A Distant Reading of Legal Dissertations from German Universities in the Seventeenth Century

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Scholars and students at early modern European universities wrote hundreds of thousands of dissertations. One reason why these sources have long been neglected is that they defy any individual’s capacity for close reading. This article adopts a digital distant reading approach to uncover long-term trends in the titles of over 20,000 legal dissertations written at German universities during the seventeenth century. Providing a pathway into a forbidding archive, the article highlights the dissertations’ interest for the history of jurisprudence and its receptiveness to social change, the history of universities and academic publishing, baroque rhetoric, and cultural, political, and economic history. The titles reveal a markedly declining interest in civil law, with topical issues like debt and marriage eluding this trend. Initially, dissertations were often written in dialogic form, but these were gradually supplanted by more single-voiced and monographic texts. Jurists increasingly preferred sharply delineated, diverse, and often original subjects, writing about anything from somnambulism to pearl fishing. The way in which seventeenth-century jurists expanded the scope of their writing reflects broader revaluations of scholarly curiosity and baroque polyhistorism as well as the heightened stature of an epistemic community that interpreted ever more spheres of life through its own categories.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Historical Journal
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2021