Blind Justice.

AuthorManderson, Desmond
PositionSpecial Section: McGill Companion to Law

Transsystemic law takes as its starting point the idea that legal systems do not exist in isolation but in dialogue--sometimes contentious, sometimes creative. It is customary to think of these discourses as overlapping in particular places, most notably in mixed jurisdictions such as Quebec, but also of course in colonial and imperial settings. It is less well appreciated that these overlaps are also characteristic of particular times marked by the often fraught transition from one legal order to another. Transsystemic time generates its own symbols capable of distilling the anxieties of transition, and revealing the tensions between old legal frameworks and new; established legal contexts and emerging ones.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were just such a transsystemic moment in the West. The reception of Roman law throughout the Empire--professional, state-based, and systematic--overrode ancient customs--localized and divinely mandated. But this transformation of systems was not met with unbridled enthusiasm. The first known image to show a blindfolded justice comes from a woodcut, possibly by Albrecht Dürer, published in Ship of Fools, a collection of satirical poems by fifteenth century lawyer Sebastian Brant. This 1494 image is not a celebration of blind justice, but a critique. A fool is applying the blindfold so that lawyers can play fast and loose with the truth. The urgent demand, which Ship of Fools articulated, to cleanse Europe's Augean Stables, ultimately unleashed a Christian revolution and the consolidation of secular, national, and legal power. But the religious reformers borrowed the word "Reformation" from its original context: the crisis of legal modernization of the previous century.

Yet the image of blind justice rapidly lost its satirical connotations. By the early seventeenth century, for example in the Iconology of Cesare Ripa, the blindfold is attributed to "worldly justice"; in later additions, it comes to signify justice simpliciter. From caterpillar to butterfly, in that stunning visual metamorphosis lies all of modern law in miniature: abstraction from context, celebration of form, justice as due process, and the subservience of judgment to the state.

Pieter Bruegel was, like Dürer, one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance. He prepared two series of etchings for the publisher Hieronymus Cock, The Seven Deadly Sins (1558), and The Seven Virtues (1559-60). Justice is shown in the middle of a crowded town. Lawyers and notaries scurry about amidst unsettling images of public torture, punishment, and execution. Far off, the scene intensifies, several gallows and a burning clearly in evidence. The real question is this: in 1559, right in the middle of that transsystemic moment, at the very point when the iconology of law began to shift irrevocably--whose side was Bruegel on? Does the blindfold he has placed on justice symbolize its virtue, or is it the veil of a vice?

Some scholars insist that Bruegel's image merely reflects accepted legal thinking at the time, and note that his other Virtues likewise incorporate run-of-the-mill acts of hope, fortitude, temperance, etc. Such critics more generally minimize the political aspects of Bruegel's work, and insist either on...

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