Grotius, Matthaeus and the Secularization of Early Modern Criminal Law in the Dutch Republic

Activity: Talk or presentation / Performance / SpeechesTalk or presentation - at conferenceAcademic


Nineteenth century criminal law codifications appeared in a secular intellectual climate, where a rational, impersonal order had become dominant, with a strong interest in the relation between citizen and government. This paper focuses on the period preceding enlightened criminal law scholarship, highlighting a possible ‘secularization’ in Dutch criminal legal scholarship in the 17th century. Antonius Matthaeus II (1601-1654) wrote an influential treatise on criminal law, De criminibus (1644). Matthaeus started with a novel introductory section, the prolegomena, in which he discussed: What is a crime? Who can commit crimes? Against whom crimes are committed? The classification of crimes. Several elements of his work are quite ‘modern’: according to Matthaeus, the principal goal of punishment was the emendation of the criminal; he strongly rejected torture as means to achieve confessions; he dismissed witchcraft; etc. Matthaeus goal was a deductively reasoned legal system and he was indeed influenced by early enlightened thinkers, such as Grotius and Descartes. However, did Matthaeus indeed reason along the lines of a rational, ultimately secular natural law, like Grotius did? In an attempt to pinpoint such movement towards a rational, ‘secular’ world in the work of Matthaeus, his references to Grotius will be analyzed. Grotius is considered to have paved the way towards secular natural law, in the sense that he based natural law based on reason, ratio, ultimately independent of Divine intervention. Matthaeus did not refer to these fundamental principles in his work: perhaps unsurprisingly in a work principally on criminal law. To, nevertheless, get an idea in how far Matthaeus sympathized with Grotius ideas about a secular natural law, Matthaeus’ references to Grotius will be analyzed. Are these references related to Grotius more fundamental ideas on society? Or did Matthaeus use Grotius mainly for the latter’s description of substantive criminal law? It will appear that, unlike for Grotius, it is hard to distinguish a move towards a rationalistic world order in Matthaeus’ – undoubtedly humanistic – work.
Period9 Nov 2018
Event titleAmerican Society for Legal History: Annual Meeting
Event typeConference
Conference number48
LocationHouston, United States, TexasShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational