Current Research in Digital History

Luca Scholz

Visualizing Generational Change in Early Modern Law Dissertations

Volume: 5 (2022)


In the seventeenth century, German jurisprudence saw important thematic and methodological shifts. This article employs a distinctive visualization approach to examine whether these changes can be attributed to specific age cohorts or whether they were adopted across generations. Interrogating the metadata of over 20,000 legal dissertations defended at German universities, it visualizes relative frequencies of title keywords and decomposes them by the dissertation supervisors' age at the time of publication. The increasing use of bilingual titles that combined Latin and the German vernacular can be attributed to younger age cohorts who entered the profession after the end of the Thirty Years' War, nuancing explanations of shifts in early modern academic language as primarily driven by the intention and initiative of eminent individuals. In contrast, the sudden drop in mentions of controversia in the 1610s was a much broader and swifter cross-generational shift, possibly indicating a shared desire to avoid association with the increasingly established genre of confessional polemics. Finally, the late emergence of dissertation titles mentioning territory suggests that one of the most consequential legal-political concepts of the century faced more academic inertia than assumed and adds to our knowledge of the connection between career motives and subject choice.

Scholars and students at early modern European universities wrote hundreds of thousands of dissertations. These printed, mostly Latin texts range from a few pages to over a hundred and accompanied oral disputations, a common teaching format in which a professor or lecturer (praeses) oversaw a student’s (respondens or defendens) public defense of theses against objections brought forward by an opponent (opponens).1 Written in awkward Latin, poorly catalogued, and often considered of mediocre intellectual quality, the dissertations were rarely held in high esteem by historians.2 Taken as a whole, however, the dissertations offer insights into the kinds of questions that the anonymous mass of scholars that populated the faculties of law, medicine, theology, and philosophy perceived as important. Collectively, they allow us to retrace long-term shifts in the themes and methods of entire academic disciplines.

Legal dissertations offer a window into the interests and methods of the jurists that populated universities, courts, chanceries, and administrations across the German lands. While those who worked with these texts long tended to focus on individual scholars or subject matters, distant reading approaches have allowed historians to reveal long-term changes that remain hidden because of their sheer scale.3 Recent studies were able to highlight, for example, an increasingly specialized and topical engagement with imperial law,4 declining interest in civil law in the seventeenth century,5 or a turn from dialogic to more single-voiced, monographic forms of writing and reasoning. One limitation of these studies, my own included, is that their graphics often aggregate the data in ways that make it difficult to identify the role played by different groups of authors. Change appears as the effect of an abstract, anonymous, and non-aged Zeitgeist rather than as the product of specific groups or individuals.

This study asks whether and to what extent the jurists’ age can help us understand linguistic, methodological, and thematic shifts observed in seventeenth-century jurisprudence. The seventeenth century is a particularly interesting time frame for such an inquiry, because it was a highly dynamic moment in the history of German jurisprudence, which saw the creation of new universities across the Holy Roman Empire, increasing interest in legal studies, and major thematic and methodological shifts, including a declining interest in civil law and the rise of monographic, single-voiced dissertations.

This article examines relative word frequencies in the titles of seventeenth-century law dissertation titles and correlates them with the age of the praesides at the time of publication. Following a breakdown of the average age and volume of law dissertations supervised by the praesides, the article turns to three conspicuous discontinuities observed in this corpus, one at the beginning of the century, and two in the years between the 1660s and 1680s.

