Going to Law (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 1999 semester seminar.

Among the most pervasive forms of cultural expression in early modern England, law was also among the most arcane and ritualistic. Moreover, despite the ideological predominance of the common law, early modern English men and women routinely navigated their way through not one, but several laws, each with discrete courts, language, and cultural baggage. Using materials from Folger collections, this seminar examined the remains of the early modern English law. It explored how the law worked and how its records were produced. It considered the "artificial knowledge" of legal idiom, its relationship to other forms of discourse, to narrative generally, and to critical legal theory. Topics of special interest to seminar participants were also incorporated. Moving beyond a recognition of the law's role as a mechanism for discipline and conflict resolution, the seminar examined some of the more subtle ways in which legal forms helped to shape early modern society: including operating as a common language, a mark of status, and a means of political education. The seminar's goal was to demystify the early modern English legal structure, providing a better understanding of when contemporaries went to law and how best, as scholars, we might follow them.

Director: Cynthia Herrup is Professor of History and Law at Duke University. Editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1991 to 1996, she is the author of The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England (1987). Her book on the Castlehaven scandal is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.