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Legal history

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Title: Legal history  
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Subject: Jurisprudence, Law, Morton Horwitz, Alan Watson (legal scholar), John H. Langbein
Collection: Academic Disciplines, Jurisprudence, Legal History
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Legal history

Legal history or the history of law is the study of how law has evolved and why it changed. Legal history is closely connected to the development of civilisations and is set in the wider context of social history. Among certain jurists and historians of legal process, it has been seen as the recording of the evolution of laws and the technical explanation of how these laws have evolved with the view of better understanding the origins of various legal concepts; some consider it a branch of intellectual history. Twentieth century historians have viewed legal history in a more contextualised manner more in line with the thinking of social historians. They have looked at legal institutions as complex systems of rules, players and symbols and have seen these elements interact with society to change, adapt, resist or promote certain aspects of civil society. Such legal historians have tended to analyse case histories from the parameters of social science inquiry, using statistical methods, analysing class distinctions among litigants, petitioners and other players in various legal processes. By analysing case outcomes, transaction costs, number of settled cases they have begun an analysis of legal institutions, practices, procedures and briefs that give us a more complex picture of law and society than the study of jurisprudence, case law and civil codes can achieve.


  • Ancient world 1
  • Southern Asia 2
  • Eastern Asia 3
  • Islamic law 4
  • European laws 5
    • Roman Empire 5.1
    • Middle Ages 5.2
    • Modern European law 5.3
  • United States 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Ancient world

Ancient Egyptian law, dating as far back as 3000 BC, had a civil code that was probably broken into twelve books. It was based on the concept of Ma'at, characterised by tradition, rhetorical speech, social equality and impartiality.[1] By the 22nd century BC, Ur-Nammu, an ancient Sumerian ruler, formulated the first law code, consisting of casuistic statements ("if... then..."). Around 1760 BC, King Hammurabi further developed Babylonian law, by codifying and inscribing it in stone. Hammurabi placed several copies of his law code throughout the kingdom of Babylon as stelae, for the entire public to see; this became known as the Codex Hammurabi. The most intact copy of these stelae was discovered in the 19th century by British Assyriologists, and has since been fully transliterated and translated into various languages, including English, German and French. Ancient Greek has no word for "law" as an abstract concept,[2] retaining instead the distinction between divine law (thémis), human decree (nomos) and custom (díkē).[3] Yet Ancient Greek law contained major constitutional innovations in the development of democracy.[4]

Southern Asia

The Constitution of India is the longest written constitution for a country, containing 444 articles, 12 schedules, numerous amendments and 117,369 words

Ancient India and China represent distinct traditions of law, and had historically independent schools of legal theory and practice. The Arthashastra, dating from the 400 BC, and the Manusmriti from 100 AD were influential treatises in India, texts that were considered authoritative legal guidance.[5] Manu's central philosophy was tolerance and pluralism, and was cited across South East Asia.[6] But this Hindu tradition, along with Islamic law, was supplanted by the common law when India became part of the British Empire.[7] Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Hong Kong also adopted the common law.

Eastern Asia

The eastern Asia legal tradition reflects a unique blend of secular and religious influences.[8] Japan was the first country to begin modernising its legal system along western lines, by importing bits of the

  • The Legal History Project (Resources and interviews)
  • Some legal history materials
  • The Schoyen Collection
  • The Roman Law Library by Yves Lassard and Alexandr Koptev.
  • CHD Centre for Legal History - Faculty of Law, University of Rennes 1
  • Centre for Legal History - Edinburgh Law School
  • The European Society for History of Law
  • Collection of Historical Statutory Material - Cornell Law Library
  • Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online - University of Hong Kong Libraries, Digital Initiatives
  • Basic Law Drafting History Online -University of Hong Kong Libraries, Digital Initiatives

External links

Further reading

  • Farah, Paolo (August 2006). "Five Years of China WTO Membership. EU and US Perspectives about China's Compliance with Transparency Commitments and the Transitional Review Mechanism". Legal Issues of Economic Integration 33 (3): 263–304. 
  • Barretto, Vicente (2006). Dicionário de Filosofia do Direito. Unisinos Editora.  
  • Glenn, H. Patrick (2000). Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford University Press.  
  • Sadakat Kadri, The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson, HarperCollins 2005. ISBN 0-00-711121-5
  • Kelly, J.M. (1992). A Short History of Western Legal Theory. Oxford University Press.  
  • Gordley, James R.; von Mehren; Arthur Taylor (2006). An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Private Law.  
  • Otto, Martin (2011). "Law".  
  • Sealy, L.S.; Hooley, R.J.A. (2003). Commercial Law. LexisNexis Butterworths. 
  • Stein, Peter (1999). Roman Law in European History. Cambridge University Press. p. 32.  
  • Kempin, Jr., Frederick G. (1963). Legal History: Law and Social Change. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


