June 13, 2006
I'm addicted to . . . English Law in the Age of the Black Death
Inspired by Ben's post on a Helen Castor's book, Blood and Roses, about post-plague England, I thought I'd mention one of my favorite books: Robert C. Palmer's English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law, published by UNC in 1993. (Note that Professor Robert C. Palmer of the University of Houston Law School is not this Robert Palmer.) It's an extremely important exploration of the transformation wrought by the dramatic decline in population in the fourtheenth century. Property profs will be particularly interested in the ways that Palmer links the decline in population (and thus increasing need for labor and increased power of workers) to the decline of feudalism. After the black death, workers had more power to demand increased privileges--like the right to go elsewhere to live and work. It brings the techniques that I enjoy about some of the best of writing on American legal history (focus on social history and its relationship to doctrine) to English legal history. Thus, I see Palmer as writing in a tradition of Morton Horwitz' Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, though I'm not sure whether he thinks of himself as writing in that tradition.
I think you'll enjoy the book, particularly on why feudalism ended. It would be interesting to put Palmer together with those who see increasing respect for property rights as the way out of feudalism. Though I must say that this is sufficiently outside of my area of expertise that I won't hazard any more speculation right now.
Many years ago I benefitted from Palmer's excellent review essay of S.F.C. Milsom's Legal Foundations of Feudalism, which made that book accessible to me. And I will, therefore, be eternally grateful to Dr. Palmer, who is a one man gang when it comes to publishing. You might also enjoy, for instance, Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religion, 1350-1550. (Plus, this continues my posts on the University of Houston. Remember, I'm a fan of the Houston Law Review.)
Endnotes: How could the musician Robert Palmer have died in 2003? He was young when I was in college.
Alfred L. Brophy
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