To visualize the relationship between age cohorts and word frequencies, the article combines demographic data and word frequencies in a technique proposed by Benjamin Schmidt.6 The charts in this article visualize the number of dissertations in black dots, with the years of publication on the horizontal axis and the praeses age cohorts on the vertical axis. A color palette from a light yellow to a dark green indicates the proportion of dissertations whose titles contain specific keywords, as detailed in the image captions. The dots’ variable size helps to gauge whether keyword frequencies are found in many or few dissertations. Because the raw data is noisy and it would be difficult to visually discern broader trends, the word frequencies were smoothed with KDE (kernel density estimation). Schmidt, who applied this approach to Open Library data, differentiated two ideal types of changing vocabulary use: words that appear across all age groups simultaneously and words that are introduced (and maintained) by young generations. Changes that cut across age cohorts follow a vertical pattern: in figure 5, for example, scholars of all age cohorts began publishing significantly fewer dissertations framed as controversia within the range of a few years. In contrast, more diagonal patterns, such as the ones in figures 3 and 6, indicate vocabulary use that was specific to particular age cohorts: at a specific point in time, younger and middle-aged scholars intensified their use of German vocabulary or introduced new keywords while their elders did not. The graphics also evince a series of outliers and more isolated developments that will not be discussed in this article. While some of these point to interesting phenomena—such as early mentions of “territory” in the first half of the century—I limit the discussion to trends which are sustained and stand out either because they become more widespread or because they appear as distinctly new.

Schmidt limited his discussion of the age-cohort-language chart to a blog post, suggesting it as a way of bringing back “people” into the computational study of frequently anonymized literary corpora. In recent years, scholars in the digital humanities and cultural analytics have found productive ways of combining demographic data with text mining that go well beyond the word frequency analysis employed in this paper. Examples include Andrew Piper’s Enumerations7 which sheds light on the relationship between female authorship and gendered characterization or Richard Jean So’s study on cultural redlining which examines the role of race in American post-war fiction.8 Some polemicists have argued that cultural analytics’ preference for “dimorphic traits” like male/female or black/white and “time-variance arguments” has more to do with a technical imperative to reduce complex data to second-order classifications than with (literary) history.9 The claim is controversial and in the case of age cohorts, inconsistent with a long vein of scholarship.

Indeed, to historians, Schmidt’s method should be of particular interest because it brings a compelling visualisation technique to the study of age cohorts, a strand of historical scholarship with a much longer history. A key assumption in historical and sociological studies on generations and age cohorts has been that shared experiences, parallel biographies, and similar socialization generate a similar worldview in members of the same age cohort. The notion of “generation” offers a means to conceptualize asymmetries between “spaces of experience” and “horizons of expectation,” which Reinhart Koselleck saw as key to understanding the intellectual and political upheavals of the Sattelzeit.10 In a prominent recent example of generational history, Michael Wildt investigated the leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the agency responsible for enacting many aspects of the Holocaust, as a generational cohort.11 Born between 1900 and 1910—too young to fight in World War I but old enough to be affected by the experience of their older siblings and the economic crises and political violence of the 1920s—Wildt argues that this generation developed a worldview imbued by ruthless, soldierly, anti-bourgeois, and antidemocratic values. This is just one of many examples for how historians engage with the history of generations today.12

Digital historical approaches like the one adopted in this paper can contribute a new form evidence to this vein of scholarship. The charts presented in this paper indicate how important developments were initiated by specific age groups before being adopted by the broader profession, but they also highlight much swifter changes across all age groups. Drawing on close reading of metadata, primary sources and secondary literature, the aim is also to contextualize, explain, and highlight the historiographical significance of those shifts. Even in cases where visualization alone is not sufficient to explain a distinctive pattern (the explanans), the approach presented here nuances assumptions and hypotheses formed through close reading and evinces latent patterns that traditional research has been unable to document. The result is a more detailed case of the explanandum, another important way in which computational methods contribute to argumentation and interpretation in historical research.13

The study of age-cohort specific change also offers a way of making generational modes of reasoning operable for computational distant reading while addressing one of the approach’s narrative challenges. In contrast to the “precipitous, dramatic, breathless narrative”14 that characterizes the short-term, micro-historical, agency-oriented perspectives dear to close reading, longue durée perspectives, as Braudel once put it, unfold in a “slowed time, sometimes almost at the limits of movement.”15 Where distant reading requires scholars “to find meaning in small changes and slow processes,” the study of age cohorts offers ways of organizing and interpreting a particularly abstract kind of digital evidence in new ways.16

