Wolfgang Ernst

Picture of Wolfgang Ernst

Please write a bit about your background.

I come from a German middle-class background - my father was a civil servant, and my mother a solicitor. I went to a feeder school for the study of mathematics.

Some early nerdiness was stifled (or so I hope) when I started my own family. Today, I feel like a true pater familias, although I never tried to convince my family that we should live according to Roman family law. My four children have studied physics, economics, and law, in Switzerland, Germany, the UK (UCL, LSE, and Cambridge), Canada, and the US. They now work in the UK and in Germany. My wife works as an international family law specialist in Zurich. We have grandchildren. Apart from my professorial activities, family-life is what matters most to me.

What led you to a career in academia?

Since my school days, I have been attracted to research in general. For me, nothing is more desirable than the expansion of knowledge. Upon leaving school, I was persuaded to drop my plan to study mathematics or physics and to give law a try. It was a disappointment at first. But when I encountered Roman law, I was instantly attracted by the strength of its logical qualities. The equivalent of a master’s thesis on a Roman legal problem proved a fruitful nucleus for a dissertation. I stayed on the academic track, though initially not without hesitation. To use a German poet’s phrase: ‘And would you make me start from scratch again, the very same thread I’d have to spin.’ 

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

The accrual of research interests is a random process. Over time, I have come back to the following areas: general contract law and breach of contract rules, in Roman and contemporary laws as well as under the CISG. Personal property is another field of interest, which has branched out into issues of looted art and its restitution. I occasionally give expert evidence on foreign law, for parties and courts in, i.a., the U.S. and Israel, as well as for arbitration tribunals. Teaching in various countries, I have become a bit of a comparatist. My core research is focussed on the intellectual history of law. I follow the evolution of legal ideas, looking at a Roman concept and its later uses by medieval and modern lawyers, which is not a simple copy-paste revival, but an adaption made to work by way of productive misunderstandings.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished a Roman Sales law. I had visited various aspects of Roman sales law in the past (risk, warranty of title) and a larger project gave me the chance to draw on these earlier works for a grand synthesis. The text has been in the making for quite some time and I am looking forward to seeing the product out in print this year. I shall now turn to pastures new.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

To the question of spare time, my answer is ‘not applicable’: as my activities are not a burden, I have no need to counterbalance them with a hobby. However, I have no difficulty in ‘switching off’. I am an avid reader. Eclectically, I find good reads across many genres. Edith Wharton is a favourite, so is John Steinbeck. As far as police procedurals go, I found Bill James and recently Joe Ide entertaining authors. I have read and greatly enjoyed the Potter Heptology. While I haven’t been to the cinema for a while, I have watched many impressive movies. To randomly name two favourite directors that come to mind: Martin Ritt and Steve McQueen.

Who inspires you or has inspired you in the past?

Again and again, I take inspiration from products of great legal minds. Good judgments can be enjoyed like pieces of art. For a model expert opinion, I may perhaps refer you to George Sauser-Hall’s opinion on ‘Swedish Government Bonds, their Gold Dollar Clause, and the 1933 Roosevelt Act’, which I reproduced in a volume on the history of monetary law: Money in the Western Legal Tradition: Middle Ages to Bretton Woods (DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198704744.003.0034).

Abraham Lincoln is another legal mind I much admire. Whatever he wrote, even the occasional letter, is of outstanding intellectual clarity. His sentences roll on in a logical order, one leading to the next. In trying to unlock high-end Roman legal texts, my professional activity often mixes with pure pleasure. Among Roman jurists, Salvius Iulianus is my favourite. He is the Roman lawyers’ Mozart.