Legal History

Legal History

“This abstraction called the Law,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once observed, is “a magic mirror, [wherein] we see reflected, not only our own lives, but the lives of all men that have been!”1 Holmes believed that this “magic mirror” offered historians an opportunity to explore the social choices and moral imperatives of previous generations. This book is about what that magic mirror reveals to us; it is about law, constitutions, legal institutions, and the idea of the rule of law as separate subjects and as part of our social history.

The contemporary definitions of law fully stress its connection to society. The dictionary is very direct, describing the law as “a rule established by authority, society, or custom . . . governing the affairs of man within a community or among states. . . .” The legal scholar Donald Black offered an even shorter definition. He described law as “governmental social control.” In sum, law is a system of social choice, one in which government provides for the allocation of resources, the legitimate use of violence, and the structuring of social relationships.

These simple definitions have one element in common: they define the law in social context. Without society we need no law; without law we would have no society. The rules of behavior for both individuals and government take on historical meaning as they affect and are affected by the social order. When we look back into Holmes’s magic mirror, we seek in it answers to questions about how previous generations went about using the law to affect values and moral principles they deemed important. We tend, of course, to think of the law as something complex, as something that only lawyers and judges deal with in often obscure ways. But the internal workings of the law offer a beginning not an ending to historical understanding.

As the legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman has observed, we can think of these matters in a somewhat simple way. 4 The law can be viewed as a black box that contains various rules. Examining the chronological development of the rules would yield a literal, internal history of American law; until the mid-1960s most writers on legal history have done just that. Such an approach had the undesirable effect of confirming the mystery and complexity of law, making the black box all the more foreboding.

But the law can be understood in another way. What is important is not only what is in that box but what consequences its contents have had for the society it is meant to serve. Though an interesting intellectual exercise, what good does it do to know what went on in the box, if we do not understand what significance it had for the larger external world it aimed to serve? In the past two decades this concern with the external history of the law has taken on greater urgency. The legal historian still has to know what went on in the box, but now he or she must also address a large set of causal relationships. We want to know the law by what it has done, or by what has been done to it, rather than simply by what it was.

There is yet another reason to pursue this external approach to legal history. Law is, after all, a human institution; its history is a tale of human choices. Its abstract rules deal with the most central of human issues: the preservation of life, the protection of property, the exercise of individual liberty, the fashioning of creative knowledge, and the allocating of scarce resources. All encounters in the law, therefore, have been personal, human encounters. Its history is that of individuals caught up in the efforts of the state to allocate blame, to deter criminal behavior, to punish wrongdoing, and to encourage socially valuable activity.

The law, as Justice Holmes understood, is indeed a cultural artifact, a moral deposit of society. Because its life stretches beyond that of a single individual, its meaning reaches to the values of society. Thus, we cannot know the law only through the individuals who have administered and lived under it. We trivialize the rule of law, and we miss the opportunity to sort out the clashing views about it, when we disregard its inner logic and rules, its institutions, and its processes. This book seeks to encourage you to think about both the internal and external history of American law.


“The field of “legal history” studies the relationship that “law” and legal institutions have -wrote Alfred. L Brophy in a blog of the Oxford University Press- to the society that surrounds them. “Law” means everything from local regulations and rules promulgated by administrative agencies, to statutes and court decisions. Legal history is interested in how “law” and legal institutions operate and how they change over time in reaction to changing economic, social, and political conditions. It looks at people who are “governed” by law, as well as how those people try to influence law and legal actors. Thus, the field covers such diverse topics as the Roman law of wills, the social and economic conditions that brought down feudalism, the legal ideas motivating the American Revolution, the way that slave patrols kept the slave system in place, the legal regulation of business in the early 20th century, right up through the Black Power movement’s critique of the US criminal justice system.

The field has many subjects of study and many focal points, drawing on (and engaging with) studies of economics, religion, society, and culture.”

