Valentina Vadi

Image (cc0 1.0) Universal

Object: Grotius’ Book Chest
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Visitors at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are often startled by the book chest of Hugo Grotius, which is exhibited amidst the finest paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Most visitors are not jurists let alone experts in international law or legal history. What they see is a rather simple wooden box. Yet, when international lawyers visit the museum, they inevitably gravitate toward the book chest.[1] Once used for storing books, the large, solid box inexorably captures their imagination.

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) is deemed to be one of the founders of international law. Considered ‘the miracle of Holland’, he wrote treatises which deeply influenced the development of international law as we know it. Imprisoned for his religious beliefs — as he was considered to be too ‘Catholic’ by the Reformers and too ‘Protestant’ by the Catholics — he aptly escaped by hiding in a book chest, which his wife used to send him while he was serving his prison sentence.

While Grotius’ life and work are renowned among international lawyers, what is less known is the source of his inspiration. Grotius was an erudite and an avid reader. How did he use previous sources to develop his own thinking? This study aims to contribute to ongoing investigations on early modern international law. It also illustrates that the roots of international law may be more pluralistic than we may have thought.

Usually considered as the evidence and the tool of an incredible escape, Grotius’ book chest also shows that he was an erudite and avid reader. The existing letters that Grotius wrote to his relatives show that Grotius managed to purposefully read specific books, for writing his masterpiece, the De iure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace).

The principal benefit of using the visual for illustrating specific legal issues lies in the fact that a picture is worth a thousand words. The book chest powerfully epitomises a promise of freedom. Books have an emancipatory potential. They can improve our lives, by making us better human beings. In Grotius’ case, reading books provided him inspiration, relief, and ultimately a way to escape. At the same time, the book chest epitomises the imaginative ways that some religious refugees have come up with to save their own lives. While it reminds us of the dangers of religious intolerance, it also highlights the importance of solidarity. Two brave women enabled Grotius’ flight— Maria van Reigersbergen, and Elsje van Houwing, Grotius’ wife and maid, respectively—. Finally, the book chest is a powerful reminder that ‘no man is an island’; rather, scholars are much indebted to their predecessors. Acknowledging our predecessors is the only way to find our own originality.

There are some research limitations associated with using the book chest in this way. The chest does not have outstanding legal, economic or artistic value per se. Moreover, it cannot constitute the sole object of analysis. At the end of the day, it was a mere container of books. It does not indicate which books Grotius was reading in prison. Rather, the book chest is a starting point for an in-depth analysis of written sources. Grotius’ letters to his relatives shed light on the content of the book chest.

Despite some material limitations, Grotius’ book chest has deep symbolic meanings and immaterial value. It can constitute a meaningful tool of investigation and a useful key for unveiling the complex roots of international law. Therefore, its use can contribute to the study of the history(ies) of international law.