Our Law is in Motion

Internationally, there is an intensive discussion of how to design normative orders in a world where communication happens at a global level, while identities are forged locally and regionally. Lawyers and social scientists alike examine the co-existence of different normative spheres. They take an interest in processes of cultural translation in the realms of law and other normative modi, the formation of legal spaces and new forms of conflict regulation. There are many who believe we are currently undergoing fundamental transformations, if not upheaval.

When doubt is cast over what is familiar, the need for long-term perspectives increases. Attempts are being made to understand path dependencies, and alternative possibilities for normative arrangements are being sought. The discipline of legal history, which has always dealt with the transformation of normativity, is therefore presented with outstanding opportunities – and faced with major challenges. As legal historians, we have to continue to deepen our expert knowledge, while at the same time broadening to incorporate a diverse range of experiences from neighbouring disciplines into our research. We are then tasked to use the results of our work to engage in a lively international debate about the past, present and future of the state, law and society.

Here, at the Max Planck Institute, we attempt to take up these challenges – having recently returned to full capacity with two research departments under a single roof. Our numerous individual research projects relate to different periods and topics. Each of them belongs to at least one of more than a dozen ‘Research fields’ that operate across departmental boundaries. Moreover, four particular ‘Research focus areas’ open up common research perspectives that shed new light on all the research projects and research fields pursued at the Institute. As a result, there are many opportunities for dialogue with neighbouring disciplines, not least with law and the other social sciences.

We foster this dialogue through our memberships in the Clusters of Excellence The Formation of Normative Orders at Goethe University and Beyond Slavery and Freedom at Bonn University (since 2019), through a long-term project on the legal and political languages of the School of Salamanca at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz and as part of our collaboration with other Max Planck institutes.

Our work, particularly our interest in the legal history of the common law world and the imperial spaces of the Iberian monarchies, puts us in touch with colleagues all over the world. In order to intensify these international co-operations, we are increasingly publishing in open access formats and organize an annual Summer Academy for Legal History. Each of these endeavours helps us to write the legal history of Europe as the history of a global region and to better understand how ‘law is in motion’.

However, fundamental research ultimately requires one thing above all – time. Only by allowing ourselves time can we remain what we ought to be – a place where the history of legal systems can be reflected upon, discussed and researched together with colleagues from all over the world, in a spirit of openness to the questions of today, yet focusing on the unique nature of what is distant and unfamiliar.

You will find much more information on our work on the following pages.


Thomas Duve and Stefan Vogenauer

Go to Editor View