At the same time, it is worth noting that historical scholarship on generations has not always been uncontroversial. Historians and social scientists who used “generation” as an abstract analytical category, rather than as a self-characterization by historical subjects, recurrently invested this approach with inflated hopes of re-writing the laws of history. Critics argue that the results rarely amounted to more than “banalities, tautologies, and unsubstantial speculation.”17 More successful than works characterized by sweeping generalizations and argumentative overreach were studies of more modest scope which focused on concrete groups or specific academic disciplines.18 Indeed, one of the pioneers in this field, Karl Mannheim, argued that in contrast to the natural sciences where it was more difficult to observe generational patterns, literature and the humanities were especially prone “to promote the emergence of new entelechies,” i.e. specifically generational worldviews.19

Early modern dissertations are a particularly promising corpus from this perspective, because they were authored by members of institutionally stable yet intellectually dynamic academic disciplines. Early modern contemporaries acknowledged the prevalence of generational conflicts and geriarchic tendencies in the context of early modern disputations, where young scholars could be penalized if they did not accept the ideas professed by their seniors.20

The data under consideration comes from VD17, a catalogue of prints from German-speaking Europe in the seventeenth century.21 The metadata I obtained includes the dates of birth for most praesides, which allowed me to calculate their age at the time a dissertation was published.22 While many of the roughly 20,000 legal dissertations listed in VD17 have been digitized, full texts are not yet widely available. Ongoing digitization efforts are paving the way for computational study of the full texts;23 in the meantime, the hand-keyed metadata makes it possible to conduct broader analyses of linguistic, methodological, and thematic trends.24

VD17 is far from complete, but it is the most comprehensive dataset available, offering a unique window into this corpus.25 In the selection for this study, more than 3700 duplicates and 600 reprints had to be marked and excluded, as were all praesides without birth dates. Entries in the data that only listed a praeses but no respondent were also excluded from this study, leaving roughly 11,600 dissertations. In many cases, these authors catalogued as praesides would more appropriately be classified as respondents and their inclusion would have skewed the observations.

The corpus under consideration has one characteristic that deserves further discussion. The vast majority of early modern dissertations features two authors: a presiding professor (praeses) and the responding student (respondens).26 If both praesides and respondents had contributed to the texts in equal shares, or if the dissertations had been authored exclusively by the respondents, the approach adopted in this study would be of limited value. However, in practice, early modern dissertations were often written by the praesides themselves: for professors and lecturers, dissertations offered an opportunity to publish their work until that function was later taken over by over by journals and periodicals.27 Even in cases where a praeses did not write a text himself, it can be assumed that he had a strong influence on and stake in its subject and content.

A line graph entitled "Average Age of praeses" with year on the x-axis and the average age of praeses (moving average) on the y-axis. Blue line on a white background.

Figure 1. The average age of praesides increased from 39 to 44 in the course of the seventeenth century. Average age of praeses by publication year (ten-year moving average). Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

A line graph entitled "Dissertations Published by Age" with the age of praeses on the x-axis and the number of dissertations published on the y-axis. Blue line on a white background.

Figure 2. The majority of dissertations were supervised by praesides in their late twenties, thirties, and forties. Number of dissertations published by (praeses) age cohort. Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

Age and publication averages for the praesides provide important baselines for understanding the demography of this genre. In the seventeenth century, the average age of a law dissertation supervisor (praeses) in German universities was 41 years, though it increased from 39 to 44 in the course of the century, as can be seen in figure 1, with a surge during the Thirty Years’ War, when the average age of a praeses increased sharply and never returned to the pre-war levels. Figure 2 suggests that the majority of dissertations were supervised by praesides in their late twenties, thirties, and forties. Very young praesides were not usually professors, but scholars who had recently earned their doctorate and were allowed exceptionally to preside over a disputation to further their careers.28 From the age of 45 and upward, the number of praesides decreased steadily, although some scholars continued to preside over disputations well into old age. Overall, these patterns are roughly in line with Mannheim’s assumption “that during the first 30 years of life people are still learning, that individual creativeness on an average begins only at that age, and that at 60 a man [or woman] quits public life.”29

