Peace Through Law

Jacques Godefroy, Codex Theodosianus in two volumes.

Printed by Jean-Antoine Huguetan and Marc-Antoine Ravaud in Lyon, 1665.

If you’re calmly sitting in your chair right now with a nice cup of coffee, not fearing a robbery to take place at any moment, that’s not so much due to the assault rifle that might still be hanging over your door, but because you live in a state governed by the rule of law. There are certain rules that apply to everyone and are enforced by state authorities. You can’t do everything you want – but others can’t either. All these legal provisions – which might be considered the epitome of insanity by non-lawyers – obviously did not fall from the sky. We owe them – and thus our regulated lives – to a long legal tradition. One great scholar who had a lasting impact on his tradition was the Swiss lawyer, politician and diplomat Jacques Godefroy. In the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War, he created his life’s work: a historical, source-critical annotated edition of the ancient legal code called Codex Theodosianus. A first edition of the work is now in the Zurich MoneyMuseum.


From Cases to a System: Codex Justinianus and Codex Theodosianus

It’s quite typical for the modern law of Central Europe to regulate just about everything in a systematic way that may remind you of classifications of plant and animal species. There is a paragraph for virtually everything. However, the fact that court rulings are based on this system of laws is a very recent development.

In Roman antiquity, judges ruled on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, Roman law can be classified as casuistic law or case law – although the system should not be confused with the modern case law that characterises Anglo-Saxon legal systems. Rulings of Roman judges were not universal and not binding for other trials, although judges often referred to earlier rulings. In late antiquity, legal scholars considered this practice to be very confusing; it was impossible to get an overview. Therefore, they began to compile old rulings and to organise them by subject. The first important compilation was the Codex Theodosianus, which the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II had compiled with his Western Roman colleague Valentinian III. This collection comprised 16 parts and all laws that had been enacted since 312 under the rule of Constantine. It was published in 438 and already 90 years later, it was followed by the Codex Justinianus or Code of Justinian, in which this emperor had even more and older rulings compiled along with legal instructions.

The end of the Roman Empire also marked the end of a uniform legal system; regional laws that originated in local traditions applied to most cases from then on. But when the two ancient codes were rediscovered in monastery libraries, scholars immediately understood the possibilities that opened up to them: one could tap into the immense wealth of experience and scholarship of antiquity. And this is what lawyers did until the modern age.

Jacques Godefroy (1549–1652) researched the Codex Theodosianus for thirty years – besides his diplomatic and political activities and his teaching post at the Geneva Academy. His life’s work was only published after his death.

Denys and Jacques Godefroy: Legal Scholars and Politicians

This, however, required a proper understanding of the ancient texts. And that brings us to Jacques Godefroy and his father Denys. Denys Godefroy, born in 1549, came from a family of French official nobility and served for a time as extraordinary councillor of the French King at the court of the Parliament. But from 1579 on, he mainly taught law at the Geneva Academy, where he created his main work: an annotated edition of the Code of Justinian. This monumental work was reprinted again and again in more than fifty editions since legal scholars considered it to be a the reference work for modern jurisprudence.

In 1587, his son Jacques was born in Geneva. He dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps, studied law and, after some stations abroad, returned to his hometown. Besides his political activities, he took on diplomatic missions, taught at the Geneva Academy like his father before him – and, by the way, tried in vain to obtain the university title for the Geneva Academy. While his father studied the Code of Justinian, his son Jacques devoted for about 30 years most of his research time to the Codex Theodosianus. However, he died while working on it in 1652. Godefroy’s friend Antoine de Marville made sure that the work was published in Lyon thirteen years later. To this day, it is considered the first modern complete and annotated edition of the Codex Theodosianus. The title page shows why the Codex Theodosianus was considered so important at the time: it enabled lawyers to better use the Code of Justinian.

Both Godefroys represent a tradition of Protestant legal scholars, who were very popular in Switzerland at the time and contributed significantly to the modern Swiss legal system. They also understood Roman codes as historical documents that had to be read and contextualised against the background of their time of origin. That is why the massive volumes contain, among other things, a list of the consuls, which is of key importance for the dating and chronology of the individual legal texts.

The line of this work continues in the Code Napoléon, the most important legal code of modern times, which still has a major influence on the legal systems of Western Europe. The General State Laws for the Prussian States, enacted in 1794, also used the idea of Roman order and developed it further by creating a legal system that encompassed every aspect of life: public, civil and criminal law. All these modern legal systems were united by a great goal: creating peace through universally applicable laws.

A Work for Eternity

The MoneyMuseum’s edition, which was purchased from the Grazer Buch- und Kunstantiquariat Wolfgang Friebes, is the first edition of the Codex Theodosianus by Jacques Godefroy or Iacobus Gothofredus, as he called himself in Latin. Reprints and new editions of the work were published later too. The book itself gives us an idea of the importance of the work. There is a long handwritten note from 1667, i.e. two years after it was printed. At the time, the brothers Christian and John Charles received these volumes from a certain Johann Rebhan. Most of the dedication is taken unctuously by the titles of the presentees for they were blue-blooded brothers: Christian II Count Palatine and Duke of Palatine-Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld, and John Charles Count Palatine of the Rhine and as Duke in Bavaria founder of the line of Bavarian dukes. Johann Rebhan had also made a name for himself. The lawyer was Imperial Court Palatine, i.e. a high official of the Holy Roman Empire, which was obviously also noted.

An exlibris refers to a new owner in the first half of the 18th century, a knight or baron Johann Christoph von Bartenstein.

About a hundred years later, a conscientious librarian pasted a bookplate into the work, showing us a new owner: Johann Christoph Bartenstein (1689–1767), first knight of Bartenstein, then Baron of Bartenstein. The statesman and diplomat of the Habsburgs had also studied law in Vienna and was known for his sharp tongue and great erudition. This Codex Theodosianus was not just an object for prestige for him that gathered dust on a bookshelf.

These two books of the MoneyMuseum thus give us an idea of the tortuous paths they have taken over the past centuries and the illustrious hands they passed through. The spirit of this work is still present in our modern legal system and helped you to be able to drink your coffee in peace.

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

A digitized version of the first edition does not seem to be available online; you can find a new edition from 1743 in the Internet Archive.

If you think now that law is not only about peace but above all about justice, take a look at this article and the exhibition Law and Justice.

Around the same time, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, an entire book was devoted to the question of how to make peace.

Text bewerten