Gotha Research Centre Religion, Society, and World Relations Knowledge, Spaces, and Media

Institutionalising the law of nature and nations: The universities of Kiel, Greifswald and Rostock 1648–1806

The project is about the history of the teaching of natural law at the three north German universities in Kiel, Greifswald and Rostock during the period 1648–1806. It is concerned with why, how and to what extent this academic discipline developed in three different political settings along the Baltic coast. The project is based on the general presumption that natural law was of great significance for the period’s intellectual development and state building endeavours. The general aim of the project is to show that “modern” natural law, even at smaller north German universities, was playing an important role in this matter.

07/2022 - 06/2026

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) :
350 000 Euro

Project management

Besides establishing that much natural law was taught, the questions are what was taught? Why was it taught, and under which circumstances? And did it differ due to the different political situations in the region? It is generally known that natural law was instrumental in the development of “modern” states, but during the early modern period there were many different kinds of states; from small struggling princely states and free city states to larger conglomerate states and empires. Likewise, academic natural law was not a coherent phenomenon or one set of ideas as recent scholarship has shown, but consisted of a variety of thoughts and ideas that were formulated to legitimise social and political structures. The question is to what degree was the institutionalisation of natural law dependent on the political needs of the State, and vice versa to what degree was the development of early modern states dependent on certain academic teachings in natural law?

The research intends to examine this by focusing on three specific objectives: (a) an appraisal of the institutional history of natural law that will question how, why and to what degree natural law was institutionalised at the north German universities; (b) an examination of the prosopographical history of natural law to identify who taught natural law, when it was taught and where; and (c) an assessment of the intellectual and academic history of natural law to investigate what was taught and why. The research will attain these objectives first by profiling the north German natural law academics and analysing their bio-bibliographical data in a prosopographical database, which has already been created for this purpose. Second, the examination will be extended by analysing the institutional, intellectual and personal source material – archival as well as printed – related to the natural law scholars and their institutions.

Thus, the study combines intellectual history with prosopography and the history of universities in a comparative study. In so doing, the research goes well beyond the ‘great mind’ studies with their restrictive intellectual, geographical and methodological perspectives, thereby revealing new insights into the role and function of early modern natural law.

For further information, see the

project webpage