Bilingual Titles

Latin remained the dominant academic language in German universities well into the nineteenth century. This is particularly true for dissertations, one of the last “reservations of modern latinitas.”30 One can, however, observe a gradual increase of vernacular elements during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.31 In titles, a dissertation’s subject was sometimes given both in Latin and German, often specified by words like germanice or vulgo, as in this dissertation on signatures with the double title De Nominis Subscriptione, Vulgo von Nahmens-Unterschreibung.32 Some early modern observers derided these bilingual titles as a fashion, but among mid- and late seventeenth-century jurists the increasing use of the German vernacular was a sustained and widespread trend.33 There has been growing scholarly interest in the use of German language in universities, but the nature of this process and its causes are still open to debate.34

A dot density graph entitled "Use of German by Age Cohort and Year" with year on the x-axis and the age of praeses on the y-axis. Green, yellow and black dots on a white background.

Figure 3. The gradually increasing use of the German vernacular in the dissertation’s titles in the 1660s was driven mostly by scholars in their thirties and forties while older scholars were more reluctant to compromise the linguistic uniformity of this almost entirely Latin genre. Percentage of German keywords (der, das, germanice, oder, von, vom, vulg) and number of dissertations by age cohort. Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

The data under consideration in this study shows that, while some bilingual titles had been published throughout the seventeenth century, the proportion of law dissertations that included German words in their titles increased from the 1660s onward, but that this new preference was not shared by all members the profession. Figure 3 indicates that the initial increase of German vernacular titles in the 1660s was primarily driven by younger and middle-aged scholars, i.e. praesides in their thirties and forties. Older scholars never took up the new trend to the same degree as their younger colleagues. In contrast, cohorts of scholars who entered the profession during or after the 1660s used the German vernacular in their dissertation titles with more regularity. While the distribution is not perfectly diagonal, the increase in German titles is moving more by generation than by year.

This insight adds two important elements to the scholarship on vernacular language use in early modern dissertations. First, existing scholarship, centered primarily on discussions around language use in theological and philosophical dissertations, has suggested two principal reasons for which scholars preferred German: an enlightened desire to reach a broader, non-academic public (including women) and discontent about the disputants’ poor Latin, arguably resulting in disputants devoting more energy to the form of their writing than its content.35 This graphic suggests that, among jurists, the preference for the German vernacular was also a matter of demographics: the early increase of bilingual dissertation titles was primarily driven by scholars in their thirties and forties. These cohorts of scholars were born in the 1620s and 1630s and experienced the Thirty Years’ War as students in schools and universities, only entering the profession once the war was over. Linguists will tell us that age cohorts’ shared or differential experiences of war, economic crisis, or social transformation have regularly been identified as key drivers of linguistic change.36 This finding is thus an invitation to broaden the historiographical discussion on early modern academic language beyond intrinsic, scholarly motivations to consider the role of structural factors such as age. The generation of scholars born in the 1620s and 1630s, who also played a key role concerning the appearance of “territory” outlined below, deserves particular attention in this respect.

Secondly, the graphic invites us to reassess the importance of individual initiative in such shifts. It has been common to credit individual scholars with advancing the use of the German vernacular and other important shifts.37 Closer inspection of the data shows that while some members of this cohort—such as Ernst Friedrich Schröter (born 1621), Heinrich Linck (born 1642) or Johann Volkmar Bechmann (born 1624)—published more bilingual titles than others, this was not a development driven by individual scholars. The graphic thus cautions against a top-down reading of this trend. Rather than being the merit of one or a few eminent individuals, the gradual rise of the German vernacular in late seventeenth-century titles appears to reflect a shift in preferences that was shared across large numbers of scholars with a common historical experience.

