Going the long roads: Legal history and The History Manifesto

Cover This year saw in June some twenty conferences in the field of legal history, but now in August the congress calendar of my blog shows no events. It is summertime and scholarly life, too, goes at a slower pace and in different rhythms! During my holiday I could find much time for reading, and without events to attend I hope to read more this month.

One of the books offering itself for a reading in calm and quiet surroundings bristles with energy. Last year Cambridge University Press published The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, both as a book in print, as an e-book, in a web version and as a PDF. In 2014 I read it very quickly, and indeed its style helped me to fly through its pages. However, if the proposals and visions of the two authors make any sense, a more detached second reading is needed. What’s in it for legal historians? Do Guldi and Armitage have a message for them, or even multiple messages? What are the challenges facing the various fields and corners of legal history? Can we safely follow its recommendations and examples, or are there different directions which will be more rewarding? In this post I offer a personal view about this provocative book.

A call to arms

The opening words of The History Manifesto echo the Communist Manifesto which did indeed stir minds and governments. Both texts are divided into an introduction and four chapters, and they share the use of incisive and trenchant statements. However, with 125 pages for the main text the 2014 manifesto is really a book, not just a pamphlet-length treatise, In addition forty pages of notes and an index for persons and subjects place it in another category.

A summary of the book by Guldi and Armitage is not out-of-place here. The authors start with an introduction which depicts the humanities in a state of crisis. The following chapter looks at the origins of the modern concept of the longue durée, associated with Fernard Braudel and the impact of the French Annales school of historiography. In the second chapter they investigate the place of research concerning long-term developments in historical research between 1950 and 2000. The third chapter discusses the amount of attention historians paid in the twentieth century to such matters as worldwide changes in climate, inequality and the ways governments function. The last chapter is a plea to ask the great questions and to use Big Data in new ways that bring sound analyses for the problems of our times leading to actions for the future. One of the themes in the conclusion is the public role of history and historians in our century.

The great seduction of Guldi and Armitage is the invitation to combine without questioning two assumptions, the importance of history and the urgent need to follow the directions they indicate. I would not be a historian if I did not believe in and practice history with all its qualities. The second assumption is presented in a most enticing way. Guldi and Armitage are skilled story tellers, and it feels safe to join them in their explorations. The prophetic tone of the new manifesto brings a smile, because it makes you feel you are at last in good company with people who can see through the layers of society and open vistas of a world where historians and their research are almost bed fellows to power, guardians of the truth and the common good, and councillors with sound counsels. “Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late”. Even if there is a spectre haunting the modern world, you can find here a benevolent spirit ready to save mankind.

Guldi and Armitage are serious historians, but you cannot miss the ideological overtones of the manifesto. It would be wrong to dismiss the manifesto as nothing but a resurfacing of left ideologies. In fact they point not only to values and visions worth defending and promoting in their view, but they are also clear about the supposed neutrality of a world reigned by capitalism and neoliberalism. They point to research showing the impact of capitalism not only for the economy, but in particular also for the environment.

On the website promoting The History Manifesto there is ample space for discussion and criticism. The original version published in October 2014 has been followed in February 2015 by a corrected version with an accompanying revision notice. One of the salient features revised is a graph at page 44 depicting the percentage of Ph.D. theses written in the United States dealing with historical subjects during long periods. The alleged “downfall” of interest in long periods was less steep than suggested. One can frown about the very choice of American theses where a comparative perspective or a similar sample of published history books might have been more convincing. British and American history together provide the majority of examples, even if former British colonies are present, too. China gets more space than Japan.

At first I had no intent of looking at this book through Dutch glasses, but on second thought this, too, is useful. At page 65 Guldi and Armitage list a number of infrastructural projects “where nations have assumed responsibility for preserving life into the future”, among them “the government-built dykes of the early modern Netherlands”. The typical Dutch thing about the medieval and later dykes up to 1700 is that the overwhelming majority has been built by local governing bodies with whom resided full authority and jurisdiction. Centralized efforts to restore areas claimed by the floods of 1530 did utterly fail. In the seventeenth century the large land reclamations north of Amsterdam such as the Beemster (1612) and the Schermer (1635) succeeded thanks to the efforts of private investment companies. In the same paragraph the authors make the point that central authority is not always a prime mover, and here the Dutch dykes would have fit in excellently. This might seem a tiny detail, but historians have to deal with both details and larger contexts, especially when you want to give tell-tale details. As for the importance of the history of water management the manifesto does point to the studies of Terje Tvedt.

