Course: Mariners, Ships, Wine and Law in the Middle Ages: The Rôles d’Oléron, a Case Study in Problem Solving and Private Law

HC 431H

Professor: James Shephard

Living on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe in the 13th would have presented many challenges. There was political instability and incertitude as the French and English crowns competed and fought for domination of the coast from the Pyrenees north to Flanders. New commercial trade routes and migration patterns put communities into competition for economic survival—and supremacy. New technological developments in shipbuilding significantly increased capacity and distance, and disrupted the old, established patterns of trade and commerce. Political instability, migration, globalization and technological disruption—does this sound familiar?

Dealing with the challenges would have required new ideas and new ways of solving problems and, thus, the Rôles d’Oléron (hereinafter, the Rôles) were conceived. Named after an island off the southern coast of France between Bordeaux and La Rochelle, the Rôles originally consisted of a collection of twenty-four judgments or rules, each one paragraph in length and written in Old French, that relate to the transportation of wine from the southern Atlantic coast of France to northern Europe.

The Rôles have a unique place in legal history because they form the basis of modern maritime law in both the French civil law tradition and the English common law tradition. The Rôles have been cited as precedent numerous times by the US Courts, including the US Supreme Court and, accordingly, can be considered as part of US maritime law as defined by the US Constitution.

Students in this course will have a unique opportunity to use and work with a primary historical source—a 14thcentury manuscript of the Rôles located in the municipal archives of Bayonne, France. This document has never been studied or analyzed. The manuscript provides the text closest to the original version and will allow us to gain new insight into the meaning of these laws.

The class will be structured as a collaborative, problem solving exercise. Each student will join a team and will be expected to work together to produce original research and analysis that is shared with the entire class.  We will learn from each other in this class and, together, embark on a voyage of discovery that will add to the knowledge we have of an important set of laws that have had an enduring influence on the development of maritime law around the world.