The Eclipse of Controversy

The data under consideration also reveals changes that were quickly adopted by scholars of all ages. The perhaps most distinctive example for such a pattern is the decline in dissertations that were framed as controversiae. Dissertations entitled as contoversiae were often structured as a series of yes-or-no questions that were to be resolved with the help of legal sources and established scholarship. While more than ten per cent of legal dissertations were framed as controversiae at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in the 1610s, the proportion of dissertations mentioning controversia and its adjectival variations in their titles dropped by more than half, and disappeared almost entirely in the late 1630s and early 1640s (figure 4).38 This trend is indicative of a broader development in German legal scholarship: many dissertations lost their oral, dialogic elements and took on a more single-voiced, monographic form that replaced the motley collections of theses and controversiae. The waning of dialogic, antagonistic forms of reasoning also resonated with wider shifts in seventeenth-century academic culture, which saw an increasing affectation of more courtly, gallant, and conciliatory tones.39

A line graph entitled "Mentions of controversia by Year" with year on the x-axis and the moving average percetage on the y-axis. Blue line on a white background.

Figure 4. In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the proportion of dissertations framed as controversia declined significantly, indicating a waning of dialogic and antagonistic forms of reasoning and possibly a desire to avoid association with confessional controversy. Annual percentage of dissertations mentioning controvers (ten-year moving average). Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

A dot density graph entitled "Mentions of controversia by Age Cohort and Year" with year on the x-axis and the age of praeses on the y-axis. Green, yellow and black dots on a white background.

Figure 5. The early and rapid decline in dissertation titles featuring the scholastic keyword controversia indicates a turn away from dialogic and antagonistic forms of argumentation across all age cohorts, pointing to a cultural shift that was more widespread and swifter than others. Percentage of dissertation titles mentioning controvers and number of dissertations by age cohort. Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

Figure 5 breaks this decline down by age, suggesting that the sharp drop in dissertations framed as controversia in the 1610s and their all-but-disappearance in the late 1630s, albeit slightly uneven, were not restricted to a particular age cohort, but that they were shared by jurists of all ages.40 Unlike the rise of German language titles examined above or the mentions of territory discussed below, this was something all age cohorts changed their minds about within a short time. The all-but disappearance of controversia from legal dissertation titles acquires particular salience if one considers the context of confessional controversy and escalating political tensions in the Empire in the run-up to the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.

Indeed, in early modern book titles, controversia did not just designate a rhetorical form. The word had featured prominently in the publication titles of polemical theologians since the days of Johannes Cochlaeus and came to connote a particularly polemical and intransigent form of scholarship.41 In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the same time in which Protestant universities instituted the first dedicated chairs for controversial theology and incorporated the subject into academic curricula, the meaning of controversia further narrowed to denote inter- and intra-confessional polemics.42 Theological controversy in the decades leading up to the Thirty Year’s War and its counter-current, irenicism, are longstanding fields of research, with recent scholarship placing particular emphasis on the role of conflict in Protestant identity formation.43 The work of irenical theologians who rejected acrimonious confessional polemics in favour of peaceful dialogue has received considerable scholarly attention. Similar tensions among jurists (Kontroversjurisprudenz) have been studied less, but the simultaneous all-but-disappearance of controversia from the titles of legal dissertations at the same time as the word acquired a distinctively confessional connotation may well indicate a shared desire to avoid association with religious polemics in a collective move to what one could term “methodological irenicism.” That trend suggests that irenical dispositions may have had a much wider traction in jurisprudence than previously assumed.44


