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Western European legal history


This course is about the history of legal development in Europe, from the fall of the Roman Empire right up to the modern times. As this is such a large area to cover we have focused mainly on broader themes of legal development, in particular considering the emergence and evolution of various schools of legal thought such as the humanists, the scholastics and the natural law theorists and the influence these schools have had upon the individual legal systems of Europe. Most legal systems are derived from one or other of the great legal systems that developed in Europe from around the 11th and 12th centuries. In this course we seek to outline the change in Ius Commune, or European Common law, in different times and places. Throughout the course we will compare and contrast the development of legal systems within individual countries in an effort to explain how each legal systems experience reflected the broader trends of the European legal tradition.

Module A: The Foundation: Roman and Canon law 500-1100


  • The Corpus Juris Civilis and its survival until the eleventh century
  • Roman law outside the Justinianic tradition: Visigothic and Frankish law
  • The Canon law in the West: Canon law collections before Gratian
  • Feudal law and Roman law in Italy
  • The revival of the study of Roman law

Module B: Interactions of Roman and local law: twelfth-sixteenth centuries


  • Gratian and the formation of the learned Canon law
  • The consolidation of Roman law: the Glossators
  • The expansion of Roman law: the Commentators
  • Canon law scholarship, practice and influence
  • Roman law and political thought

Module C: National laws and codification: sixteenth-nineteenth centuries


  • The renaissance of Roman law: humanism in Rome and France
  • The droit écrit and droit coutumier in France
  • Mos italicus and mos gallicus
  • The reception in Germany
  • The Dutch elegant school and the Natural Law movement

Module D: Modern perspectives on the Ius Commune


  • Early Natural law codifications
  • Codification in France and its empire
  • German romanticism: Savigny vs Thibault
  • Pandektenrecht and Mommsen: German codification and scholarly reaction in Roman law
  • Survival and continuity
  1. Andorra, San Marino and the Channel Islands
  2. Scottish amalgam of feudal and Roman law
  3. South African blend of Common law procedure and Roman law substance


Each module will be assessed by a 45-minute unseen written examination.


It is strongly recommended that you attempt the modules in order.

How to apply

You can either apply for these modules individually or as part of the Postgraduate Laws programme. (In either scenario, they must be studied in order.)

These modules also contribute towards the following specialist pathways for Laws:

  • Comparative and Foreign Law
  • European Law
  • Legal Theory and History
  • Public Law

Apply via Postgraduate Laws.

Study Material

Academic Co-ordinator

Professor Andrew Lewis

Professor Andrew Lewis

Professor Andrew Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Legal History and Principal Research Associate at UCL Laws. Andrew’s main areas of interest are Roman Law, Legal History and Jurisprudence. He is Joint Organiser of the London Legal History Seminar and Area Editor for Roman law for the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopaedia of Legal History. Andrew Lewis is currently working on an extended history of the law of tithes from the eighth to the nineteenth century. He has recently been engaged in the publication of two series of papers, one on The Zong for the Journal of Legal History, now published, and a second on the Pitcairn Island case, Christian v The Queen, under consideration by OUP. He has recently completed an edition (with Dr Iris Cox) of Montesquieu’s Collectio Juris for the Société Montesquieu. An edition of Bentham’s Introduction to the Rationale of Evidence is pending with the Bentham Project.