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1 - Law and History, History and Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2022

Richard Bourke
University of Cambridge
Quentin Skinner
Queen Mary University of London
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Do lawyers and historians think differently about history? Claims have recently been made, in the context of debates on the history of international law, that the way that lawyers treat historical texts is quite different from the way historians treat them. According to this argument, while historians think about concepts in their historical contexts, lawyers turn to history to understand the nature of present concepts and obligations. Questioning whether there is such a distinct historical method, this chapter suggests that lawyers turning to history should apply the methods of the contextual historian, just as historians examining legal matters should draw on the conceptual insights of jurists. When lawyers attempt to use a distinct lawyerly version of history, the results may not only be anachronistic but also unsatisfactory for explaining law. At the same time, the methods of history can be fruitfully drawn on by jurists, both in testing and rethinking modern juristic concepts, and in explaining the genealogy and nature of doctrines built on long precedents. For the historian, the tools of legal analysis can help identify what past societies considered to be ‘law’ and to understand the specialist languages associated with matters of governance, property and family.


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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