In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Turn to History in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies of (the History of) International Law

International Law The Turn to History in International Law
Thomas Skouteris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0154


This is an annotated bibliography of materials in the field of international legal history as it stands today. Its starting point is the turn of the millennium and the emergence of a “turn to history” in the study of international law. Aside from an exponential growth in the number of publications (not least of which is the launch of the Journal of the History of International Law in 1999 and the UN Intellectual History Project (1999–2010), cited under Histories of Other Intellectual Traditions, in the same year), the historical turn may be said to comprise six trends: a rereading of the history of international law that “provincializes” the present state of international law; a move away from grand Eurocentric narratives and toward global, micro, and subaltern histories; a renewed interest in socio-historical accounts of the profession; a (re-)turn to the archive; a reflection on epistemic questions; and a recognition of the significance of the field’s historical consciousness for its legitimacy and vitality. Pre-1990s materials have been excluded. Histories of internationalism from the perspective of adjacent disciplines (e.g., international relations, globalization studies, political science, postcolonial studies) and histories of other branches of law (e.g., private, public, and constitutional law) have also been excluded. The article does not distinguish between historiography proper (i.e., historiography written by professional legal historians) and legal work that uses history as a central part of the argument. This is because the interrogation of traditional distinctions (e.g., lawyer/historian, legal/historiographical work, intellectual/events/ideas history) is a defining characteristic of the historical turn. Agents of the turn are, more often than not, jurists who do not identify themselves as salaried legal historians. The vitality of the turn to history is partly owed to the latent acknowledgment that legal argument is almost always historical but also to the perceived potential of history as a tool of critique rather than merely as an end in itself. The article focuses on publications in English with occasional references to other language materials. Literature in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, to name a few, is quite extensive and requires separate entries for comprehensive coverage (the Max Planck Institute on Legal History series of Studien zur Geschichte des Völkerrechts alone numbers thirty-three volumes at the time of writing). Materials have been arranged in sections that reflect the thematics that prevail in the scholarship under review rather than standard library classifications.

Current Debates in the History of International Law

The turn to history has brought about an unprecedented debate on the state and the methods of international legal history. Not unlike other turns in the humanities and social sciences, epistemic debates of this sort help distinguish between newer and older forms of engagement, stake out the parameters of the paradigm change, and translate the politics and urgency of the turn to the broader academic community. Epistemic debates in the turn to history revolve around five core themes: first, the question of whether the discipline has undergone (or not) a turn to history and the consequences of such a turn; second, the methodological innovations of the new form of engagement with history; third, the debate on the relationship between international law and history or, the manner in which legal and historical argument are intertwined; fourth, how to deal with the perennial problem of Eurocentrism in the postcolonial condition; and, fifth, the debate on the origins of international law or the question of when (and how) was the discipline born. This article will examine the five debates in turn.

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