Thoughts on the Legal History

The philosophical analysis and definition of law belongs, in our judgment, neither to the historical nor to the dogmatic science of law, but to the theoretical part of politics. A philosopher who is duly willing to learn from lawyers the things of their own art is full as likely to handle the topic with good effect as a lawyer, even if that lawyer is acquainted with philosophy, and has used all due diligence in consulting philosophers. The matter of legal science is not an ideal result of ethical or political analysis; it is the actual result of facts of human nature and [xxxiv] history. Common knowledge assures us that in every tolerably settled community there are rules by which men are expected to order their conduct. Some of these rules are not expressed in any authentic form, nor declared with authority by any person or body distinct from the community at large, nor enforced by any power constituted for that purpose. Others are declared by some person or body having permanently, or for the time being, public authority for that purpose, and, when so declared, are conceived as binding the members of the community in a special manner.

In civilized states there are officers charged with the duty and furnished with the means of enforcing them. Of the former kind are the common rules of morals and manners, in so far as they do not coincide with rules of law. We shall find that in England, as elsewhere, and in times which must be called recent as compared with the known history of ancient civilization, many things were left to the rule of social custom, if not to private caprice or uncontrolled private force, which are now, as a matter of course, regulated by legislation, and controlled by courts of justice. By gradual steps, as singularly alike in the main in different lands and periods, at the corresponding stages of advance, as they have differed in detail, public authority has drawn to itself more and more causes and matters out of the domain of mere usage and morals; and, where several forms of public authority have been in competition (as notably, in the history of Christendom, the Church has striven with secular princes and rulers to enlarge her jurisdiction at their expense), we find that some one form has generally prevailed, and reigns without serious rivalry. Thus, in every civilized Commonwealth we expect to find courts of justice open to common resort, where judges and magistrates appointed in a regular course by the supreme governors of the Commonwealth, or, at least, with their allowance and authority, declare and administer those rules of which the State professes to compel the observance. Moreover, we expect to find regularly appointed means of putting in force the judgments and orders of the courts, and of overcoming resistance to them, at need, by the use of all or any part of the physical power at the disposal of the State.

Lastly, we expect to find not only that the citizen may use the means of redress provided and allowed by public justice, but that he may not use others. Save in cases particularly excepted, the man who takes the law into his own hands puts himself in the wrong, and offends the community. “The law is open, and there are deputies; let them implead one another.” Such are for the citizen, the lawyer, and the historian, the practical elements of law. When a man is acquainted with the rules which the judges of the land will apply to any subject of dispute between citizens, or to any act complained of as an offence against the common weal, and is further acquainted with the manner in which the decision of the competent court can be enforced, he must be said to know the law to that extent. He may or may not have opinions upon the metaphysical analysis of laws or legal duty in general, or the place of the topic in hand in a scientific arrangement of legal ideas. Law, such as we know it in the conduct of life, is matter of fact; not a thing which can be seen or handled, but a thing perceived in many ways of practical experience. Commonly there is no difficulty in recognizing it by its accustomed signs and works. In the exceptional cases where difficulties are found, it is not known that metaphysical definition has ever been of much avail.

It may be well to guard ourselves on one or two points. We have said that law may be taken for every purpose, save that of strictly philosophical inquiry, to be the sum of the rules administered by courts of justice. We have not said that it must be, or that it always is, a sum of uniform and consistent rules (as uniform and consistent, that is, as human fallibility and the inherent difficulties of human affairs permit) administered under one and the same system. This would, perhaps, be the statement of an ideal which the modern history of law tends to realize rather than of a result yet fully accomplished in any nation. Certainly it would not be correct as regards the state of English legal institutions, not only in modern but in quite recent times. Different and more or less conflicting systems of law, different and more or less competing systems of jurisdiction, in one and the same region, are compatible with a high state of [xxxvi] civilization, with a strong government, and with an administration of justice well enough liked and sufficiently understood by those who are concerned.

Another point on which confusion is natural and may be dangerous is the relation of law to morality. Legal rules are not merely that part of the moral rules existing in a given society which the State thinks proper to enforce. It is easily recognized that there are, and must be, rules of morality beyond the commandments of law; no less is it true, though less commonly recognized, that there are and must be rules of law beyond or outside the direct precepts of morality. There are many things for which it is needful or highly convenient to have a fixed rule, and comparatively or even wholly indifferent what that rule shall be. When, indeed, the rule is fixed by custom or law, then morality approves and enjoins obedience to it. But the rule itself is not a moral rule. In England men drive on the left-hand side of the road, in the United States and nearly all parts of the Continent of Europe on the right. Morality has nothing to say to this, except that those who use the roads ought to know and observe the rule, whatever it be, prescribed by the law of the country.

