Over a century ago, the pioneer English historian of law F. W. Maitland observed that “If some fairy gave me the power of seeing a scene of one and the same kind in every age of history of every race, the kind of scene that I would choose would be a trial for murder, because I think that it would give me so many hints as to a multitude of matters of the first importance.” For many decades Maitland's remark was ignored, as historical scholarship passed over murder trials as far too “atypical” and “sensationalistic” to merit serious study, leaving them to amateur devotees of courtroom drama and detection mysteries. One notable exception was Brian Simpson, the distinguished legal historian, whose Cannibalism and the Common Law, published in 1984, for the first time placed in its social context the leading case of R. v. Dudley & Stephens, which in 1884 produced the still-authoritative rule governing the “necessity” justification for homicide. In Simpson's hands the case, a “sensational” one indeed, involving the eating of a cabin boy by shipwrecked sailors, opened up the little-known world of late Victorian maritime life. However, Simpson's lead was not followed up, and his book remained a fascinating “one-off,” regarded as an “amusement piece” by an otherwise “serious” scholar of arcane legal reasoning.
Only more recently, with developments such as the rise of the genre of “micro-history” and the legitimation of interest in the “sensational,” have historians come to accept homicide and its legal treatment as a worthy subject.