Translators of the Louisiana Code (Digest of Orleans) of 1808

In very recent years there has been a renewed interest in the legal history of Louisiana in the Territorial Period and the early years of statehood. There has been a complete rethinking of the sources of the first Louisiana Civil Code, the Digest of the Civil Laws of the Territory of Orleans, with renewed reflection on some related documents, such as the de la Vergne volume, and other source material.

One important product of this developing research is the new book by Professor Vernon Palmer of the Tulane Law School, The Lost Translators of 1808 and the Birth of Civil Law in Louisiana, published by the University of Georgia Press in its Southern Legal History Series, ISBN 9780820358338.

There is not the scope here for a full review of this important and enlightening work. Professor Palmer explores the lives of the translators, which illuminates much of the tensions and culture of the early territorial period, before reflecting on their work in a fascinating account of what they did.

All interested in translation, codification, and early Louisiana should read this handsomely produced monograph.

Recent Publications in Roman Law connected to the University of Edinburgh

The first subject taught in law in the University of Edinburgh was Roman law, then known as was traditional as Civil Law, the term still used in the Edinburgh curriculum. The chair of Civil Law was founded in 1710 as the second chair in law, but no teaching was offered from the first chair, that of public law and the law of nature and nations until 1711. But from 1710, Roman law has been continually taught in the University.

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The de la Vergne Volume and the Civil Law – A Celebration

A crucial document in understanding the history of the law in Louisiana after the cession to the United States is known as the de la Vergne Volume or manuscript. Your blogger has discussed it, first in his PhD thesis, and then in a number of articles.* It was compiled by Louis Moreau Lislet, one of the redactors of the first two civil codes of Louisiana, though not in his hand, but that, one suspects, of a clerk. A very early version of it, preserved in Louisiana State University, is, however, almost certainly in Moreau’s hand. Other versions of Moreau’s collection survive. See my article of 2009.

The manuscript was passed down through the de la Vergne family from Hugues de la Vergne, a notary public who became a member of the Louisiana bar, and who had at one stage shared an office with Moreau Lislet. In 1938, Pierre de la Vergne shared knowledge of its existence with Ferdinand F. Stone of the Tulane Law School. In 1941, Mitchell Franklin of the same Law School claimed that in the MS Moreau Lislet provided the “sources” of the code of 1808. This became a relatively settled view.

It was once assumed to show the legal origins or sources of the actual articles of the first Louisiana code, The Digest of the Civil Laws now in Force in the Territory of Orleans with Alterations and Amendments Adapted to its Present System of Government, promulgated in 1808; but modern scholarship, including that of your blogger, has shown that this cannot be the case. Indeed he has demonstrated the close link it bears to the multi-volume Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias compiled in Madrid in the 1790s by Antonio Xavier Pérez y López. Moreau Lislet drew very closely on this compilation of Spanish laws, with its excellent introduction, in a whole variety of endeavours, including his translation of the Siete Partidas, the medieval Castilian law book.

This then raises the question: Why did Moreau Lislet compile the volume? What was its purpose?

The references are to Spanish, some French, and some Roman sources, with very occasional references to a Territorial Statute. There is a general list of sources at the beginning of each title; more specific references are allocated to individual articles. As your blogger has shown beyond any doubt, behind the lists in the de la Verne Volume lie the lists Pérez y López provided in his Teatro to equivalent titles of law. Moreau Lislet also compiled these lists AFTER the Digest has been enacted. Moreover, research, including your blogger’s, has shown that the references to Spanish law are generally NOT to the sources of the articles. There can be little doubt but that much of the Digest was drawn from the French Code civil and its Projet, neither of which are ever cited.