Many cases, again, occur, where the legal rule does not profess to fulfil anything like perfect justice, but where certainty is of more importance than perfection, and an imperfect rule is therefore useful and acceptable. Nay, more, there are cases where the law, for reasons of general policy, not only makes persons chargeable without proof of moral blame, but will not admit proof to the contrary. Thus, by the law of England, the possessor of a dangerous animal is liable for any mischief it may do, notwithstanding that he may have used the utmost caution for its safe keeping. Thus, in our modern law, a master has to answer for the acts and defaults of a servant occupied about his business, however careful he may have been in choosing and instructing the servant. Thus, again, there are cases where an obviously wrongful act has brought loss upon innocent persons, and no redress can be obtained from the primary wrong-doer. In such cases it has to be decided which of those innocent persons shall bear the loss. A typical example is the sale of stolen goods to one who buys them in good faith.

The fraudulent seller is commonly out of reach, or, if within reach, of no means to make restitution. Either the true owner must lose his goods, or the purchaser must lose his money. This question, simple enough as to the facts, is on the very border-line of legal policy. Some systems of law favour the first owner, some the purchaser, and in our English law itself the result may be one way or the other, according to conditions quite independent of the actual honesty or prudence of the parties. In the dealings of modern commerce, questions which are reducible to the same principle arise in various ways which may be complicated to an indefinite extent. Evidently there must be some law for such cases; yet no law can be made which will not seem unjust to the loser. Compensation at the public expense would, perhaps, be absolutely just, and it might be practicable in a world of absolutely truthful and prudent people. But in such a world frauds would not be committed on individuals any more than on the State.

Another point worth mention is that the notion of law does not include of necessity the existence of a distinct profession of lawyers, whether as judges or as advocates. There cannot well be a science of law without such a profession; but justice can be administered according to settled rules by persons taken from the general body of citizens for the occasion, or in a small community even by the whole body of qualified citizens; and under the most advanced legal systems a man may generally conduct his own cause in person, if so minded. In Athens, at the time of Pericles, and even of Demosthenes, there was a great deal of law, but no class of persons answering to our judges or counsellors. The Attic orator was not a lawyer in the modern sense. Again, the Icelandic sagas exhibit a state of society provided with law quite definite as far as it goes, and even minutely technical on some points, and yet without any professed lawyers. The law is administered by general assemblies of freemen, though the court which is to try a particular cause is selected by elaborate rules. There are old men who have the reputation of being learned in the law; sometimes the opinion of such a man is accepted as conclusive; but they hold no defined office or official qualification.

In England, as we shall see hereafter, there was no definite legal profession till more than a century after the Norman Conquest. In short, the presence of law is marked by the administration of justice in some regular course of time, place, and manner, and on the footing of some recognized general principles. These conditions appear to be sufficient, as they are necessary. But if we suppose an Eastern despot to sit in the gate and deal with every case according to the impression of the moment, recognizing no rule at all, we may say that he is doing some sort of justice, but we cannot say that he is doing judgment according to law. Probably no prince or ruler in historical times ever really took upon himself to do right according to his mere will and pleasure. There are always points of accepted faith which even the strongest of despots dares not offend, points of custom which he dares not disregard.

At the same time the conscious separation of law from morals and religion has been a gradual process, and it has largely gone hand in hand with the marking off of special conditions of men to attend to religious and to legal affairs, and the development, through their special studies, of jurisprudence and theology as distinct sciences. If there be any primitive theory of the nature of law, it seems to be that laws are the utterance of some divine or heroic person who reveals, or declares as revealed to him, that which is absolutely right. The desire to refer institutions to a deified or canonized legislator is shown in England, as late as the fourteenth century, by the attribution to King Alfred of everything supposed to be specially national and excellent. In the extant Brahmanical recensions of early Hindu law this desire is satisfied with deliberate and excessive minuteness.

