30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Per Anderson, "Dismissing 'The Good Old Law': New Interpretations of Danish Law and Legal Culture"

Some of the best historical sources from Medieval Denmark are the corpuses of laws for the different provinces of the realm written down in the period between c. 1170 and the late 1240’s. For more than a century the Danish vernacular law texts have been interpreted by legal historians as reflecting the good old law, i.e. the legal historians have thought the provincial laws to be preserving a special Danish way of organizing a legal system and special Danish rules, reflecting a script culture characterized by passive transcription.

No doubt this interpretation has been influenced by nationalism and romanticism in such a way that there has been a huge lack of comparative studies between Medieval Denmark and the rest of contemporary Europe. But over the last decade this has changed due to the fact that today Denmark is an accomplished part of Europe. A number of comparative studies have thus illustrated that Danish law of the 12th and the 13th centuries in many ways was transformed and shaped by ‘foreign’ ideologies and legal doctrines known from Canon law and the contemporary learned law taught at the universities in Italy and France.

In the paper I will discuss the implications of these new findings and the consequences for the traditional conception of the provincial laws as reflecting a script culture characterized by passive transcription. Inspired by international studies of legal manuscripts I will discuss the dating of the earliest vernacular law texts of Medieval Denmark and show that the different provincial laws underwent a deliberate editing already in the late part of the 13th century. The paper will thus connect to a larger issue concerning legal culture and the legal culture’s ability, readiness and willingness to transform the law – and thereby society – according to new ideologies and the problems raised by these.

Doing this I will also touch the problems concerning a new edition in modern Danish language and a translation into English of the Danish provincial laws, a project which has just been started by me and some of my Danish colleagues.


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