Essays in Legal History*
Bill Long, M. Div., Ph. D., J. D.
[*More essays on legal history or history are here.]
I began working on this page early in December 2004. I am committed to studying, teaching and writing about legal history because, in my mind, law consists of little else. My ambitions for this page include essays on three topics: (1) the common law tradition in England, primarily focusing on the period from the time of the Normal conquest until about 1700; (2) the Roman law tradition, beginning with the Twelve Tables but emphasizing the work of the jurists in the first few centuries CE and the great work of Justinian in the 6th century CE; and (3) the American legal tradition, with many essays (planned at this stage) from every century of our collective history. The goal is to make legal concepts clear and accessible, either through unfolding a statute, reviewing some cases or presenting the lives and (mis)fortunes of individuals whose lives intersected with the life of the law. The law is never so real or so alive as when its history is made clear.
But it is not my purpose simply to "cover" the ground which might normally be covered in an introductory course on the subject. Of course there will be overlap between what I do here and what any basic course would do. But I seek more. I seek cases, laws, individuals who will highlight important legal issues. In some instances I focus on issues that no class will treat, but I think the issues important because they make law alive. For example, my four essays on Treason and the case of the Rev. Edmund Peacham from 1615 are a window into royal insecurity, Puritan impatience with monarchy, English civil procedure law and the minds of some of the "biggest personalities" (such as Coke and Bacon) of the seventeenth century. I am committed to writing essays that, in almost all cases, do not exceed 1000 words because I want to leave the reader with only a few points as s/he reads. Short essays are apt for our time. You learn something new in 5-10 minutes. You can return to it in your mind throughout the day. You can then move on to other essays.
Sometimes, however, I just want to have fun. For example, I wrote my essay on "ignoramus" not only because I wanted to search out the history of a term that was often ringing in my ears as a youth, but because it again provided an insight into a certain time in English legal history when the Court of Chancery (equity) was flourishing at the expense of the King's Bench. Again, in trying to understand some of the intricacies of the ancient English land law, I have written some essays on Ancient Tenure, which is a humorous overview of a complex subject. However, unless you understand the ways that the feudal incidents, taken so seriously in the 12th and 13th centuries, "degenerated" into almost meaningless forms of service within a few centuries, you tend to have an excessively sterile view of the development of English law.
What is Really at Stake
At stake here is a new way of conceptualizing knowledge--one that seeks to combine "big events," "big people," "little people," "humor," "our own personal experience," "primary texts," "awareness of scholarship," and what I call an "angled approach" to history--to give us a rich understanding of history as a living subject. My ultimate hope in these pages throughout my web site is that if a serious undergraduate student studies them closely and follows up the numerous hints here for further work, s/he may be prepared for doctoral work in at least a dozen fields. For those who are older or have different interests, these pages are meant to provide mostly new and sometimes arresting pieces of historical information to enrich life and understanding of the past.
There is a lot of information here; do not let the brevity and clarity of each essay fool you into thinking that brief and clear are to be associated with banal and simplistic. Careful reflection on the essays here will give you more historical insight into law than more than 99% of your fellow citizens and probably a like percentage of lawyers. My essays on Jursiprduence also contain much information on legal history. In addition, several essays in my pages on "Words" have discussions on issues in legal history.
But these essays are meant to be just that--"probes" into topics, "attempts" to say some things that have sometimes been said more eloquently by other people but usually have been said by no one or very few people. I do not plan to discover and reveal new texts here, though I think that my "take" on things will provide the basis for you to build your own theories that will differ from "standard" treatments of a period or a phenomenon. My "bottom line," therefore, is my desire to help you to think through your approach to law and history, and to use my essays as a springboard for your own mature thought. I will be most satisfied if ultimately you leave these essays behind and discover your own rhythms, topics, texts, figures, cases, laws and problems in legal or other history.
In short, I want these essays to be provocative and stimulating--to lead you to see that scholarship about the past is wide open and invites you in to the discussion seminar. When you catch this fundamental "wide-open" reality about historical study, it is as if you have discovered a beautiful pristine natural vista which others have left almost undisturbed. You then have the privilege of shaping the future of the world because you can shape our understanding of our past. In that spirit I invite you to these pages and hope that you will find a rhythm in reading and studying that works well for you. Read them and study them until you need them no longer to do your own work. Tell me your experiences. I will be happy to hear about them.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long