In addition to the linguistic and methodological developments discussed so far, early modern law dissertations also indicate shifts in jurists’ thematic interests. In the seventeenth century, the number of public law dissertations published in the German lands increased substantially. As political conflict and communication in the Holy Roman Empire were increasingly framed in legal terms, administrations at all levels—imperial, territorial, and others—required legal experts trained in dealing with highly specific problems and forms of communication.45 The largest cluster of public law dissertations was concerned with imperial law, around half of which concerned the Imperial Estates, their prerogatives, and the relationship among themselves as well as with the Empire. The notion of territorial superiority (Landeshoheit) played a key role in the legal-political conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century, the princes’ power was increasingly understood not as emanating from their jurisdiction or as a bundle of diverse (regalian) rights and prerogatives—from safe-conduct to mining—but as the comprehensive dominion over a territory.46 The Peace of Westphalia codified the concept as ius territorii et superioritatis.

A dot density graph entitled "Mentions of territorium by Age Cohort and Year" with year on the x-axis and the age of praeses on the y-axis. Green, yellow and black dots on a white background.

Figure 6. The relatively late appearance of dissertation titles mentioning “territory” among a particularly young cohort of scholars in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War speaks to the expanding career prospects for young lawyers in the administrations of the Imperial Estates. Percentage of dissertation titles mentioning territo and number of dissertations by age cohort. Excluded: reprints, duplicates, entries with fewer than two authors, entries without praeses birth date. Data source: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (2020).

The pattern visible in figure 6 is noteworthy for three reasons. Firstly, while some dissertations on territorial superiority had been published in the first half of the century, it shows that territory only began to appear regularly in dissertation titles from the 1660s onward. Most of these texts discussed territorial superiority, but they also include dissertations on transit rights, servitudes, and different aspects of inter-polity relations.47 Of course, questions concerning territorial rights had long been discussed in dissertations that did not mention the word in their title. However, territory’s late appearance in the dissertation titles is surprising, given that the concept had already played a key role in the legal-philosophical literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from Zasius to Reinking, and rose to new prominence when the stipulations of the Westphalian Peace employed the language of territory to empower the Imperial Estates in the exclusive control over their dominions.48

Second, the graphic shows that the late appearance of territory in the dissertation titles was a distinctly generational phenomenon. Dissertation titles mentioning territory were published with regularity from the 1660s onward, but almost exclusively by praesides in their twenties and thirties. It was not until later that territorium and territorialis appeared more consistently in the dissertation titles of other age cohorts. A closer inspection of the data shows that it was jurists like the twenty-three-year-old Georg Engelbrecht at Greifswald or the thirty-one-year-old Hulderich von Eyben at Giessen who stood at the beginning of this trend, respectively with an extensive discussion of territorial rights49 and a lengthy comparison between dominion of the Imperial Estates over their territories and the prerogatives of the emperor.50 That territory was re-introduced into dissertation titles mostly by a young cohort of scholars over a decade after the Thirty Year’s War indicates that one of the most consequential legal-political concepts of the mid-seventeenth century faced more academic inertia than the historiographical emphasis on territorial superiority and its cognate concepts would suggest. It is important to note that the scholars behind this shift—young men who entered the profession at the end of the Thirty Years War—belonged to the same age cohorts that furthered the use of German vernacular titles, a circumstance that warrants further research into the academic preferences and biographies of this generation.

Third, the prominent placement of territory in the titles of dissertations by younger scholars adds to a pragmatic theory about why jurists chose the subjects on which they worked. It has been argued that jurists preferred topical subjects that appealed to imperial or territorial authorities to improve their career prospects or transition into administrative roles.51 Figure 6 suggests that age may have played a key role in a choice that made particular sense early in a jurist’s career. Indeed, most of the young praesides who placed the language of territory so prominently in their dissertations in the 1660s and 1670s later took on important positions in territorial administrations.52 The wider implication is that younger jurists may have played a particularly important role as intellectual conduits between academic jurisprudence and policy and that when studying processes of reception between territorial administrations and legal scholarship it may be worth to pay particular attention to the work of younger scholars.


