Monthly Archives: June 2020

Legal History and the Decolonial Approach: Thoughts and Questions

I have researched and taught in the area of Legal History for more than two decades. In teaching, coming straight from a taught postgraduate degree in the 1990s, I took over a unit formerly run by Andrew Borkowski, and changed it little by little. It has evolved in various ways (more crime and family, less court in-fighting), but has, until recently, remained firmly anchored in the framework of the Maitland-Milsom-Baker school of ‘classical’ legal history. In the last 5 years or so, first on my own, and then with the input of new colleagues, the ‘socio-legal’ content has been expanded, and, in particular, gender perspectives have come to the fore. What has not really been prominent, however, has been race/colonialism. We are now thinking about that for next academic year – had in fact been doing so even before ‘everything kicked off’ in Bristol this summer, with the Colston statue toppling etc., though that has given a new urgency to this. We will certainly be including more relevant reading and subject matter on this, but the whole exercise, and the initiatives of colleagues in the Law School, has made me begin to think more deeply about things which should undoubtedly have occurred to me before, in particular, asking:

What does the classical framework of English Legal History owe to racialised, colonial mindsets?

I can’t pretend to have a very good answer to this yet, but it seems important at least to pose the question. The ‘classical school’ – and the Selden Society which is one of its most respected manifestations – arose at much the same time as the peak of imperial self-satisfaction, and the popularisation of eugenic theories. What connections should be brought out, in terms of personnel and ideas? There is certainly a feel of ‘linear tunnels’ about the sort of causal connections, and teleology which is evident in some nineteenth century legal historical writing. There is a fair bit of connecting English legal traditions to conveniently monolithic ‘Germanic’ lines of development, and fighting off the suggestion of Roman inspiration. There is very little consideration of other possible influences, or comparators beyond the ‘Western civilisation’ mainstream. There is much ignorance of the legal traditions even of the nearest ‘subject lands’, Wales and Ireland. This has fed through to much modern English legal history, which tends to marginalise the colonial aspects of the common law’s historical realm. The British Legal History Conference is probably the whitest conference I know: recent organisers have clearly made some effort to diversify the content, but the centre of gravity is still England before 1700.

This leads me to question my own research choices, which lie firmly within this comfortable centre. My choice of period of special interest was due to a combination of factors, ranging from childhood fascination with knights (and monks, up to a point, but not ladies and definitely not the ‘lower orders’…) to a bloody-minded determination not to be shut out of something because I did not go to the sort of school which taught Latin, and wasn’t going to be talked down to by a load of posh boys, to the supervision available to me for Ph.D., and, probably, an eager-to-impress desire to take on something well-regarded by lawyers and historians alike. From a beginning in law and economic regulation – a little bit political, but nothing to scare the legal historical horses – I moved into the study of women (definitely regarded as eccentric and ‘trendy’ in some quarters) and, to a certain extent, Wales (quaint but unthreatening?). Although of course there is scope to venture beyond the British Isles whilst sticking to the medieval period, I have never done so, and the state of the discipline during my academic life has not encouraged me to do so. I am not likely to change focus entirely, but, even within medieval legal history, I think there is the prospect of considering with a critical perspective the portrayals of the past which have been allowed to predominate, how they arose and what is missing from them.

History is so important to an understanding of Law’s colonial legacies, and yet Legal History has not really been engaged. Much to ponder – which is as it should be.

GS 29/6/2020

Recommended on the Decolonial Approach: Foluke Adebisi  ‘Decolonising the University of Bristol’ Foluke’s African Skies (28.10.19)


Gender running Amok? Thoughts on classic Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’ (1967)

This episode (the first episode of the second series) has several iconic aspects – first appearance of Chekov, first time out for the Vulcan salute and only trip to Vulcan in original Star Trek – but on rewatching it during my lockdown completist marathon, I was struck by two things. The first was the Legal-Historian-pleasing ‘trial by battle’ between Spock and Kirk with lirpa – weapons looking not a million miles away from medieval judicial duel weapons. Another time. It’s the second I went away thinking about, and will muse upon here – the portrayal of women. Not strictly Legal History, I suppose, but then again, both LH and Sci-Fi are about messing about with time, imagining other eras; and there are certainly some resonances with ideas about women in history, so I think I’m allowed.

