’Autonomy of cities in the past deserves renewed attention’

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The legal capacity, legal personality, and autonomy of medieval and early modern cities merit new research - research that may also alter our view of cities today. That is what Professor of Legal History Dave De ruysscher will contend in his inaugural lecture on Friday, January 20, 2023. He will address how cities - even within the framework of states - could act independently, especially in economic and trade matters, how that independence was legally qualified, and how cities related to a central government level.

Dave De ruysscher believes there is little point that legal history literature on cities maintains the distinction between seigneurial or central jurisdiction on the one hand and independent, local jurisdiction on the other: a city’s jurisdiction was grounded in the symbolic unity between the city community and the sovereign. In practice, a city could represent its sovereign, and vice versa. The norms relating to the authority and operating range of cities evolved in an ongoing interaction between government levels that frequently overlapped. This made the development of city sovereignty dynamic rather than hierarchical, and part of an evolving normative tradition that was more than the sum of legal texts and treaties.

Fresh approach

This necessitates a fresh approach to legal history, not just regarding this theme, but also more broadly, De ruysscher argues. To properly reflect the dynamics of the relations between trading cities with their sovereigns and with other cities, domestic as well as cross-border, more scholarly attention should be paid to correspondence and to administrative practice. Not only will that create a clearer picture of historical reality, it will also shed new light on the legal status of cities today. The autonomy of modern cities is limited and their jurisdiction is subordinate to that of the state, so the adage holds. But the early history of cities offers scant support for that perspective.

Dave De ruysscher (1978) has been Professor of Legal History at Tilburg University since February 14, 2022. He studied History at KU Leuven and Law at KU Leuven and Antwerp University. His PhD thesis on mercantile law in 16th-century Antwerp (2009, KU Leuven) earned him the Charles Duvivier Award of the Académie royale de Belgique. Dave De ruysscher was a postgraduate FWO Flanders researcher and in 2016 was awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. In 2017 he was appointed Associate Professor at Tilburg Law School. De ruysscher’s research concerns the history of mercantile law and city law. He heads the new ERC Consolidator Grant project ’Causal Pattern Analysis of Economic Sovereignty’, which explores the sovereignty of trading cities and the legal framework governing their interrelations in the late medieval and early modern eras. Dave De ruysscher’s other activities include an Assistant Professorship at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, membership of the editorial board of the Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis (Legal History Journal), and membership of the Flanders Young Academy.

Inaugural lecture

Professor Dave De ruysscher will deliver his inaugural lecture in the Auditorium of Tilburg University on Friday, January 20, 2023, at 16:15 hrs. The title of his lecture is De genetwerkte stad in actie: naar een nieuwe rechtsgeschiedenis (The networked city in action: towards a new legal history). The lecture will be livestreamed.

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