  1. ^ Théodoridés. "law". Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. 
    * VerSteeg, Law in ancient Egypt
  2. ^ Kelly, A Short History of Western Legal Theory, 5-6
  3. ^ J.P. Mallory, "Law", in Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, 346
  4. ^ Ober, The Nature of Athenian Democracy, 121
  5. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 255
  6. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 276
  7. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 273
  8. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 287
  9. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 304
  10. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 305
  11. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 307
  12. ^ Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World, 309
  13. ^ Farah, Five Years of China WTO Membership, 263-304
  14. ^ Badr, Gamal Moursi (Spring 1978). "Islamic Law: Its Relation to Other Legal Systems". The American Journal of Comparative Law (American Society of Comparative Law) 26 (2 [Proceedings of an International Conference on Comparative Law, Salt Lake City, Utah, February 24–25, 1977]): 187–198 [196–8].  
  15. ^ Kelly, A Short History of Western Legal Theory, 39
  16. ^ As a legal system, Roman law has affected the development of law in most of  ).
  17. ^ Gordley-von Mehren, Comparative Study of Private Law, 18
  18. ^ Gordley-von Mehren, Comparative Study of Private Law, 21
  19. ^ Stein, Roman Law in European History, 32
  20. ^ Stein, Roman Law in European History, 35
  21. ^ Stein, Roman Law in European History, 43
  22. ^ Roman and Secular Law in the Middle Ages
  23. ^ Roman law
  24. ^ Makdisi, John A. (June 1999). "The Islamic Origins of the Common Law".   suggests that there may have been some importation of Islamic concepts as well, but others have shown that occasional similarities are more likely coincidence than causal.
  25. ^ a b Klerman D, Mahoney PG (2007). "Legal Origins". Journal of Comparative Economics 35 (2): 278–293.  
  26. ^ Sealey-Hooley, Commercial Law, 14


See also

Under the doctrine of federalism, each state has its own separate court system, and the ability to legislate within areas not reserved to the federal government.

The United States legal system developed primarily out of the English common law system (with the exception of the state of Louisiana, which continued to follow the French civilian system after being admitted to statehood). Some concepts from Spanish law, such as the prior appropriation doctrine and community property, still persist in some US states, particularly those that were part of the Mexican Cession in 1848.

United States

As nationalism grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, lex mercatoria was incorporated into countries' local law under new civil codes. Of these, the French Napoleonic Code and the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch became the most influential. As opposed to English common law, which consists of massive tomes of case law, codes in small books are easy to export and for judges to apply. However, today there are signs that civil and common law are converging. European Union law is codified in treaties, but develops through the precedent set down by the European Court of Justice.

The two main traditions of modern European law are the codified legal systems of most of continental Europe, and the English tradition based on case law.

Modern European law

During the Byzantine Empire the Justinian Code was expanded and remained in force until the Empire fell, though it was never officially introduced to the West. Instead, following the fall of the Western Empire and in former Roman countries, the ruling classes relied on the Theodosian Code to govern natives and Germanic customary law for the Germanic incomers - a system known as folk-right - until the two laws blended together. Since the Roman court system had broken down, legal disputes were adjudicated according to Germanic custom by assemblies of learned lawspeakers in rigid ceremonies and in oral proceedings that relied heavily on testimony. After much of the West was consolidated under Charlemagne, law became centralised so as to strengthen the royal court system, and consequently case law, and abolished folk-right. However, once Charlemagne's kingdom definitively splintered, Europe became feudalistic, and law was generally not governed above the county, municipal or lordship level, thereby creating a highly decentralised legal culture that favoured the development of customary law founded on localised case law. However, in the 11th century, Crusaders, having pillaged the Byzantine Empire, returned with Byzantine legal texts including the Justinian Code, and scholars at the University of Bologna were the first to use them to interpret their own customary laws.[21] Mediaeval European legal scholars began researching the Roman law and using its concepts[22] and prepared the way for the partial resurrection of Roman law as the modern civil law in a large part of the world.[23] There was, however, a great deal of resistance so that civil law rivaled customary law for much of the late Middle Ages. After the Norman conquest of England, which introduced Norman legal concepts into mediaeval England, the English King's powerful judges developed a body of precedent that became the common law.[24] In particular, Henry II instituted legal reforms and developed a system of royal courts administered by a small number of judges who lived in Westminster and traveled throughout the kingdom.[25] Henry II also instituted the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, which allowed for jury trials and reduced the number of trials by combat. Louis IX of France also undertook major legal reforms and, inspired by ecclesiastical court procedure, extended Canon-law evidence and inquisitorial-trial systems to the royal courts. Also, judges no longer moved on circuits becoming fixed to their jurisdictions, and jurors were nominated by parties to the legal dispute rather than by the sheriff.[25] In addition, by the 10th century, the Law Merchant, first founded on Scandinavian trade customs, then solidified by the Hanseatic League, took shape so that merchants could trade using familiar standards, rather than the many splintered types of local law. A precursor to modern commercial law, the Law Merchant emphasised the freedom of contract and alienability of property.[26]

King John of England signs the Magna Carta

Middle Ages

Roman law was heavily influenced by Greek teachings.[15] It forms the bridge to the modern legal world, over the centuries between the rise and decline of the Roman Empire.[16] Roman law, in the days of the Roman republic and Empire, was heavily procedural and there was no professional legal class.[17] Instead a lay person, iudex, was chosen to adjudicate. Precedents were not reported, so any case law that developed was disguised and almost unrecognised.[18] Each case was to be decided afresh from the laws of the state, which mirrors the (theoretical) unimportance of judges' decisions for future cases in civil law systems today. During the 6th century AD in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Emperor Justinian codified and consolidated the laws that had existed in Rome so that what remained was one twentieth of the mass of legal texts from before.[19] This became known as the Corpus Juris Civilis. As one legal historian wrote, "Justinian consciously looked back to the golden age of Roman law and aimed to restore it to the peak it had reached three centuries before."[20]

Roman Empire

European laws

One of the major legal systems developed during the Middle Ages was Islamic law and jurisprudence. A number of important legal institutions were developed by Islamic jurists during the classical period of Islamic law and jurisprudence, One such institution was the Hawala, an early informal value transfer system, which is mentioned in texts of Islamic jurisprudence as early as the 8th century. Hawala itself later influenced the development of the Aval in French civil law and the Avallo in Italian law.[14]

Islamic law


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