One conclusion, argued for over many years by the late Professor Robert Pascal of the L.S.U. Law School, was that the Digest was “Spanish  law” in French dress, with the de la Vergne Volume revealing the “true” sources. But while some provisions of the Digest are indeed of Spanish origin, this is very far from being the case for the Digest as a whole. The late Rodolfo Batiza of the Tulane Law School argued for the origin of most of the articles of the Digest in the French Code. There is much more evidence to support this. The work of Vernon Palmer on obligations and of Asya Ostroukh on property, to pick just two examples, supports this. On the other hand, the book of the Digest that differs most from its French models is that on persons. Your blogger’s PhD dissertation, however, showed that in that book, the  puissance paternelle and puissance maritale were not “Castilian” or “Spanish” but basically northern French in origin, but with some Castilian influence. Moreover, your blogger’s Brendan Brown lecture of 4 April 2019, forthcoming in revised form in the Loyola Law Review, demonstrated significant differences in other areas between the French models and the Digest; but this was not because the Digest was embodying Spanish law in French words. Rather, certain French Revolutionary reforms were not suited to the situation in Louisiana. In fact, as your blogger first argued in his thesis, he remains convinced that, in the Digest, Moreau Lislet and James Brown, drawing on materials available, created a unique and important civil code, which they were attempting to tailor to suit the conditions in Louisiana and its needs, as they understood them. And your blogger is of the view that what they did represented an acceptable interpretation of the instructions of the Territorial Legislature to base the code on the civil laws in force in the Territory, which were indeed the Spanish laws with some amendments.

Your blogger concluded in his thesis that the de la Vergne volume was probably a concordance intended to assist attorneys in linking the texts of articles of the Digest with the Spanish law that the courts revived in practice in some instances. Supporting this is the fact that the material he used in it was also used in his translations of the Siete Partidas, which definitely had that aim. Of course, this is a surmise, but it is in your blogger’s view the most plausible one–more plausible, for example, than the late Hans Baade’s ingenious suggestion that the de la Vergne Volume was prepared to pretend that the Digest was founded on the Spanish laws of the Indies that were definitely in force when the Americans took over the colony.

This blog has in the past mentioned the late Louis de la Vergne, noting his death (see and publishing some photographs of him with the volume that he owned (see Mr de la Vergne was fascinated with the legal history of Louisiana and the part his family had played in it and indeed in the general history of Louisiana. He was a man generous with his time, and endlessly willing to discuss legal historical matters with scholars and learned librarians. He was always very helpful to your blogger, even if he had challenged the view that the volume revealed the “sources” of the Digest. Mr de la Vergne left the volume to his friend Ms Anna Swadling, and she recently generously donated it to the Tulane Law School of which he had been an alumnus.

To mark this, on 6 November, 2019, the Tulane Law School held a “Celebration of the cIvil Law and etc de la Vergne Volume”. Your blogger was fortunate to be invited and to be able to attend. After an introduction by Professor David Meyer, Dean of the Law School, Professor Vernon Palmer gave an elegant presentation on the volume and its role in the legal history of Louisiana, to be followed by discussions by Professors Ronald Scalise and  Sally Brown Richardson, exploring different aspects of the volume, including its role in teaching. Their remarks are available on the Tulane Law School website: Ms Swadling was there, as well as some members of the de la Vergne family, and a descendent of Louis Moreau Lislet, currently a student at the Tulane Law School. It was a suitable event both to mark the memory of Louis de la Vergne and the generous gift of Ms Swadling. There is a good account of it with photographs available at the same website:

Below are some photos of your blogger with an important document relating to the introduction of Spanish law into Louisiana, with Professor Olivier Moréteau of LSU and Dean Meyer, and in animated conversation with Professor Moréteau, all courtesy of Mrs Georgia Chadwick, retired Director of the Law Library of Louisiana.


* See:

  • John W. Cairns, Codification, Transplants and History: Law Reform in Louisiana (1808) and Quebec (1866) (2015)
  • “Spanish Law, the Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias, and the Background to the Drafting of the Digest of Orleans of 1808”, in Séan Donlan and Vernon Valentine Palmer, eds., Legal Traditions in Louisiana and the Floridas (2019), pp. 149-99 (reprint of “Spanish Law, the Teatro de la legislación universal de España e Indias, and the Background to the Drafting of the Digest of Orleans of 1808”, Tulane European and Civil Law Forum, vol. 31/32 (2017), pp. 79-120)
  • “Introductory Essay to the Discorso preliminar of Pérez y López’s Teatro”, Journal of Civil Law Studies, vol. 11 (2018), pp. 433-64
  •  “The de la Vergne Volume and the Digest of 1808” Tulane European and Civil Law Forum, vol. 24 (2009), pp. 31-81