The charts presented in this article employed a series of Lexis diagrams to examine whether linguistic, methodological, and thematic shifts in the titles of catalogued early modern legal dissertations were specific to certain age cohorts or whether they were adopted across generations.

Two distinctive developments in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War—the increasing use of bilingual titles that combined Latin and the German vernacular, and the late emergence of dissertations mentioning territorium—can be attributed to the young age cohorts who entered the profession after the Thirty Years’ War had ended, at a time when the number of catalogued dissertations expanded, and the professoriate rejuvenated. The cohort-specific increase of German language titles suggests that conventional explanations for shifts in early modern academic language as primarily driven by scholarly motives, immanent to academia, should be complemented by a consideration of structural factors such as age and the political, social, and economic forces it mediates. The graphic also cautions against overemphasizing the initiative of individual scholars, as the use of German in the titles appears to be shared across large groups of scholars. The late appearance of territorium or territorialis in the titles is not just surprising because of the concept’s eminent role in the Westphalian Peace: that it had to be (re)introduced by a young cohort of scholars suggests that among established jurists, one of the most consequential legal-political concepts of the mid-seventeenth century faced more academic inertia than could be assumed. The pattern also adds to what we know about career motives and subject choice: in this case, it was primarily younger scholars who chose to work on a subject that could improve their academic career prospects or allow them to transition into the imperial or territorial bureaucracies. In a broader sense, this begs the question whether younger scholars may have played a particularly important role as conduits between academic scholarship and policy. In contrast, the sudden drop in mentions of controversia in the 1610s indicates a cross-generational cultural shift that was remarkably broad and swift. This happened in the same years as the meaning of controversia narrowed to denote confessional polemics among theologians and began to be institutionalized in dedicated chairs, possibly indicating a shared desire among jurists to avoid association with religious polemics.

As a contribution to digital history, the charts discussed in this paper illustrate how a visual decomposition of lexical shifts by age can document patterns imperceptible to traditional research and prompt new insight into the history of dissertations, legal scholarship, academic publishing, and universities.


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The author would like to thank Hanspeter Marti, Ryan Heuser, Stefan Hessbrüggen-Walter, Gerardo Serra, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors at Current Research in Digital History for their helpful comments in preparing this manuscript.

  1. Marti, “Disputation,” 866–80. 

  2. Horn, Disputationen und Promotionen; Koppitz, “Ungehobene Schätze,” 29–39. 

  3. The pioneer in this domain was the legal historian Filippo Ranieri. Ranieri, “Juristische Universitätsdisputationen,” 162, 164. 

  4. Härter, “Ius publicum,” 485–528. 

  5. Scholz, “Distant Reading.” 

  6. Schmidt, “Age Cohort and Vocabulary Use.” This “cohort semantics” approach combines a more traditional emphasis on demographic data with a more recent emphasis on text mining. 

  7. Piper, Enumerations

  8. So, Redlining Culture

  9. Da, “Critical Response III.” 

  10. Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft

  11. Wildt, Generation des Unbedingten

  12. For an interdisciplinary sample, see: Jureit, Generationen

  13. Arguing with Digital History working group, “Digital History and Argument.” 

  14. Braudel, “Longue Durée,” 727. 

  15. Braudel, “Longue Durée,” 734. 

  16. Moretti, “Style, Inc.,” 145. 

  17. Jaeger, “Generations,” 273. One of the works criticized by Jaeger is Wilhelm Pinder’s generational theory of European art history: Pinder, Das Problem der Generation

  18. Jaeger, “Generations,” 287–88. 

  19. Mannheim, “Generations,” 319. 

  20. Brachvogel and Borne, De usu et abusu disputandi, ch. 3, § 38. 

  21. These are the dissertations tagged as ‘Dissertation:jur.’ as of February 2020. VD17 is an abbreviation for Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts

  22. Unfortunately, the birth dates of respondents are far less densely documented than those of the praesides. This makes it difficult to examine whether and how the age gaps between praesides and respondents affected methodological and thematic preferences. 

