The Annotated Justinian Code
October 23, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

The Corpus Juris Civilis, also called the Code of Justinian, is a foundational document in (continental) Western law. Perhaps because of its limited impact on the common law, no English translation existed until the 1930s. The best English translation of the two main parts of the CJC, the Codex Justinianus and the Novels, was the life's work of a single Wyoming Supreme Court Justice, Fred H. Blume.

Blume was born in Germany in 1875 and emigrated to the US in 1887. His knowledge of German would be quite fortunate because Germany had become a hub of Roman law research in the 19th and 20th centuries. Blume began his work in 1919 and continued until 1943. In those 24 years he produced an annotated manuscript of some 4,521 pages, which was bequeathed to the University of Wyoming upon his death in 1971, along with his personal library of over 2,300 volumes, mostly regarding Roman law. That manuscript is now available online as the Annotated Justinian Code.

NB: the site may be a little confusing. The links on the right ("AJC Quick Links") will take you to searchable plaintext PDFs of the annotated Codex Justinianus. The rest of Blume's work (the annotated Novels and a lengthy paper about the Codex Justinianus) are available as scanned typescripts via the links on the left.
posted by jedicus (16 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Thank you!
posted by trip and a half at 7:27 PM on October 23, 2012

Excellent post. I learned about Blume in passing during a first-year law school survey course on comparative study of legal systems. The CJC is fascinating: I wonder whether the world would look the same if William the Conqueror had brought it over the channel instead of the more adaptable "Common law".
posted by anewnadir at 7:30 PM on October 23, 2012

So was justice named after Justinian, or was it a coincidental name?
posted by idiopath at 7:53 PM on October 23, 2012

I should add that if you want a fairly readable overview of what the legal system was like under the CJC, check out "The Code of Justinian, and its Value." "Procedure as Illustrated in Code" is a particularly good section.

So was justice named after Justinian, or was it a coincidental name?

The name Justinian does ultimately derive from justus ("just"), but it did not originate with Justinian I. So, no, a coincidence in this case.
posted by jedicus at 7:57 PM on October 23, 2012

It seemed amazing that there was no English translation until the 1930s until I remembered that judges used to get a lot of practice reading Latin and would not have found it a problem.
posted by Segundus at 1:18 AM on October 24, 2012

Just an aside: I meet a LOT of American lawyers who think that the common law is the dominant legal system in the world.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:46 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Roman law has had until today in civil law jurisdictions. This was brought to me quite forcefully in my childhood by the loud swearing re. Justinian and all Romans which punctuated my otherwise very politely spoken mother during her law studies...
posted by Skeptic at 1:57 AM on October 24, 2012

Now that I've read a bit of it, I'm amazed by just how clear and readable Blume's translation is, even beautiful in places. I was expecting something turgid and ponderous, but this very aesthetically pleasing.
posted by Kattullus at 4:50 AM on October 24, 2012

no English translation existed until the 1930s

I want to say that it's surprising, but perhaps educated people were expected to understand Latin anyway.
posted by ersatz at 8:18 AM on October 24, 2012

I've repeatedly tried to read about and understand the difference between Common Law and Roman (Civil) Law. I still don't think I get it.

Common Law - Laws get made somehow; judges can interpret the laws; judges can make law where none exists (what?!); such judicially created law is generally binding on other/future courts

Civil Law - laws get made somehow; judges can't interpret the laws (what?!); judges can not make law where none exists

Is that right?

And if my summary is right, then why do I still feel completely unsatisfied with my understanding? Can someone shed some light here? What concept, detail or or perspective might I be missing?
posted by General Tonic at 9:07 AM on October 24, 2012

Civil law grew out of the Roman legal tradition. It has some core concepts that are not shared by common law (absolute ownership as opposed to leasehold from the king, for example). The impact of these conceptual differences varies. It tends to place more value on legal scholarship (it is much more likely to find scholarship cited in civil law decisions than common law ones) and less on precedent.

The modern implementations of civil law tend to include a code, tend to completely separate the judge career stream from the lawyer career stream (you can become a judge out of law school but the pay and prestige are not comparable to a common law jurisdiction), and tend to have much shorter decisions citing to code rather than precedent.

This varies among jurisdictions. Not all civil law jurisdictions have written codes. Common law jurisdictions have adopted codes for many specific areas of law. There is only so much inconsistency among courts any system can get away with even without formal stare decisis, but common law courts find plenty of ways to get to the rulings they want.

I think it is most helpful to think of them as historically distinct legal traditions that have acquired plenty of their own baggage along the way.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The differences between common and civil law are as small or as big as you choose to make them. It is often said that common law is "case law" and civil law is "book law" but precedent plays a large role in both systems and the Codex Justinianus is extremely casuistic when you get down to it. Conversely, Anglo-Saxon common law is firmly rooted in French (Normandic) feudal law, which was strongly influenced by Roman law. The major difference from a developmental point of view is that whereas the UK has experienced an essentially uninterrupted, organic growth over the centuries, both Germany and France instituted large-scale revolutionary reforms: Germany around 1500 by the "reception" of Roman law and again with the BGB in the early 1900's, France in 1804 with Napoleon's Code Civil. Another developmental difference is that civil law owes a lot to the French and Italian universities that sprang up in the Middle Ages (earning it the somewhat derisive epithet "professor's law"), whereas in the UK law practice has traditionally had a much stronger vocational character.
posted by deo rei at 10:09 AM on October 24, 2012

precedent plays a large role in both systems and the Codex Justinianus is extremely casuistic when you get down to it

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your use of the word casuistic, but it seems like you're suggesting that the Codex Justinianus embraces the use of precedent. Can you give an example? Blume says (page 85):
And it was provided that advice of superior officials need not be followed. "For if a wrong decision has been given," wrote Justinian, "the vice of that should not be made greater by other judges. Judgments should not be given by following examples, but in accordance with law. All our judges must follow in the footsteps of truth, law and justice."
To me that sounds like a pretty solid rejection of making decisions based on precedent.
posted by jedicus at 10:18 AM on October 24, 2012

What I mean is that the law given in the Codex Justinianus is case law. The codex is largely a compilation of imperial edicts which address lots and lots of specific cases. As such it is not so much systematic as anecdotal or casuistic. In the larger Corpus Iuris Civilis of which the C.J. is a part this is even more apparent. So in that sense the C.J. and C.I.C. made precedent into law. In retrospect you can say that there has been a steady effort over the centuries to systemize the C.I.C., which culminated in the Code Civil and the Burgerliches Gesetz Buch, but the C.I.C. bears little resemblance to those highly systematic, liberal/bourgeois efforts.
posted by deo rei at 11:56 AM on October 24, 2012

How very interesting! Thank you!
posted by cool breeze at 1:19 PM on October 24, 2012

Thanks for posting this.
posted by homunculus at 11:48 PM on October 24, 2012

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