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Jurists, Clerics, and Merchants: The Rise of Learned Law in Medieval Europe and its Impact on Economic Growth


  • We thank Michael Funke, Dirk Heirbaut, Reinhard Zimmermann, Tilman Repgen, Vincenzo Colli, Benjamin Veal, Claus Ott, Peter Behrens, Hein Kötz, Karsten Schmidt, Robert Cooter, Marcus Schadl, Herrmann Pünder, Roland Vaubel, Jaroslaw Beldowski, Marco Fabbri, participants of workshops where we presented the article, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments and suggestions. Our special thanks goes to Axel Moeller, who helped us with the empirical data and graphs. We are very indebted to Ted Eisenberg, who made substantial suggestions as to the models used, as well as to Jim Gordley, who provided us with valuable additional information on the law and legal scholarship in the Middle Ages. All errors are the authors' responsibility.


Between the years 1200 and 1600, economic development in Catholic Europe gained momentum. By the end of this period, per-capita income levels were well above the income levels in all other regions of the world. We relate this unique development to the resurrection of Roman law, the rise of canon law, and the establishment of law as a scholarly and scientific discipline taught in universities. We test two competing hypotheses on the impact of these processes on economic growth in medieval Europe. The first conjecture is that the spread of substantive Roman law was conducive to the rise of commerce and economic growth. The second and competing conjecture is that growth occurred not as a result of the reception of substantive Roman law but because of the rational, scientific, and systemic features of Roman and canon law and the training of jurists in the newly established universities (Verwissenschaftlichung). This gave the law throughout Europe an innovative flexibility, which also influenced merchant law (lex mercatoria), and customary law. Using data on the population of more than 200 European cities as a proxy for per-capita income, we find that an important impact for economic development was not primarily the content of Roman law, but the rise of law faculties in universities and the emergence of a legal method developed by glossators and commentators in their interpretation and systematization of the sources of Roman law (Corpus Juris Civilis, Digests) and canon law. The endeavor to extract general normative conclusions from these sources led to abstraction, methodology, and the rise of law as a scholarly discipline. Wherever law faculties were founded anywhere in Europe, jurists learned new legal concepts and skills that were unknown before and conducive for doing business.

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