Wherever and whenever such notions prevail, the distinction between legal and moral duty can at best be imperfectly realized. During the age of which we are to speak in this book a grand attempt was being made to reduce morality to legal forms. In the system of the medieval Church the whole of “external” moral duty is included in the law of God and of Holy Church. Morality becomes a thing of arguments and judgments, of positive rules and exceptions, and even of legislative declaration by the authority supreme on earth in matters of faith and morals. Many things on which Protestants are accustomed to spend their astonishment [xxxix] and indignation are merely the necessary consequences of this theory. We shall often have to observe that the wide and flexible jurisdiction of the spiritual power was of great service in the middle ages, both in supplementing the justice of secular courts, and in stimulating them by its formidable competition to improve their doctrine and practice; but a discussion of the Church’s penitential system will not be expected of us.

We have spoken but briefly of the law which prevailed in England before the coming of the Normans, and therefore we ought perhaps to say here that in our opinion it was in the main pure Germanic law. Question has been made at various times as to how much of ancient British custom survived the conquest of Britain by successive invaders, and became incorporated in English law. We are unable to assign any definite share to this Celtic element. The supposed proofs of its existence have, so far as we are aware, no surer foundation than coincidence. Now the mere coincidence of particulars in early bodies of law proves nothing beyond the resemblance of all institutions in certain stages.

There are, again, many points of real organic connexion between Celtic and English law even if there has been no borrowing from the Welshman on the Englishman’s part. If there be a true affinity, it may well go back to a common stock of Aryan tradition antecedent to the distinction of race and tongue between German and Celt. And if in a given case we find that an institution or custom which is both Welsh and English is at the same time Scandinavian, Greek, Roman, Slavonic or Hindu, we may be reasonably assured that there is nothing more specific in the matter. Or, if there be a true case of survival, it may go back to an origin as little Celtic or even Aryan as it is Germanic. Some local usages, it is quite possible, may be relics of a prehistoric society and of an antiquity now immeasurable, saved by their obscurity through the days of Celt, Saxon and Norman alike. There is no better protection against the stronger hand; bracken and lichens are untouched by the storm that uproots oak and beech. But this is of no avail to the Celtic enthusiast, or rather of worse than none.

Those who claim a Celtic origin for English laws ought to do one of two things: prove by distinct historical evidence that particular Celtic institutions were adopted by the English invaders, or point out similar features in Welsh and English law which cannot be matched either in the laws of continental Germany or in those of other Aryan nations. Neither of these things, to the best of our knowledge, has ever been effectually done. Indeed the test last named would be hardly a safe one. The earliest documents of Welsh law known to exist are in their present form so much later than the bulk of our Anglo-Saxon documents that, if a case of specific borrowing could be made out on the face of them, we should need further assurance that the borrowing was not the other way. The favourite method of partisans in this kind is, as has been said, to enumerate coincidences. And by that method our English medieval law could with little ado be proved to be Greek, Slavonic, Semitic, or, for aught one knows, Chinese.

We cannot say that no element derived from the Celtic inhabitants of Britain exists in it, for there is no means of proving so general a negative. But there seems to be no proof nor evidence of the existence of that element in any such appreciable measure as would oblige us to take account of it in such a work as the present. Again, there is the possibility that Celtic details, assimilated in Gaul by French law during its growth, passed into England at the Norman Conquest. But it is not for us to discuss this possibility. On the other hand, no one can doubt that the English law stated and defined in the series of dooms which stretches from Æthelbirht to Cnut finds nearer kinsfolk in the law that prevailed in Saxony and Norway and on the Lombard plain than those that it finds among the Welsh or Irish.

Coming to the solid ground of known history, we find that our laws have been formed in the main from a stock of Teutonic customs, with some additions of matter, and considerable additions or modifications of form received directly or indirectly from the Roman system. Both the Germanic and the Romanic elements have been constituted or reinforced at different times and from different sources, and we have thus a large range of possibilities to which, in the absence of direct proof, we must attend carefully in every case before committing ourselves to a decision.

