Legal History of South East Europe

Completed Project

For some long time now, the Institute has been researching the legal history of South East Europe, commencing in the 1970s with a study of Byzantine legal sources. Since then, this research field has been steadily developed with the publication of the "Handbuch der Quellen und Literatur der neueren europäischen Privatrechtsgeschichte” (the Handbook of sources and literature on the modern history of European private law), the third volume of which is devoted to South East Europe, as well as other research projects centred on Eastern Europe. The focus is now being broadened to include the legal history of the post-Ottoman period.

The past and present history of South East Europe attracts research interest and methods of various kinds. A national view of history in this region is increasingly giving way to comparativism, cultural history, historical anthropology, histoire croisée, transfer studies, etc. that call into question any kind of national exclusivity or emphasis, and highlight the historical concurrence of cultural identities. In an approach that draws on interdisciplinary aspects and methods, the Institute is studying the formation of national legal systems in the countries of South East Europe that have emerged from the Ottoman Empire. One important area of emphasis is on the Ottoman history of the region, which has thus far gone largely unnoticed by legal historians, nationally and internationally. We are investigating both the specific features and significance of the largely Islamic legal and governmental model deployed in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the coexistence of various religious and ethnic communities in the region.

The time frame encompasses the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. This is the first time that the evolution of modern legal systems in South East Europe has been studied as a historical process in which a variety of factors find themselves in complex interaction, including the structural preconditions, forms and resulting consequences. In the foreground we pose a general question: How is it possible for imported law to function in a culturally and structurally varying social context? In South East Europe the transfer of law became the driving force behind an accelerated policy of modernisation, which was intended to lift both the crumbling Ottoman Empire, as well as the individual emergent states up to the level of Western Europe. The route lay through state, constitution, legislation and law. The law was seen as a necessary, if ill-fitting, straightjacket that was intended to bring the still largely socially-, religiously- and ethnically-composed societies of that time in South East Europe into line and up to date.

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