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Working paper

The functional method to study general part of contract law in historical perspective: pro et contra

Comparative legal history is a fashionable new discipline which aims at a better understanding of the law's past by comparing similarities and differences of legal phenomena in two or more jurisdictions beyond the limits of national legal histories. Despite its popularity in Europe, it still lacks comparative projects that cover both Western and Eastern areas of the Continent, not least because the methodology of such comparison requires proper consideration and cannot be simply copied from comparative law or national legal histories. The present article evaluates the applicability of the dominant method of today's comparative law (the functional one) in the domain of the general contract law of the first codifications in the major jurisdictions of Continental Europe (Austria, France, Germany, Russia) during the 'long 19th century'. This subject matter is chosen by way of example as a 'legal cross-road' of legal concepts and models, more susceptible to changes, innovations, borrowings, and closely linked to social needs. In the main part of the article, it is argued that the adaptation of the functional method to the needs of comparison in legal history becomes plausible due to at least two factors. First, comparatists mitigated the rigid assumptions of the 'classical' functionalism of the 20th century (rejecting its privileged status and purely functional perception of law, irrebuttable presumptions of similarity and unification of compared legal systems etc.). Second, many legal historians, like the drafters of the first civil codes in Western and Eastern Europe, also believe that law is more than minimally connected to social problems and manifests itself primarily through its actual application. On the basis of such premises, the author of this article discusses potential benefits and limitations of researching general contract law in the selected jurisdictions with the functional method. At the preparatory (descriptive) stage, it can be useful to assure comparability of contract law in the selected civil codes, to identify omissions in the codified general rules on contracts, and to arrange legal provisions around practically relevant issues. At the stage of analysis, functionalism can be coupled with teleological interpretation of legal norms to enable us to understand better the link between the application of the legal rules, their legal purposes, and the practical social problems serving as tertium comparationis for all the compared jurisdictions. A sketch of such an analysis in the final part of the article allows to conclude that a research with the help of the functional method narrows our perception of law as a cultural phenomenon and breaks the inner doctrinal logic, but in return, it offers a starting point for a much needed dialogue of legal historians with a wider legal community.