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The Roman law of obligations, edited by E. Descheemaeker, written by Peter Birks, 2014


In: Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis / Revue d'histoire du droit / The Legal History Review
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Peter Birks, 27th Regius Professor of Civil Law at the University of Oxford, was a brilliant lawyer and most famous for his lasting contribution to the law of restitution. But that was just one of his many achievements. Others were his contributions to Roman Law and his great talent for tutoring and teaching. This book is a first result of the initiative, taken a few years after Birks’ sudden and much regretted death in 2004, to make the entirety of his scholarly writings available to the legal community. It comprises of notes for a series of 
24 lectures on the

Peter Birks, 27th Regius Professor of Civil Law at the University of Oxford, was a brilliant lawyer and most famous for his lasting contribution to the law of restitution. But that was just one of his many achievements. Others were his contributions to Roman Law and his great talent for tutoring and teaching. This book is a first result of the initiative, taken a few years after Birks’ sudden and much regretted death in 2004, to make the entirety of his scholarly writings available to the legal community. It comprises of notes for a series of 
24 lectures on the Roman law of obligations, two per week during a term of twelve weeks, when Birks lectured in Edinburgh as professor in Civil Law in 
the years 1981–1987. He deposited his notes in the law library. Its editor, Eric ­Descheemaeker, a pupil of Birks, took much trouble to prepare the text, which evidently had been worked out by Birks in order to be read by others. We owe him a great debt for presenting us the teacher Birks.


The book is an excellent introduction to the way Birks viewed the law. He was a masterly teacher and his writings often show the way he approached questions in a kind of dialogue with himself, which in its turn made difficult questions simple. The lectures deal with all aspects of the law of obligations his first year students had to know and as such its build-up and range is alike comparable textbooks. It follows the usual pattern of contracts, delicts and quasi-contracts and quasi-delicts, with these categories subdivided again. To this the editor added two indices of sources and an introduction, while at the end he added, very usefully, extracts from Gaius’ and Justinian’s Institutes, in translation. At the end a list of questions, formulated by Birks for self-assessment, and a subject index close the book. There is no need to present a complete survey of its contents, considering that it follows the traditional institutional pattern with which readers of this journal will be familiar. But here the parallel with current textbooks ends. This is no ordinary textbook, it is a real, life introduction to Roman law. The lectures are compulsive reading. The book teaches to understand not just Roman law but law as such, to understand how it works. There are little references to authors or literature but that does not matter. On the contrary, they would distract from the line of thought. We see Peter Birks here at his best: a teacher who challenges, then the auditorium, now the reader, to join him on his trip through law. He called it mapping the law and indeed he does so. There are several textbooks on Roman law on the market. But for who wants to get an understanding of Roman law and law itself this is the book.


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