The fabulous Lt Uhura on the bridge is not given much attention here – she is just doing her job. The three who are prominent are Nurse Christine Chapel, on the Enterprise, and, on Vulcan, T’Pau and T’Pring. These three all interact with Spock, who is in the grip of the pon farr mating urge, and, to cut a long story short, has to go to Vulcan to consummate his union with T’Pring, or, it is feared, he will die.

Chapel is the least inspiring of the trio. She is revealed to be hopelessly keen on Spock, fussing about after him and bringing him Vulcan soup. Very nurturing. Doesn’t go down well, though, Spock is quite nasty to her.

The best action is on Vulcan, where we have the powerful T’Pau – a diplomat, judge, and more, who presides over what was supposed to be a marriage and turned into a ritual battle – and the fascinating T’Pring. As Lt Uhura exclaims, she is beautiful.

The portrayals of T’Pau and T’Pring are very interesting. They are in some ways positive and forward-looking (in earthly terms – remember when this was written) but the writers could not quite let go of the assumptions of their own times. T’Pau, for example, is respected by all, but is portrayed as rigid and perhaps cruel. Powerful woman as ‘cold-hearted-bitch’ model? T’Pring is clever – even Spock praises her logic – but we are supposed to see her as a bit of a scheming minx and Vulcan ‘gold-digger’, arranging things so that she can get Spock’s property but be with the beefier Stonn instead. I wondered to myself, also, whether it was easier to give power to women who were ‘other’, rather than to the human women, who, on the Enterprise, were always subordinate to men. The Vulcans were portrayed as decidedly ‘Oriental’ (in an indefinite, pan-Asian manner). T’Pau on her litter, with her formality, was particularly reminiscent of an empress of China. Then again, she did remind me slightly of the statues of the BVM which are carried through Spanish streets on holy days. (That of course would make a nice contrast with T’Pring as an Eve-like temptress).

Vulcan law and customs as portrayed here include elements popularly regarded as ‘medieval’ – as well as trial by battle, we had marriages arranged by families at an early age, and the idea of a wife as the property of a man. I was particularly disappointed to hear T’Pau buying into the ‘wife as property’ thing: not much female solidarity with T’Pring there. I assume that there was no Mr T’Pau, otherwise, on this evidence, she would have been at home being a chattel. Even Spock entered into woman as property trope territory when he left Stonn with a little speech about ‘having’ not being as good as wanting (T’Pring, or women in general…) I must say, I came away from watching this as a grownup feeling admiration for T’Pring, for playing the system and getting out of what was clearly a most illogical arrangement. Live long and prosper, T’Pring! (And give Nurse Chapel some tips on not being an inter-galactic  doormat).

GS 27/6/2020

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

Something interesting turned up in my plea roll trawling today (or at least it is interesting if you are interested in medieval crime, medicine, religious houses or Cornwall). …

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As two indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The accusation described the killing as false, felonious and treacherous. It also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll. The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged. Richard Yerll, if guilty, would seem to fit reasonably snugly into the category of ‘monk and abbot’ – perhaps there might have been some scope to argue differences in the relationship between monk and abbot in other orders and canon and prior in the Augustinian order. John Leche is a bit more difficult to see as falling into the category of ‘petty traitor’. He was, in modern parlance, more of an ‘independent contractor’ than a ‘servant’ of the prior.