Report: Water and Waterways Management in the Roman Empire Workshop

by Peter Candy

On 18–19 July 2019 the Centre for Legal History hosted an interdisciplinary workshop on the subject of the management of water resources and waterways during the Roman period. The meeting was organised by Peter Candy and Dr Marguerite Ronin (Brasenose College, Oxford) with the help of funding provided by Marie Curie Actions. The conference brought together archaeologists, ancient historians, and Roman lawyers from several different countries to discuss interdisciplinary approaches to the understanding of Roman water management strategies. The papers were grouped into three themes: (i) the management of waterways; (ii) the management of land adjacent to waterways; and (iii) the exploitation of water resources.

The central aim of the workshop was to explore the potential and challenges of studying a historical problem from the perspective of different sets of evidence. From this point of view, the conference was a success. The management of water resources was an ideal subject, partly because the effective exploitation of water was essential to both agricultural and urban development in the ancient world. Moreover, the contributions of archaeologists and lawyers combined to lend an insight into the integrated technical and legal strategies that the Romans employed to the challenge of supplying water to the places it was required. In the case of rural communities, for example, irrigation was a central concern; while cities frequently relied upon rainwater collection and aqueducts to provide for their populations. Maintaining the navigability of waterways (both natural and man-made) was also an important task. In all these cases, the construction and maintenance of the necessary infrastructure was facilitated by the Roman legal framework, which provided remedies designed to govern the relationships between the individuals engaged in these tasks.

Finally, the organisers would like to thank Prof. Paul du Plessis (University of Edinburgh), Prof. Nicholas Purcell (University of Oxford), and Prof. Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi (Università degli studi di Roma La Sapienza) for their participation and support.

You can download the workshop programme here:
Water and Waterways Management in the Roman Empire

Water and Waterways Management in the Roman Empire

The Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, with the support of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions are holding an important interdisciplinary Conference on the management of water and waterways in the Roman Empire. With speakers form Europe and North America this conference promises to be an important event in developing our understanding of a vital topic. The conference is not open to the public, but expressions of interest are

Click here for poster:

WWM Poster

Two Events in Roman Law

This Blog is pleased to note that, under the auspices of the Centre for Legal History, Edinburgh, and the Institute for Legal and Constitutional Research, St Andrews,  Professor Bruce Frier of the University of Michigan will be  speaking at the University of St Andrews on 10 May 2019, addressing the title. “What Held Roman Law Together?”  On 13 May, 2019, he will give a (closed) graduate seminar in Edinburgh on “Common Things: The Mysterious Sea Shore”. For details see and

Slavery in Scotland: Contemporary Case and Roman Law.

On 12 February, 2019, the High Court of Justiciary issued the opinion of the Apeal Court in John Millar v. Her Majesty’s Advocate [2019] HCJAC7. The appeal arose out of the well publicised trial of “travelling people” for holding some individuals in slavery or servitude. The appellant in particular was convicted for holding a vulnerable man in “servitude”. See the sentencing statement:–James-McPhee–Steven-McPhee–John-Miller. From the opinion it seems that the trial judge, Lady Stacey, said some interesting things about the property-law type definition of slavery in international law, in charging the jury, and withdrawing from them the possibility of a finding slavery.  I may return to this later, having been on the research network that produced the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery. Greater reflection on the case, and its citation of Siliadin, will be necessary before I can do that. But here I just want to note that counsel for the appellant, in developing their argument, cited Justinian’s Digest in support, D. This is a text, expounding the Lex Fabia on kidnapping, in which the jurist Callistratus discusses forcing a free man to act against his will and putting him in fetters. It in fact direct reflected the situation in which the victim found himself.

A change for the better?

