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Historical Foundations of Public and International Law

Head of Section:

Mark Somos

Anne Peters


History of International Law

About the Project:

This project explores structural features of public and international law through three themes: the interaction of law and science, sovereignty, and the work and reception of Hugo Grotius.


I.          Intersections of law and science

This subproject has three strands. The first strand recovers the role that the legal fiction of man’s pre- and supra-political condition, known as the state of nature, played as a prism for integrating science and law during the American Revolution, and its impact on European and Latin American constitutional thought. The second strand charts the interaction between anatomy and criminal and constitutional law from the 16th to the 19th century, with a focus on legal ramifications of medical theories concerning gender and war. The third strand explores German formulations of law as a science, and its US reception in the 19th century. Together, the three strands bring out theoretical, historical, and enduring features of the ways in which law and science disrupt and structure one another’s content and development.


II.         Sovereignty: secularisation, economics, and legitimacy

The second subproject also has three strands. First, it extends prior work on secularisation to understand why most post-Cold War conflicts have a religious component. It seeks to develop a new model of secularisation to identify categories and norms that were designed to solve past crises, such as religious wars and state-church entanglements, by blinding international and public law to religious legitimacy claims. Resulting legal discourses embody not universal, but historically contingent norms, and are consequently ill-equipped to handle pressing issues that range from interstate conflict to terrorism. The second strand applies legal historiography to recurring problems with economic aspects of sovereignty, including tensions between states and corporations, affluent regions’ bids for secession, disputes of eminent domain, and decentralised currencies. The third strand explores constitutional legitimacy through histories of trust, representation, and the regulation of relationships between individuals (including minors), families, and states. Together, the three strands outline contingency and incompleteness in notions and practices of sovereignty in public and international law.


III.       Hugo Grotius

There are many reasons why Grotius is called the father of modern international law, including his systematisation of doctrine, secularisation of legal foundations, iconic formulation of the right to free trade, and the institutional heritage from the first chair in public international law, created in Heidelberg to expound Grotius, through international organisations after both world wars republishing Grotius with extensive commentaries to signal a new order, to recent invocations of his authority in discussions concerning the juridification of space and emerging norms in maritime law. Yet considerable gaps remain in our knowledge and use of Grotius.

My service as co-editor-in-chief of Grotiana is a part of this subproject. The second strand brings new methods to bear on Grotius, namely surveys of marginalia in surviving copies to understand reception; digitising references to biblical, classical, legal and other texts to shed new light on Grotius’s use of sources as well as his later reception; and studies in the emerging field of longue durée legal historiography that aim to replace pointillist accounts of his influence with a systematic and usable understanding.


  • Somos, Mark: Boston in the State of Nature, 1761-1765: The Birth of an American Constitutional Trope. In: Jus Gentium: Journal of International Legal History 3:1, 63-113 (2018). download
  • Somos, Mark, Daniel Margocsy and Stephen Joffe: The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Edition. Brill, Leiden, 2018, 518 p.. download
  • Somos, Mark, László Kontler: Trust and Happiness in the History of European Political Thought. Brill, Leiden, 2017, 481 p.. download