The revival of Roman law scholarship in Western Europe began with the rediscovery of Justinian’s Digest in northern Italy c. 1070. The immense value of this text, a 50-volume compilation of the very best in Roman juristic thought and debate, was immediately appreciated, and focused study of the Digest spread quickly. The Lombard Roger Vacarius brought the university study of Roman law to Oxford in around 1149.
Faculties of Civil Law and of Canon Law existed in Oxford until King Henry VIII’s suppression of canon law in the 1530s. This left Roman civil law as the only legal science studied in the University until the eighteenth century. In the 1540s, Henry VIII established the Regius Professorship of Civil Law, one of the oldest professorships in the University. Distinguished past holders of this Chair include Alberico Gentili (1587–1608) and, in modern times, Francis de Zulueta, David Daube, Tony Honoré, Peter Birks and Boudewijn Sirks.
For centuries, Oxford practised Roman law, in addition to teaching it. As early as 1275, the Chancellor’s Court, which operated according to civil law, had come to have jurisdiction in any private law matter in which either party was a scholar – where ‘scholar’ was interpreted widely to include barbers, servants and others who had some claim to be connected to the University. This jurisdiction survived until section 45 of the Oxford University Act 1854 replaced the civil law with the common law of England and the statute law of the realm.
Roman law has been part of Oxford’s undergraduate degree in English law, the BA in Jurisprudence, since its establishment in 1872. Today, A Roman Introduction to Private Law is a compulsory course for Law Moderations, the First Public Examination in law. Two advanced Roman law courses are offered in the Final Honours School or in the BCL and MJur programmes: Roman Law (Delict) and The Roman and Civilian Law of Contracts.