Many of us teaching in Scottish law schools will have received a recent email from the Law Society of Scotland announcing a series of planned discussions with various stakeholders about the content of the law degree and the diploma in professional legal practice. On balance, a proactive Law Society is an excellent Law Society as it ensures that those undertaking legal training are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to become fully-fledged members of the legal profession in its various forms. The task of the Law Society is not an easy one, however, and, given the sheer diversity of the profession, it must be difficult selecting future priorities. In the latest round of proposed discussions, three topics are worthy of comment:

1. Legal technology. The nub of this part of the proposal is to investigate whether the current levels of “technology skills” across the degree and diploma are too “generic” and could/should be changed. Of course, this is in a sense “blue sky and apple pie”, since no one could argue against the position that the lawyers of the future will be required to make greater use of technology. But technology can never replace a sound and critical knowledge of the law, no matter which database one has access to or how sophisticated one’s word processing programme might be (not that this is being suggested of course). To understand the law, one must have the skills not only to find the law but also to process it intellectually using one’s knowledge of certain rules and procedures learnt through a period. Greater use of technology can, of course, assist with and improve upon this process but it is not an end in itself. It certainly can never replace “black-letter law” in a degree.

2. Critical non-black letter law skills. While the current configuration of the degree and the diploma deals with skills extensively, this proposal suggests that other matters (e.g. “project management”) could be added. Again, it is difficult to argue against this since skills are important. But what these “critical non-black letter law skills” are, for example, and on whose judgement certain skills will be judged to be “critical”, remain open to question. One might ask, for example, whether “project management” is something that everyone needs and whether, in light of the requirement of CPD, this could not be offered in a more targeted fashion. Perhaps rather than focusing on “critical skills”  disassociated from “black-letter law”, more attention should be given to the “critical black-letter law skills” that law students require. Based on nearly two decades of law teaching, my view is that law students need a. More time to think; b. More time to write and more opportunities to develop their writing; and c. Better research skills (not merely the use of databases). To understand the law, one cannot just learn it by rote or hope to find it by plugging some keywords into a database. Whichever belief one holds about the nature of law, it cannot be denied that law is about argumentation and that much of it plays out across the pages of books, articles, and court decisions. Critical reflection on arguments pro and contra are required. This takes time. Of course, one might argue that the aim of a law degree is to form lawyers who apply the law rather than jurists who reflect upon the law critically, but these two aims cannot and should not ever be mutually exclusive. The best lawyers are those who can reflect on the law critically when applying it.

3. Other matters. According to the email from the Law Society: “Some have suggested that as we move towards exiting the European Union that this should see an increased focus on language skills, trade law, international arbitration, private international law etc.” These topics of discussion are to be welcomed, since they represent attempts, at the very least, to maintain relations with our European neighbours post Brexit. There is, however, one topic which is sadly lacking from this list, namely legal history (both Scottish and European). In a country with such a rich history of intellectual exchange in the field of law with our continental neighbours (especially via Roman law), it is regrettable that the Law Society does not view legal history as a priority, especially during this time. Of course, a professional regulatory authority is primarily concerned with equipping lawyers with up-to-date knowledge of the law, but in an uncodified legal system such as that of Scotland, knowledge of what the law is cannot be separated from knowledge of what the law was. To any student of law, Scottish or otherwise, the past is never “… a foreign country” (L.P. Hartley). And few people today still believe that “history is just one damn thing after another” (whoever the author of this quotation may be). The past changes regularly and is therefore in continuous dialogue with the present. As such, one suspects the time has come for legal history to form a more critical part of the curriculum, rather than merely as an elective at honours level or as a few sparse comments on Institutional Authority in a first-year survey course. No one can, of course, deny that the study of history is both ideological and political. But it is precisely these features that make the study of history, and legal history in particular, so much more critical as we head towards Brexit and beyond.

