Münster (upm/exc)
Drawing on tracts of late scholasticism, legal historian Nils Jansen explores how law broke away from theology and developed into its own area in society.<address>© EXC Religion und Politik - Wilfried Gerharz</address>
Drawing on tracts of late scholasticism, legal historian Nils Jansen explores how law broke away from theology and developed into its own area in society.
© EXC Religion und Politik - Wilfried Gerharz

"I would never otherwise have asked how important religion is in law."

Law scholar Prof Nils Jansen on his research and interdisciplinary work at the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics

Anyone entering the office of law scholar Nils Jansen can see at a glance: hard work is done here. The director of the Department of Legal History at the University of Münster has books, journals, and a notebook spread around his desk in a semicircle and stacked up in piles. Hugo Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis of 1625 is among them, as is volume one of Jeremy Bentham’s Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy, but also Jansen’s own Theologie, Philosophie und Jurisprudenz in der spätscholastischen Lehre von der Restitution, produced at the Cluster of Excellence. On the table rests an aluminium bottle beside a biscuit tin. All in all, no set designer could possibly have furnished a scholar’s chamber more archetypically – even down to the potted plant with its drooping leaves.

In contrast, Nils Jansen seems all the more dynamic. He speaks quickly and smoothly, the Hanseatic intonation betraying his familial roots. In turn, the literature on the parquet floor offers clues to the questions that occupy him: Why and how did law develop into an independent system in society? Starting with legal tracts of Spanish late scholasticism in the sixteenth century, Jansen traces the emergence of secular legal systems from Catholic theories of natural law. “For centuries, these writings were scarcely noticed in Germany, because late scholasticism, with its counter-reformist aims, was considered suspect. But they help us greatly in understanding the development of law.” Jansen studies this using the example of the “doctrine of restitution”, which imports the legal idea of compensation for damages into the theological context of confession and penance: without restitution, no absolution. This principle was made by late-scholastic natural law into a component of a spiritual regime that determined people’s everyday lives. Priests decided whether the legal conditions (restitu-tion) for a spiritual act (absolution) had been fulfilled.

Jansen carries out important work on the sources by critically editing and providing a translation of key late-scholastic publications such as De iustitia et iure by the Flemish Jesuit Leonard Lessius (1554–1623), a pioneer of natural law and economic ethics. Jansen has been a member of the Cluster of Excellence from its beginnings, and was already a principal investigator in the first round. He characterises the atmosphere at the time, a good ten years ago, as a “gold-rush mood” – and for him personally, too. “I have since written books that would not have come out in the way that they did without the interdisciplinary work in the Cluster of Excellence. Had I not become involved in this dynamic network, I would probably never otherwise have understood how important religion is in law.”

Nils Jansen has worked in the Cluster’s Board of Directors since 2010, and wants to continue shouldering responsibility for shaping the Cluster in the future. He sees these commitments as having to do with fairness and integrity and speaks surprisingly openly about how working for the Cluster also has its downsides, demanding as it does both time and energy. “But the Cluster has given me so much in terms of knowledge, financial support, and also reputation, that I would like to give something back.”

Not having a reputation is something that Jansen – who was admitted into the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts in 2015 – can certainly not complain about. He has long been considered a luminary in the field of International Comparative Law. Jansen, who has worked at Cambridge and for half a year at Duke University in North Carolina, has written much of his work in English. Several years ago, he was offered the Regius Chair at Oxford, where he had worked as a visiting professor in 2009. But he declined the “dream job in academia” – because of his family. He saw a country that “was increasingly moving away from the European continent” as holding in store too many difficulties for his wife and three daughters. Jansen is thus at peace with himself and with the prospect of staying in Münster, and already has a number of plans. He wants to address in his research at the Cluster of Excellence legal ideas of universal justice – from antiquity to the human rights of today.

Author: Joachim Frank

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