International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2014 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779 – 1861)

Friedrich Carl von Savigny

By: Maria A. Chhabria, Director of Academic Programs, International Judicial Academy

Friedrich Carl von Savigny was the most prominent jurist of the 19th century and is considered by many the father of modern jurisprudence. He was a a member of the historical school of law, founded by Gustav Hugo, which advocated that law is an historical process and the product of the customs and traditions of a community, as opposed to a legal system imposed arbitrarily by a given authority. Through his famous writings and teachings, Savigny contributed to the consolidation of the historical school of law and redefined relevant concepts of Roman law, developing new methodologies for the interpretation and analysis of legal systems.

Savigny authored various treatises and pamphlets that were considered important landmarks in the history of jurisprudence. In 1803, Savigny published the treatise entitled Das Recht des Besitzes (the law of possession) divided in six books in which he provided a detailed analysis of the right of possession (ius possessionis) as a separate notion compared to the right to possess (ius possidendi). In addition, he stressed the importance of analyzing the right of possession in its historical context, considering that the notion of right of possession was extended by canon law and German law to include not only property but also personal status and obligations. According to Professor Jhering “with the Recht des Besitzes the juridical method of the Romans was regained, and modern jurisprudence born”. In 1814, Savigny wrote his famous pamphlet Vom Berufunserer Zeit für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft

(On the Vocation of Our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence) as a critical response to the pamphlet by the famous Heilderberg jurist A.F.J. Thibaut entitled On the Necessity of a General Code for Germany. In his pamphlet, Savigny opposed the creation of a German code on the following grounds: first, the judicial language was not adequately developed, due almost exclusively to the lack of eminent jurists in Germany in the previous century; second the codes in existence at that time − the Code Napoléon, the Prussian Landrecht, and the Austrian Gesetzbuch − did not achieve a great success. In addition, Savigny stressed the importance of considering the history and evolution of German law before embarking in a codification, and asserted that he was in favor of introducing new laws.


In 1815 Savigny founded, with other jurists, the Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft (Journal of Historical Legal Studies). In one of the volumes of the Zeitschrift Savigny announced the important discovery in Verona, Italy, by Niebuhr of the lost script Institutes of Gaius, the famous Roman jurist. Later, Savigny published, in separate volumes, the Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter (History of Roman Law in the Middle Ages). The Geschichte was originally intended to recount the history of Roman law from Irnerius until the 19th century. Instead, Savigny wrote about the history of Roman law until the 16th century, covering the dissolution of the Roman empire and asserting that Roman law was still observed in various communities through their customs and usages, as well as in Bologna and other Italian cities. Toward the end of his life, he published a collection of his minor scripts entitled Vermischte Schriften (Miscellaneous Writings ), and a treatise on contracts (Das Obligationenrecht).

Savigny was a scholar, a professor, and held various important positions in the juridical field. In 1808, he was appointed by the Bavarian government as an ordinary professor of Roman law in Landshut, Germany. In 1810, he became professor of Roman law at the new university of Berlin, Germany. Here, he was assigned the important task of creating the Spruch-Collegium, a special tribunal with the role of deliberating on cases reminded to it by ordinary courts. In 1817, Savigny was appointed as a member of the Department of Justice in the Staatsrat (State Council), and also a member of the commission for organizing the Prussian provincial estates. In 1819 he became a member of the Supreme Court of Appeal for the Rhine Provinces. In 1820, he was appointed as a member of the commission for revising the Prussian code. In 1842, he was appointed as Grosskanzler (High Chancellor), the chief of the juridical system in Prussia. As Grosskanzler, he implemented important law reforms concerning in particular bills of exchange and divorce.

Savigny was born in Frankfurt on February 21, 1779, and belonged to an ancient family named after the castle of Savigny near Charmes in the valley of the Moselle.  At age 13, he became an orphan and was raised by a guardian. He attended the University of Marburg beginning in 1795, studying under Professor Anton Bauer, a supporter of the reform of the German criminal law, and Professor Friedrich Weiss, an expert in medieval jurisprudence. In 1804, Savigny married Kunigunde Brentano, the sister of the poet Clemens Brentano. He died in Berlin on October 25, 1861.


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