Scots Lawyers, Roman law and the University of Leuven: TENURE TRACK OPENING: KULeuven, Legal History (Roman Law) DEADLINE 4 MARCH 2018

There have been strong historic links between Scots lawyers and the University of Leuven. Perhaps best known of those who studied law there is William Elphinstone, who became Bishop’s Official in Glasgow, and was the father of Bishop Elphinstone, the Canon Lawyer and royal judge who founded the University of Aberdeen. The Bishop’s father’s lecture notes in civil law from Leuven survive in Aberdeen University’s library. Another notable Scot who studied at Leuven was Clement Little, an Edinburgh advocate, who became one of the first Commissaries of the post-Reformation Commissary Court in Edinburgh, and whose library was the first major and founding donation to the Library of Edinburgh University. Patrick Panter, Secretary to James IV, and Abbot of Cambuskenneth, was another Scot who studied at Leuven, some of whose surviving law books have been mentioned in this blog: ;

It is therefore interesting to see the advertisement of a tenure-track post in Roman law at this fine old university, showing the continuing commitment to the foundational discipline of legal studies:


(ref. ZAP-2017-152)

Last modification : Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Faculty of Law and the Research Unit for Roman Law and Legal History invite applications for a fulltime position as a member of the Senior Academic Staff in the field of legal history. The assignment consists of teaching in an academic context, scientific research and additional duties of an academic nature, along with those to the wider society.

The assignment is comprised of research into legal history, with an emphasis on the history of European public law. The candidate has a proven interest in the reception history of Roman law and the history of the legal doctrine, in constitutional law and community development, in the history of criminal law, of procedural law, international law or human rights. Preference will be given to an adept of historical comparative law, who has a vision on the Europeanisation of legal science and for whom legal history is an integral part of legal thinking. The candidate will be expected to conduct research at an international level in an independent manner. Part of his/her assignment will be to develop – in cooperation with other members of the research unit – an international and competitive research programme, and to strive for excellent scientific results.The supervision of PhDs will also be part of his/her range of duties. The candidate is expected to add a proposal for a medium-term research programme to his/her application file.


It is expected of the candidate that his/her teaching meet the requirements concerning the standard, orientation and academic character demanded of academic programmes of study. The commitment of the candidate to the quality of the academic programmes as a whole, is considered self-evident. Teaching assignments will include the education of large numbers of students. The candidate may be required to teach at the campuses of Leuven, Kortrijk, Brussels and Hasselt. Furthermore, he/she will organize seminars for smaller groups, will provide the individual supervision of master’s theses and will allot ample time to the education of PhD students.


It is expected of the candidate that he/she be willing to contribute to the services the university provides to the community, and that he/she should also be willing, in the long term, to accept policy functions at the faculty. The candidate will also be at the disposal of the government, the society and the press for the provision of scientific services and information.


The candidate must hold a doctoral degree and at least one degree that was awarded by a faculty of law. The candidate must clearly possess growth potential. His/her list of publications must also show a commitment to international research in the field of legal history. A thorough perspective on and the capacity to acquire external funding is a plus. Preferably, he/she should have experience with teaching in an academic context and possess demonstrable didactic skills. Moreover, he/she must have mastered the techniques necessary to test the knowledge and skills of large groups. Experience with research-based education is an asset.

The official administrative and teaching-language used at KU Leuven is Dutch. If you do not speak Dutch (or do not speak it well) at the start of employment, KU Leuven will provide language training to enable you to take part in meetings. Before teaching courses in Dutch or English, you will be given the opportunity to learn Dutch respectively English to the required standard.

The candidate has to be prepared to acquaint himself/herself with new legal topics if necessary. The candidate also needs to have the social and executive skills that are necessary to work amicably and flexibly in the teams within the faculty, the research unit and the research group.


We can offer you a dynamic and international research environment. The Research Unit for Roman Law and Legal History is part of the Faculty of Law. The Faculty has a large national and international network, which is comprised of both academics and legal professionals, at its disposal.

The appointment is a tenured track with an evaluation after five years.

KU Leuven pursues a policy of equal opportunity and diversity.

For more information please contact Prof. dr. Bernard Tilleman, Dean of the Faculty of Law, or Prof. dr. Laurent Waelkens, Chairman of the Division for Roman Law and Legal History, For problems with online applying, please contact
You can apply for this job no later than March 04, 2018 via the online application tool
KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us at
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