Short periods, long periods and legal history

Logo The Republic of Letters

Instead of picking at possible faults and mistakes it is perhaps more rewarding to look at the fruits of The History Manifesto that are interesting for legal historians. Do Guldi and Armitage look at legal matters in the past apart from inequality and injustice, and cite research in the fields of legal history? They do indeed, and I will give here a summary overview.

In the first chapter the influence of Theodor Mommsen and Henry Maine is mentioned with approval as an influence on various social history studies by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Paolo Grossi’s research about the history of property figures in a footnote. Later on it is no surprise that ownership figures prominently, for example Aaron Sakolski’s Land Tenure and Land Taxation in America (1957) who wrote about the views of major legal historians about the history of ownership. The two authors point to older studies such as Eugène Garsonnet, Histoire des locations perpétuelles et des baux à longue durée (Paris 1878) which helped Braudel during the fifties in creating his concept of the longue durée. Paul Warde traced the impact of real and perceived wood shortage on emigration using court records from many places in Europe. The series of digitized criminal court records of the Old Bailey between 1673 and 1914 is proudly present, as is Colin Wilder’s project Republic of Literature (RL) where legal texts are linked to a vast network of scholars and students and the ways they influenced German society in the Early Modern period. The datasets and the conceptual model behind RL are open to scholars for doing their own research. Paul Johnson and Stephen Nicholas studied criminal records in England and Wales between 1812 and 1867 which contain the height of the accused in order to find evidence for any improvement in living conditions. The history of slavery and its changing interpretations appear in every chapter. Using the contents of probate inventories as a kind of testing ground for all kind of changes is another example of sources familiar to at least a number of legal historians, In the final chapter Guldi and Armitage cite a possible study to words for emotions in court records as an example of future research for which historians are in their view exceptionally well equipped.

While looking for the relationship between attention to long periods and legal history I was somewhat mystified by the role allegedly played by Quentin Skinner. Guldi and Armitage present him (pp. 47-48) as a defender of contextual scholarship who attacked those favoring grand theories including attempts at long-term history. Skinner did certainly criticize those who tried to construct fanciful histories of ideas, but in his later publications he certainly did not avoid major subjects such as republicanism and freedom in Early Modern Europe, a time range of three centuries. I cannot help thinking about the proverb coined by George Bush “Who is not against us is for us”. Another saying, “Why should facts hamper my theory?”, is probably closer to the mark.

Blessings in disguise

As a medievalist I am used to the fact that results in studies dealing with long periods and major themes cannot be transplanted ceteris paribus to medieval studies. For The History Manifesto legal history mainly serves as a stepping stone or sometimes as an approved guide for a particular subject or problem. To do justice to the facts one should note that the website of the Republic of Literature, too, does in its present state only refer to the titles of legal texts as examples chosen from Roman and medieval law.

However, it is one thing to depreciate a book completely. and another thing to signal problems concerning the aims, scope, scale and value of a book. If I would make here only negative remarks about their book, I would take the trees for the forest. Guldi and Armitage express their genuine and sincere concern about the practice of history and its impact on society. The authors did a sincere job, and they could benefit from comments on lectures and early drafts by noted historians such as Peter Burke, Paul Freedman. Lynn Hunt and John Witt. You might have heard too often about crises in the historical trade and within the humanities, but even the ideological tone of The History Manifesto does not harm the main argument about the importance of choosing relevant subjects to be studied within a sufficiently long time span. Sometimes it is necessary to look just before and after a particular period to gain real insights, but even so often the micro-historic approach of telescoping into very short periods will pay off.

One of my greatest hesitations with the summons of The History Manifesto is the wish to be close to those in power, in order to give sound counsels and guide long-term policies. We had better watch out to remain independent as far as possible, and not sacrifice this for a clear role in current affairs. The results of historical research can shed light on the present, but they seldom contain infallible guidance for the immediate future or decades ahead of us.

The second major fault of The History Manifesto is perhaps more devastating. The authors highlight at several turns aspects of legal history, but somehow for me it sounds hollow. Generally I do not like to attack the main thrust of a book, but is it not very strange that a book with much attention to struggles against racism, inequality, slavery, environmental threats and the unfair distribution of wealth does not put legal history at its center? Uses and abuses of powers, legal doctrine and institutions, legislation and justice are not just at the periphery of such matters. They are part and parcel of these problems, prime movers and causes, channels of consequences to many events and solutions.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage want historians to tell stories that matter. Just choosing a long period in itself is not enough, and just dreaming about the chances of Big Data is no help, but creating and presenting sizeable answers when accessing and analyzing massive information is an aim not easily to accomplish. This book needs to be read with a red pencil. Your copy should be full with question marks and underlinings, emoticons and marks of approval, wonder and disbelief. The real question is not what these two distinguished scholars do within the provocative chapters of their double-length pamphlet, but what does it mean for your own future research practice, or from a reader perspective, what kind of history might be more rewarding than the studies I preferred until now? Combining the strengths of micro-history and a more synthetic approach within serial contextualism is one of the roads advocated by Guldi and Armitage. The study of revolutions, be it the French, the Industrial, the Russian or the Green Revolution, is helped both by studies with a narrow focus in location and time to look beyond the glamour and clamor of the great cities, and by attempts to create new syntheses building on existing studies, studies that will cover much longer periods. In the manifesto revolutions are a clear example, but it could be as helpful to look in this way, too, at the similarities and differences in riots and revolts, surely somewhat smaller events, but nevertheless often resonating long afterwards. You might find some inspiration in a post about the history of riots on my blog.

