Friedrich Carl von Savigny (Frankfurt 1779 – Berlin 1861) was born into a patrician Frankfurt family. Orphaned at 13, he was schooled in Wetzlar, then studied law in Marburg (1795-1800). After his graduation he befriended Clemens Brentano, with whom he journeyed along the Rhine, and whose sister Kunigunde he married in 1804. This made him part of the Arnim-Brentano circle, into which he also introduced the Grimm brothers, his students at Marburg (where he was teaching until he obtained a chair in Landshut in 1808). In 1810 he was offered a chair at the newly established university of Berlin.
A jurisprudential controversy with Anton Friedrich Thibaut led Savigny to formulate his historical-organicist views, according to which the law was not merely a regulatory or conflict-managing instrument, but a moral accompaniment of the nation’s collective experiences and ethical outlook. Legislation ought therefore to be rooted in historical tradition and accord with the nation’s spirit or character, the Volksgeist (his coinage; later also invoked in the legal philosophy of his adversary Hegel). This outlook, which he formulated in his tract Vom Beruf unserer Zeit für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft (1814) and also propagated through his Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft (founded in 1815) made him not only the father of legal historicism but also earned him a reputation of championing (because of his refusal of the new Napoleonic systematization) a German national identity. (The writings of his opponent Thibaut were burned in the bonfire of the Wartburg Feast of 1817.)
In 1842 Savigny, who had been entrusted with government commissions and been involved in the revision of the Prussian legal system since the 1820s, was given high governmental responsibilities in Prussia as Chancellor; he resigned from that post in the revolution year 1848. He died in 1861.
Savigny’s scholarship was also highly important in the influence it had outside the legal sphere. His Marburg students Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm learned from him the familiarity of paleography, reading ancient documents, and a taste for older German literature. They also imbued his historicist spirit, which as a matter of course tended to trace any cultural phenomenon from its source traditions. What for Savigny was a jurisprudential habit – to investigate the records of antecedents – became the Grimms’ guiding principle in questions of language, the textual transmission of literature, and the cultural life of myths and tales. Jacob Grimm had accompanied Savigny on archival missions to Paris and discovered literary manuscripts while working there as Savigny’s assistant. Although, after his own move to Berlin in 1840, Grimm found himself estranged from the august, conservative statesman his erstwhile mentor had become, he retained a lifelong interest in the cultural aspects of legal history: the poetic phraseology of ancient legal maxims and the cultural ethnography of social control and local arbitration. Grimm emphatically saw legal scholarship (alongside history and philology) as one of the involved sister specialisms, and legal historians were prominently represented in the 1846-47 congresses of Germanisten organized in Frankfurt and Lübeck. Indeed these legal scholars and constitutionalists, like Mittermaier and Dahlmann, were among the personalities who formulated the Grimms’ cultural notions of German tradition and character into a political liberal-nationalist agenda, with calls for trial by jury, freedom from class privilege, territorial unification and incorporation of the culturally German territories then under Danish or French rule. While such radicalism was alien to Savigny’s own conservatism, it did draw on his articulation of the deep connection between state, constitution and Volksgeist, and mark the emergence of the “political professor” in German public life.
Most importantly, Savigny had helped to make the Grimms part of the genteel “Bökendorf circle” around the Brentano sisters, Achim von Arnim, the Haxthausens and Droste-Hülshoff sisters (to which Savigny was connected owing to his marriage to Kunigunde Brentano). Thus the Grimms were convivially involved in the preparatory work for the folk-ballad collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn and initial tale-gathering for what would become their Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While this marked their departure from an envisaged legal profession, the unique conjunction between Savigny’s legal historicism and Arnim/Brentano’s interest in popular literature would become the hallmark of the Grimms’ philological revolution.