  23. Engl, “Volltexte für die Frühe Neuzeit.” 

  24. Stefan Hessbrüggen-Walter, for example, has recently conducted a computational study on interdisciplinarity in philosophical dissertations. See: Hessbrüggen-Walter, “Interdisciplinarity in the 17th Century.” 

  25. The Max Planck Institute for Legal History in Frankfurt catalogued a higher number of dissertations (over 35,000 entries for the seventeenth century), but these include a much larger proportion of duplicates and reprints (up to 60 per cent). See Härter, “Ius publicum”, 490–2. 

  26. While the title page, dedications, and other corollaries do occasionally hint to the actual author, determining who wrote a text is difficult and frequently impossible. See: Schubart-Fikentscher Autorschaft; Marti, “Autorschaftsfrage,” 251–74. 

  27. Amedick, “Juristische Dissertationen,” 90–1. 

  28. Härter, “Ius publicum,” 512. 

  29. Mannheim, “Generations,” 278. 

  30. Marti, “Lateinsprachigkeit,” 62. 

  31. Marti, “Lateinsprachigkeit,” 50. 

  32. Amsel and Hoepner, De Nominis Subscriptione, Vulgo von Nahmens-Unterschreibung

  33. Scholz, “Distant Reading,” 23–25. 

  34. See, for example: Prinz and Schiewe, Vernakuläre Wissenschaftskommunikation; Schiewe, Sprachenwechsel

  35. See, for example: Marti, “Lateinsprachigkeit”; Alvermann, “Latein und Deutsch.” 

  36. See: Eckert, “Age.” 

  37. Among seventeenth-century jurists, Christian Thomasius is often credited for his embrace of German language teaching. See, for example: Pörksen, “Übergang,” Marti, “Kommunikationsnormen,” 332. 

  38. Scholz, “Distant Reading,” 18–22. 

  39. Beetz, Rhetorische Logik, 89–108. 

  40. Not all variation in later decades can be meaningfully interpreted, but the temporary upticks in the 1630s and the 1680s (both visible in figures 4 and 5) reflect two series of dissertations published respectively by Justus Sinold (in his early forties), Johann Christoph Boltz (in his late twenties and early thirties), both framed as controversiae

  41. See: Walter, “Kontroversliteratur,” 38–42; Köpf, “Kontroverstheologie,” 1651–1653. 

  42. See: Rauschenbach, “Gemeinsame Gegner,” 159. 

  43. One of the most prominent examples is the project “Controversia et Confessio” at the University of Mainz, led by Irene Dingel:

  44. I thank Hanspeter Marti for pointing me to the parallels with irenical and polemic theology. Further studies on neighboring faculties could probe this hypothesis and examine whether a similar development can also be observed in dissertations published in theology, philosophy, or even medicine. 

  45. Härter, “Ius publicum,” 498. 

  46. Willoweit, Rechtsgrundlagen, 124. 

  47. Even after 1660, the number of dissertations that placed the word territorium and its adjectival variations in their title was remarkably low given the territorial language with which jurists commonly framed the Imperial Estates’ claims to superiority and non-violability of borders. 

  48. For an English-language discussion of territory in sixteenth-and-seventeenth-century European thought, see: Elden, Birth of Territory, 279–321. 

  49. Engelbrecht and Gerdes, De iure territorii

  50. von Eyben and von der Schulenburg, De Origine Illustris Illius Regulae

  51. Härter, “Ius publicum,” 486–487. 

  52. Georg Engelbrecht joined the Swedish Pomeranian courts at Greifswald in 1663 and Wismar in 1664. Hulderich von Eyben was appointed as councilor to the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1669. Other examples include Ernst Friedrich Schröter, Johann Christoph Falckner, and Johann Wolfgang Textor (the Elder). 


Luca Scholz, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, University of Manchester,, ORC ID logo0000-0001-5089-0089