reader for this course and on Brightspace. All partial grades remain valid for the current academic year and cannot be transferred to another academic year without the express approval of the Exams committee.

Submission procedures
The essay outline and the final essay are submitted through Brightspace.

Areas to be tested within the exam
The examination syllabus consists of the required reading (literature) for the course, the course information guide and the subjects taught in the lectures, the seminars and all other instructions which are part of the course.

Reading list

Obligatory course materials

  • P. Stein, Roman law in European history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999 (132 pp.).

  • Selected readings from H.J. Berman, Law and revolution. The formation of the Western legal tradition, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1983; M. Bellomo (tr. L.G. Cochrane), The Common Legal Past of Europe, 1000-1800, Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1995; O.F. Robinson, T.D. Fergus and W.M. Gordon, European legal history. Sources and institutions (3rd ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005; R. Lesaffer (tr. J. Arriëns), European legal history. A cultural and political perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009.

Course information guide:

  • Updates to the course outline and further course information will be published on Brightspace.


  • A reader containing the course information, a reading list per week, some primary sources and the weekly assignments for the seminars will be published on Brightspace.

Recommended course materials

  • Further readings may be provided through Brightspace.


Registration for courses and exams takes place via MyStudymap. If you do not have access to MyStudymap (guest students), look here (under the Law-tab) for more information on the registration procedure in your situation.


  • Coordinator: Prof. dr. E. Koops

  • Work address: Steenschuur 25, 2311 ES, Leiden

  • Telephone number: (+31) 71 527 7527

  • Email:


  • Institute: Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Law

  • Department: Legal History

  • Room number secretary: A 3.19

  • Opening hours: Monday 09.00-13.00 hrs., Tuesday 09.00-15.00 hrs., Thursday 09.00-15.00 hrs.

  • Telephone number secretary: (+31) 71 527 7442

  • Email:


A maximum of 50 students can participate in this course.