Taking first the Germanic material of our laws, we begin with [xli] the customs and institutions brought in by the English conquest of Britain, or rather by the series of conquests which led to the formation of the English kingdom. This is the prime stock; but it by no means accounts for the whole of the Germanic elements. A distinct Scandinavian strain came in with the Danish invasions and was secured by the short period of Danish sovereignty. A third of England, a populous and wealthy third, became known as the Danelaw. To some extent, but probably to no great extent, the Norman law and practice of William the Conqueror may have included similar matter. The main importance of the Norman contribution, however, was in other kinds.

Much Anglo-Norman law is Germanic without being either Anglo-Saxon or Norse. Indeed of recent years it has become the fashion upon the Continent to speak of Anglo-Norman law as a daughter of Frankish law. The Frankish monarchy, the nearest approach to a civilized power that existed in western Europe since the barbarian invasions, was in many things a pattern for its neighbours and for the states and principalities that rose out of its ruins. That we received from the Normans a contribution of Frankish ideas and customs is indubitable. It was, indeed, hardly foreign to us, being of kindred stock, and still not widely removed from the common root of Germanic tradition. We must not omit, however, to count it as a distinct variation. Neither must we forget that English princes had already been following in some measure the same models that the Dukes of the Normans copied. From the time of Charles the Great onward, the rulers of both Mercia and Wessex were in intimate relations with the Frankish kings.

Now each of these Germanic strains, the purely Anglo-Saxon, the Scandinavian, the Frankish, has had its champions. To decide between them is often a difficult, and sometimes in our opinion an impossible task. A mere “method of agreement” is, as already said, full of dangers, and such is the imperfection of our record that we can seldom use a “method of differences” in any convincing fashion. Even for the sake of these somewhat remote and obscure problems, the first thing needful seems to be that we should have a fairly full statement of the English law of the Angevin time. Before we speculate about hypothetical causes, we ought to know as [xlii] accurately as possible the effect that has to be accounted for. The speculation we must leave for the more part to those who can devote their time to a close study of Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and Frankish law. The English law of the Angevin age is for the present our principal theme, though we have sometimes glanced at earlier and at later times also.

As to the Roman, or more properly Romanic, element in our English law, this also is a matter which requires careful distinction. It has been maintained at various times, and sometimes with great ingenuity, that Roman institutions persisted after Britain was abandoned by the Roman power, and survived the Teutonic invasions in such force as to contribute in material quantity to the formation of our laws. But there is no real evidence of this. Whether the invaders may not have learnt something in the arts of peace and war from those whom they were conquering, something of strategy, architecture, agriculture, is not here the question. We speak of law, and within the sphere of law everything that is Roman or Romanized can be accounted for by later importation.

We know that the language and the religion of Rome were effaced. Roman Christianity had to make a fresh conquest of the English kingdom almost as if the British Church had never existed. The remnant of that Church stood aloof, and it would seem that Augustine did not think it entitled to much conciliation, either by its merits or by its importance.1 It is difficult to believe that civil institutions remained continuous in a country where the discontinuity of ecclesiastical affairs is so pointedly marked, and in an age when the Church was far more stable and compact than any civil institution whatever. And, in point of fact, there is no trace of the laws and jurisprudence of imperial Rome, as distinct from the precepts and traditions of the Roman Church, in the earliest Anglo-Saxon documents. Whatever is Roman in them is ecclesiastical.

The danger of arguing in these matters from a mere enumeration of coincidences has already been pointed out with reference to the attempt, in our opinion a substantially similar one, to attribute English law to a Celtic origin. This inroad of the Roman ecclesiastical tradition, in other words, of the system which in course of time was organized as the Canon Law, was the first and by no means the least important of the Roman invasions, if we may so call them, of our Germanic polity. We need not doubt the statement that English princes began to collect their customary laws in writing after the Roman example made known to them by Augustine and his successors.

Source: Sir Frederick Pollock, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (1895)


See Also

History of Legal Treatises
Legal History Resources
Patriarchy History
List of Legal History Broader Databases
History of Social Darwinism
Outline of English Legal History
Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History
Online Legal Research



, ,