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

Winter 2018 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Francisco de Vitoria, Philosopher, Teacher, Jurist - Spain

Henry Wheaton

By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

The most popular idea about the beginnings of international law as we know it today is that a Dutchman, Hugo de Groot, better known as Hugo Grotius, is the “father of international law.” He is so described in many journal articles and books which do not examine the origins of international law very closely. In some texts, however, there is a claim that an earlier jurist can also make a claim to that designation. His name is Francisco de Vitoria, a Spanish Catholic priest who lived in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Without getting into a controversy over who deserves the name (another candidate for that title is the Italian jurist, Alberico Gentili – see International Judicial Monitor Summer 2016 issue – Leading Figures in International Law in Archives, Home Page), suffice it to say that Vitoria did make substantial contributions to the development of the law of nations, including some specific doctrines.

He was born in c. 1483 in the city of Burgos, a city in northern Spain with a historic cathedral (now a World Heritage Site). His mother and father were both from noble families. He became a member of the Dominican Order, the same order as St. Thomas Aquinas, in 1504. This action enabled him to be enrolled at the College of Santiago, a school at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he became acquainted with and influenced by the writings of Erasmus. He received both Bachelor and Doctor degrees there, and the University conferred upon him the highest “grade” of the Dominican Order, Master of Sacred Theology. He then began teaching the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Valladotid in Spain (one of the oldest universities). He later transferred to the University of Salamanca, one of the most prestigious universities in the world at that time, where he became Chair of Theology in 1526. He remained and taught at that university until his death in 1546.

There is a university in Madrid named after Vitoria, Universidad Francisco de Vitoria (known locally as UFV Madrid). There is an account of Vitoria’s teachings developed by that University, as follows:

During the twenty years he spent in Salamanca, he faced the greatest intellectual challenges of his time, renovated intellectual methods and topics, and created a new current of legal-theological thought which had a profound impact. His work focuses on the concept of the dignity and moral problems of the human condition. He was especially influential on legal issues, but his studies on theology and aspects of the economy were also important. His teachings have been preserved in thirteen formal lessons called “relecciones” dedicated, among other things, to murder, marriage, civil and ecclesiastical power, relations between the [Vatican] Council and the Pope, war and justice [just war theory], conflicts over the discovery of America, the incorporation of new territories to the Spanish Crown and peace and respect in relations with the Native Americans. These “relecciones,” written and published by his disciples, have been preserved along with other writings.

He had the reputation of being a great teacher. He very much opposed the Spanish policies in the New World. He influenced the thought and work of Hugo Grotious of the Netherlands. One jurist in the United States has suggested that Vitoria was “the first to set forth the notions of freedom of commerce and freedom of the seas.”

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© 2018 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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