Human rights is today the most prominent language for promoting the cause of global justice. It is usually acknowledged that human rights descends from earlier European ideas about natural rights, and discussions of the origins and development of natural rights have often centered around the contributions of canon law and theology, beginning in the Middle Ages. In this talk, I would like to draw attention to the importance of Roman law for the development of natural rights discourse. Roman law, as it was used and commented on from the Middle Ages through the early modern period, can help us to refocus on the political contexts out of which natural rights debates arose. Though generally overlooked, it also provided the foundation for specific rights enumerated in the early modern period, and a foundation for the 'state of nature,' a starting point for early modern political theory. Far from being unimportant, it will be argued that Roman law was an essential, enduring foundation for natural rights.
Ryan Greenwood received his doctorate at the University of Toronto's Centre for Medieval Studies, and is currently the Rare Book Fellow at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School. He is co-author of the chapter on "Just War and Crusade" in the forthcoming Cambridge History of Medieval Canon Law and just published an article, "War and Sovereignty in Medieval Roman Law," in Law and History Review.
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