The past few decades have witnessed a welcome expansion in historians’ understanding of English legal cultures, a development that has extended the reach of legal history far beyond the boundaries circumscribed by the Inns of Court, the central tribunals of Westminster, and the periodic provincial circuits of their judges, barristers, and attorneys. The publication of J. G. A. Pocock’s classic study. The ancient constitution and the feudal law, in 1957 laid essential foundations for this expansion by underlining the centrality of legal culture to wider political and intellectual developments in the early modern period. Recent years have seen social historians elaborate further upon the purchase exercised by legal norms outside the courtroom. Criminal law was initially at the vanguard of this historiographical trend, and developments in this field continue to revise and enrich our understanding of the law’s pervasive reach in British culture. But civil litigation – most notably disputes over contracts and debts – now occupies an increasingly prominent position within the social history of the law. Law’s empire, denoting the area of dominion marked out by the myriad legal cultures that emanated both from parliamentary statutes and English courts, is now a far more capacious field of study than an earlier generation of legal scholars could imagine. Without superseding the need for continued attention to established lines of legal history, the mapping of this imperial terrain has underscored the imperative for new approaches to legal culture that emphasize plurality and dislocation rather than the presumed coherence of the common law
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