Legalism: Anthropology and History

ISBN : 9780199664269

Paul Dresch; Hannah Skoda
368 Pages
164 x 241 mm
Pub date
Sep 2012
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Law and law-like institutions are visible in human societies very distant from each other in time and space. When it comes to observing and analysing such social constructs historians, anthropologists, and lawyers run into notorious difficulties in how to conceptualize them. Do they conform to a single category of 'law'? How are divergent understandings of the nature and purpose of law to be described and explained? Such questions reach to the heart of philosophical attempts to understand the nature of law, but arise whenever we are confronted by law-like practices and concepts in societies not our own. In this volume leading historians and anthropologists with an interest in law gather to analyse the nature and meaning of law in diverse societies. They start from the concept of legalism, taken from the anthropologist Lloyd Fallers, whose 1960s work on Africa engaged, unusually, with jurisprudence. The concept highlights appeal to categories and rules. The degree to which legalism in this sense informs people's lives varies within and between societies, and over time, but it can colour equally both 'simple' and 'complex' law. Breaking with recent emphases on 'practice', nine specialist contributors explore, in a wide-ranging set of cases, the place of legalism in the workings of social life. The essays make obvious the need to question our parochial common sense where ideals of moral order at other times and places differ from those of modern North Atlantic governance. State-centred law, for instance, is far from a 'central case'. Legalism may be 'aspirational', connecting people to wider visions of morality; duty may be as prominent a theme as rights; and rulers from thirteenth-century England to sixteenth-century Burma appropriate, as much they impose, a vision of justice as consistency. The use of explicit categories and rules does not reduce to simple questions of power. The cases explored range from ancient Asia Minor to classical India, and from medieval England and France to Saharan oases and southern Arabia. In each case they assume no knowledge of the society or legal system discussed. The volume will appeal not only to historians and anthropologists with an interest in law, but to students of law engaged in legal theory, for the light it sheds on the strengths and limitations of abstract legal philosophy.


Legalism, Anthropology, and History: A View from Part of Anthropology
A Historian's Perspective on the Present Volume
1. Ideas of Law in Hellenistic and Roman Legal Practice
2. Centres of Law: Duties, Rights, and Pluralism in Medieval India
3. The Evolution of Sanctuary in Medieval England
4. Aspects of Non-State Law: Early Yemen and Perpetual Peace
5. The English Medieval Common Law (to c. 1307) as a System of National Institutions and Legal Rules: Creation and Functioning
6. Rightful Measures: Irrigation, Land, and the Shari'ah in the Algerian Touat
7. Lord Kyaw Thu's Precedent: a Sixteenth-Century Burmese Law-Report
8. Custom, Combat, and the Study of Laws: Montesquieu Revisited
9. Legal Performances in Late Medieval France

About the author: 

Paul Dresch is Fellow by Special Election at St John's College, Oxford, and University Lecturer in Social Anthropology. He has worked in both Yemen and the Arab Gulf. His first book Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen (OUP, 1989) remains a central reference on Yemeni history and ethnography. He has also published A History of Modern Yemen (2000), and is co-editor of volumes on anthropological fieldwork, on kinship and politics in the Middle East, and on the contemporary Arab Gulf. In recent years he has worked mainly on eighteenth-century and medieval colloquial law-texts from South Arabia.; Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in medieval History at St John's College, Oxford. Prior to this, she was Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. She has published on the subject of interpersonal violence in medieval France, and is currently embarking on research into the misbehaviour of students in fifteenth-century Oxford, Paris and Heidelberg. Other publications have ranged from Dante to the experience of disability in the Middle Ages. She is particularly interested in the relationship between constructions of deviance, and the ways in which those thus labelled react to these stereotypes.

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