In fact studying riots can take you right into living history. The riots after the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, got world-wide attention. The Washington University in St. Louis, MO, has created the digital archive Documenting Ferguson, and you can look also for example at a Ferguson research guide created by the University of Arizona and a similar guide from Michigan State University. This university has also put online a special guide concerning riots and trials touching upon African-American history, Outrageous Justice: Riots, Lynchings, False Accusations and Court Trials with numerous links to websites about trials and courts.

As far as the world extends

Cover Entanglements in Legal History

What are the new roads, scopes and aims of legal historians nowadays? A few paragraphs ago I wrote on purpose about transplanting. Looking at different legal systems is not only a practice in the field of comparative law. In the twentieth century Stephan Kuttner, David Daube and Alan Watson looked across the supposed borders of legal systems, and other scholars have followed their example. The latest issue of the journal Rechtsgeschichte-Legal History / Rg 22 (2014) is dedicated to transnational legal history. The preface by Thomas Duve, one of the two directors of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main, makes clear how this institute seeks to include the whole world in is research, without forgetting its own history of research focusing on European legal history, fittingly symbolized by the new Helmut-Coing-Weg near the institute. It points to new roads with its publication series Global Perspectives on Legal History (GPLH), with the first two volumes already available not only in print but also as PDF’s. The first volume, Entanglements in Legal History: Conceptual Approaches, Thomas Duve (ed.) (GPLH, 1; 2014), sets an agenda for future research. The essays in this volumes look back at the positive and negative sides of earlier research, they chart the impact of colonial and imperial history, and look in more depth at legal transfers and reception of law in the field of international law since 1800. The second volume, Derecho privado y modernización. América Latina y Europa en la primera mitad del siglo XX, María Rosario Polotto, Thorsten Keiser and Thomas Duve (eds.) (GPLH, 2; 2015), looks at the interplay between European and Latin-American history in the field of private law during the first half of the twentieth century.

Closer to my country I am happy to see the very quick publication of the papers read during the last Dutch-Belgian Legal History Days in Brussels, December 2014, a biennial event which gives the floor in particular to young legal historians. Dave de ruysscher and four other scholars edited the volume Rechtsgeschiedenis op nieuwe wegen / Legal history, moving in new directions (Antwerpen-Apeldoorn 2015). Not only the Low Countries, but also the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Argentina figure in this volume. Of course much more could be mentioned. Let three examples suffice: John W. Cairns published this summer Codification, Transplants and History: Law Reform in Louisiana (1808) and Quebec (1866) (Clark, NJ, 2015) and Martin Vranken published Western Legal Traditions: A Comparison of Civil Law and Common Law (Sydney 2015). Earlier I wrote here about the Digital Panopticon, a larger than life offspring of the Old Bailey Online project, spanning the oceans and centuries between Britain and Australia with court records as its backbone.

Qua Patet Orbis, “as far as the world extends”, is the motto of the Dutch Marine Corps founded in 1665. Its history of world-wide presence right until now reminds me that we cannot shake off entirely the impact of colonial history and imperialism. Being aware of traditional perspectives and biases is often already an effort, and taking new directions might easily become just a slogan. The book of Jo Guldi and David Armitage deserves at the very least your attention to check for cobwebs in your own thinking and actions. Legal historians might not be able to change the world by the force of their research, but they cannot completely ignore the major problems of our century, such as violence, racial tensions, slavery, human traffic, fundamentalist movements, the weaknesses of civil society and the destruction of natural resources. Legal historians are well equipped to gauge the impact or lack of impact of laws, the workings of bureaucracies, the shifting meanings and connotations of words associated with justice and injustice, equality and equity. It would be a shame to create only results to save yourself a place within the ivory towers of the academic world, and luckily I trust that many legal historians are simply too human and wise to enclose themselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s