Sometimes things arrive really unexpectedly. Good introductions and guides to any research field can help you enormously in getting started, gaining an overall view of things and offering openings to wider context. At my own website for legal history, Rechtshistorie, I offer introductions to several legal systems and their history. Recently a couple of online subject guides were launched by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford which deserve attention here. They amount in fact to a portal. I will focus on the guide to the history of common law, but the other guides are worth visiting, too.
Common law in manifold variety
A first glance at the new subject guide shows first and foremost an almost overwhelming mass of subjects. It is really a choice to present between thirty and forty subjects on separate pages instead of ordering them a bit by putting for example particular periods or royal courts under separate headings. The first row of headings clearly leads you to more general subjects and some specific sources, the Year Books and law reports. It is easy to point to themes and subjects you might want to add or remove here. Forest law makes a surprise appearance, but you might want to add for example the Inns of Court. Some reshuffling is surely possible, perhaps first of all bringing periods at one level or putting the items in alphabetical order. Anyway I have not yet seen any LibGuide with such a high number of subpages.
In my review of this research guide you must forgive me my personal picks among the headings! Local legal officials is a page giving you general guidance to a fair number of these officials, and understandably sheriffs, constables, justices of the peace and coroners receive most attention here, apart from general information about local government. You will find much more about medieval coroners on my own common law web page.
Under Commentary you will find information about the major current standard works about English legal history and you will be sent also to great historians such as Maitland, Holdsworth, Milsom, Vinogradoff and of course Blackstone. The heading Treatises & Authorities brings you to classic writers such as Coke and Hale, and also to older treatises (Bracton, Britton), but also again to Blackstone. The references to online versions are both to licensed editions only accessible at subscribing institutions, and to free accessible versions. If you have access to subscribers-only materials you are lucky indeed. The free versions give sometimes only a translation of a particular source, a thing not always indicated here.
Among the periods to review here I have chosen a classic era, 1066-1216. The overview of regnal years is most useful, and the choice of electronic resources with both laws and treatises is a good one, as is the choice of studies which you should consult. A second era, 1820-1914, clearly stems from the volume in the Oxford History of the Laws of England. Here the attention to reports is indeed welcome, but I did not find a reference to the U.K. Parliamentary Papers (Proquest). A separate page about the history of Parliament would be very useful, but going to Legislative history solves this apparent omission. On the page about Ireland I missed the Dippam portal with the Enhanced British Parliamentary papers on Ireland. By the way, some pages in this guide have an URL with numeral codes, others contain words which are more recognisable to human eyes. The page on Scotland is strong on important studies and less full for online resources.
The online guide for the history of the common law shows its sheer width by containing a page on canon law. It offers a nutshell guide bringing you to introductions by James Brundage and to some well-chosen studies (Richard Helmholz, Anders Winroth and Stephan Kuttner) and (online) resources. English students starting to discover medieval canon law might want to read also the compact book by Dorothy Owen, The medieval canon law : teaching, literature and transmission (Cambridge 1990).
A web of online guides
The Bodleian Libraries have created similar guides to ancient law, Roman law, the legal history of Western Europe and the history of international law. Using the Bodleian’s general overview of more than one hundred online law research guides the list on the starting page of their LibGuides for law and history can be extended to medieval Scandinavian law and Roman law in translation, a subject dear to me. This overview of translations is very useful. I noticed in particular the online version of excerpts from Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Font (eds.), Women’s life in Ancient Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook in Translation (2nd edition, Baltimore 1992), which deserves inclusion at my own Roman law page. On the page on medieval Scandinavian law I expected a reference to The Medieval Nordic Legal Dictionary, a project led by the University of Aberdeen, mentioned here last year. Yet another nutshell guide of the Bodleian Libraries is Witchcraft and the law in Early Modern Europe and the USA: Bad magic by Isabel Holoway. Hannah Chandler contributes an online guide to criminal and judicial statistics, 1800 to present day.
At the end of this quick review our thanks should go to the Bodleian, especially to Elizabeth Wells and Margaret Watson for their courage and librarianship to create five guides covering important fields of legal history. To me it is clear that you can frown at the very number of individual subjects and periods in the guide to the history of common law, but at the same time it invites you also to rethink your assumptions. I remember visiting somewhere an online guide based on LibGuides with many subdivisions which in the end scarcely helped to find the rich resources of the library and university. Personal taste, preferences and concrete research interests will influence your opinions about these guides. However, the most important conclusion is that the Bodleian Libraries and other libraries using LibGuides do not hesitate to face the challenge to give guidance in the virtual world, too, and thus redefine themselves for new service to student and scholars in the age of digital information. With the guides dealing with themes and subjects in legal history the law guides of the Bodleian Libraries set an example to which other institution can aspire. The very presence of LibGuides has already inspired many libraries to create sensible guides to many subjects, and it is good to see legal history among them.