The common lawyers did not, however, get a chance to get their teeth into either of these thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic in this case. Obvious questions arise: was this part of a more general suspicion or criticism of what may have been aggressive surgical interventions? Was there personal animus against Leche, Yerll or both? It may be that there is more which can be found out about the leading players, but, at the moment, during our own health emergency, the records relating to the priory, in Oxford and Cornwall, which might help here, are beyond my reach. I will, therefore, have to leave it there for now, in the hope that I will be able to flesh it out in the future.


KB 9/225 mm. 39, 40 (AALT IMG 77, 79)

KB 27/681 m. 6R (AALT IMG 161); KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

GS 14/6/2020

Legal History, Slavery, Colonialism

The last few weeks have been full of news of protest and direct action relating to racism, slavery and colonialism. As no one in Bristol can have failed to notice, it has been the week when the most prominent statue of slaver Edward Colston finally fell.

At the place where I work, the University of Bristol, this has brought to the forefront of minds  various issues to do with naming of buildings, and the University logo. The names of families whose wealth derived from slavery are prominently commemorated here, and the emblem of Edward Colston, a dolphin, is included in the University logo. These names and the logo are under review now – and quite rightly (though possibly putting out a tweet to announce this and … using the Colston- commemorationg logo to do so … was not the best call). Both the University and excellent and doughty scholars within it, as well as committed historians outside academia, have been looking at these issues for some time, but recent events have lent it all a particular urgency, and have also drawn in a much wider group of academics who know that we should be doing more, and faster, to try and make the education we offer both inclusive for all students, and also sufficiently energising and mind-expanding to cause positive change in the local community and the wider world.

I have, for many years, run a unit on Legal History for our Law undergraduates. It has always attracted excellent, sparky students who are alive to injustice, including racial and gender injustice, in the world. We have plans to include more on this in the next academic year. I dare say the issue of statues, putting them up, pulling them down, will feature. At the moment, though I am thinking about a couple of other issues: how the common law and common lawyers were implicated in slavery and colonialism, and how Legal History itself has been affected by having been developed as a discipline in the heyday of colonialism and racism. There is a lot to think about, and to do – and, as a medievalist rather than an expert on later periods, I am going to be synthesising the work of other, expert, scholars where I can find it – but it feels as if Legal History needs to put its metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

Some of the questions which occur to me straight away:

  1. Is there a general survey of lawyers (or legal institutions) as slave-holders? I have put out a Twitter bat-signal to try and see what there is ‘out there’, having drawn something of a blank in my own preliminary searches – I suspect that there might not be, though there are sections and statements in various, disparate works. If there is not such a general survey, how can a start be made on this? Individual biographies are one way to go, I suppose, as well as checking the writings of lawyers themselves. It would be particularly interesting to make a start on lawyers in Bristol …
  2. In what ways has common law doctrine been implicated in slavery, racism, colonial projects? (Huge – obviously – and equally obviously there is excellent work here by historians, but it also seems that there are gaps with regard to more doctrinal (‘dry’?) parts of law, and areas in which a bit of imagination, and consciousness of the issue, might bring up a wider set of connections).

This morning, a cross check in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has shown me some interesting lawyer/slavers, which is a start for no. 1 at least

[And on the Bristol-Colston front, I just came across another example of his ‘philanthropic’ ubiquity in Bristol – there is a charitable foundation called the Dolphin Society, which might want to be a little firmer in its dissociation from Ed and his murderous works …

Also the ODNB (updated 2008?) has EC article entitled  ‘Colston, Edward (1636–1721), merchant and philanthropist‘. Very neutral…]



There is more ‘Colstonalia’ in Bristol – and more websites which might want to consider saying something stronger about the wrongness of slavery. Today’s example (accessed 13/6) is this one


A programme which those who are not regular watchers of Welsh language TV might have missed …

Dylan ar Daith – S4C programme (Welsh – with subtitles!) on Thomas Picton, governor of Picton, cruel even for the times. Interesting to see the Welsh coming to terms with not having been pure with regard to slavery. Some stories I had not heard here – worth a watch to see what you think of its tone.