Interview: Looking for Grotius at The Peace Palace Library


By C. Alihusain and Peter R. Jacobs.

Late last year, we had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Edward Jones Corredera & Dr. Jonathan Nathan, two historians and dedicated research fellows from Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany.  Both researchers have already written and contributed  to publications on the works and teachings of Hugo Grotius and were on a mission to uncover as much as possible on the Library’s illustrious Grotius Collection. We decided to interview them and find out more about their ambitious research project. Here what they had to say.

1. How did you first learn about Hugo Grotius and what made you become fascinated to conduct extensive research on his life and teachings?

It is rare to find a university course in the social sciences or the humanities that does not refer to Hugo Grotius’ contribution to the crystallization of the international order. To this day, in any legal discussion about free trade, monopolies, international crimes and law, Grotius remains a crucial source of authority. From the rise of the British Empire to the drafting of civil law in South Africa, the study of the laws and norms that govern international relations is the story of Grotius.

But there is much we do not know about the man: one of the most fascinating aspects of studying Grotius in depth is therefore our lack of information regarding so many areas of his life and works. As with many other icons, their intellectual impact on their age and beyond is assumed and not interrogated. The goal of the Grotius Census Project at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, is to demystify the figure of Grotius and to publish our results on the four-hundred-year anniversary in 2025 of the first publication of De iure belli ac pacis (On the Rights of War and Peace).

2. Why do you think Grotius' work has been translated into so many languages? What is it about this work that was and remains so significant?

Contemporaries of Grotius appreciated many of his works, including his De veritate (The Truth of the Christian Religion) and Annotationes, (Annotations), and above all, De iure belli ac pacis, for their capacity to synthesize complex debates that dated to antiquity. While most of the early editions of his text and commentaries on his work were drafted in Latin, from the late seventeenth century Enlightenment authors fostered the growth of translations. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Adam Smith, authors trying to define not just international law but ideas of inequality, property, and the nation state, drew on his writings. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the global codification of national laws, statesmen appealed to the authority of Grotius when trying to consolidate peace and settle imperial disputes. In 1915, for instance, Elihu Root, who had recently received the Nobel Peace Prize, recalled how the internecine Thirty Years’ War had led to the emergence of international law in the form of Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis.

3. Given Grotius' ties to Dutch colonialism, has there been enough scrutiny of him as a colonizer? Is this aspect of his legacy somehow overlooked?

Over the past few decades, the scholarship on Grotius’ relationship to colonialism has been the subject of countless studies. The question of the connection between Grotius’ ideas and the principles and institutions that fostered the growth of slavery has, on the other hand, not yet received the same degree of attention. One important aspect of this relationship, which can be discerned in the way that North American abolitionists deployed Grotius’ works, is whether Grotius’ works reflect the norms of his age, or whether they constituted a clean break from them. There is no question, however, that further research on this particular aspect of Grotius’ work is needed. 

Today, gendered approaches to the study of Grotius’ works are attracting some scholarly interest. Maria van Reigersberch, Grotius’ wife, has always been a subject of fascination: she was instrumental in advising him regarding editorial questions and, most famously, facilitating his escape from prison in a book chest.

4. Can you please give us an insight into your research process? How do you go about scrutinizing texts like Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis and Mare Liberum (The Free Sea)? Do you find the book-building process at times tiresome? What are the lowlights and highlight?

To date, we have found a thousand copies of the first nine editions of De iure belli ac pacis. Our project started during the summer of 2020, as governments across the world were reassessing their Covid measures on a weekly basis. This meant that we initially had to rely on online catalogues. Since then, however, we have found that piecing back together disparate pieces of the puzzle of learning in the Republic of Letters requires finding every copy of a book, ploughing through dated offline records and rotting online library catalogues; compiling nuanced questionnaires for librarians in numerous languages and systematising their responses; collecting, transcribing, and adding metadata to images of tens of thousands of annotations, personalised bindings and provenance marks, and tracking the pace, space, and trajectory of the movement of copies across the centuries, often between private and public owners, often punctured and punctuated by disruptions by war, nationalisation, privatisation, and modernization.

The best part of the job is that you never know what you are going to find and whom you’re going to meet during your trip to the archives. Often a catalogue will be based on a copy that has been digitized by a different library, and so upon opening a copy of the text we look for any information about who the owner may have been, and then move on to study evidence surrounding the printing process of the copy. The conditions in which paper was stored in print shops were ideal for the preservation of beer and the process of printing a book was laborious and physically taxing; it was not uncommon for printers to rely on beer for strength. The understudied intellectual contribution of printers, many of whom were educated in multiple languages, has been a particularly interesting aspect of our research. The friendships and relationships struck with other Grotius scholars around the world is a particularly gratifying perk of our research trips.  

5. Do you believe Hugo Grotius is still relevant today and if so, what could we learn from him?

Lawyers and judges at the International Court of Justice frequently cite Grotius. The late Antônio Augusto Cançado Trinidade, for example, regarded Grotius as the historical authority for pushing modern international law from a state-dominated toward an individual-centric system, and ensured that Grotius’ principles were considered in cases surrounding asylum or nuclear weapons. That many legal practitioners continue to consider him relevant to modern debates means that it is all the more crucial to gain a better understanding of his beliefs, his hopes and expectations.

This is why we need the cooperation of lawyers. We are particularly keen on gathering information about copies that are in private hands; we would appreciate any lawyers or collectors contacting us via social media or email.

Finally, what can we learn from Grotius? It must be said that Grotius did not lead a particularly happy life. While men would await his arrival with a copy of De iure belli ac pacis in hand in the hope of his signature, printers in Amsterdam, and statesmen in Paris, like Cardinal Richelieu, frequently outsmarted the famous Dutch jurist. He was known as a child prodigy, a pedant, a heretic and a polemicist, and yet many countries hoped that he would represent them abroad as their ambassador. His was a life full of contradictions.