Hugo Grotius: from Leiden student to founding father of international law
Hugo de Groot, one of history’s most famous legal scholars, was already studying arts and law in Leiden at the age of 11. How did his career take off from that point and who inspired him?
The 11-year-old Hugo de Groot enrolled at Leiden University as a student of arts on 3 August 1594. The original enrolment register from the time, the ‘Album Studiosorum’, can still be viewed at the University Library. De Groot came from a rich, aristocratic family from Delft. It didn’t take his family long to notice that Hugo was a child prodigy: at just 8 years of age he was already translating texts from Greek and Latin, which prompted him to adopt the Latin version of his name: ‘Hugo Grotius’
You could say that his choice of university was in his blood: his father Jan was the university curator and his uncle Cornelis was a professor of law here. The young Grotius lodged with French professor Franciscus Junius, a theologian with an eminent international reputation, on the Hooglandse Kerkgracht.
Among the people Grotius became friends with in Leiden was Daniël Heinsius, who would later become professor of Poetry, Greek and History and a famous humanist. Both had French philologist and professor Justus Scaliger as an instructor. During his time as a student, Grotius published a number of editions of texts with commentary. For example, as early as 1594 he translated a text by the medieval writer Martianus Capelle, an exceptional Latin manual for the seven liberal arts.
News about this wunderkind spread through Leiden like wildfire. His father had contacts in the highest administrative circles, and the young student was allowed to go along on a diplomatic trip to France. Grotius was just 15 years old when he received his doctorate in secular law and church law in Orléans. When he was 16 he set up in business in The Hague as a lawyer.
In the meantime he published several important legal works, his most famous work (in Dutch) being the ‘Introduction to Dutch Jurisprudence’. Grotius’ studies on maritime law brought him considerable international prestige. In ‘Mare Liberum’ (1609) he made the case for free access to the sea. In 1613, Grotius was the pensionary (city attorney) of Rotterdam and became involved in the intense religious disputes that flared up at that time. He pleaded for religious tolerance and was of the opinion that the state outranked the church as the highest authority.
His active involvement in matters of state and religion caused resentment on the part of those in power, and led to his being imprisoned by Prince Maurits in Loevestein Castle. After three years he managed to escape in a book chest, in what is one of the most legendary stories in Dutch history. Grotius fled to Paris, where he continued writing. Thanks to his work ‘De iure belli ac pacis’ (On the law of war and peace, 1625) he is considered to be the founding father of modern international law. In this book he set out his dream for a system of laws, rules and treaties for all peoples, and the moral duty countries should have to strive for altruism in their relations with other states.
In 1645, after spending some time in Sweden, Grotius became shipwrecked and had to continue his journey over land, where he died of exhaustion in Rostock. Tradition has it that this famous exile uttered the following words on his deathbed: ‘By understanding much, I have achieved nothing.’ Nothing is farther from the truth: he has left us a wealth of legal texts, poems and historical works. The Leiden University Library contains a number of manuscripts and books by and about Hugo Grotius. It also owns some 16the century portraits of him
Leiden University now honours this exceptional alumnus with the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, which conducts research on international law. The centre collaborates with various international tribunals in The Hague, such as the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice. It would have pleased Grotius to know that his name is intimately linked to the protection of international law, even in the 21st century.
(15 April 2014 - LvP)
Law (in Dutch)
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