Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Possible Topics for Graduate Students in 18th-Century English Legal History

If there are any grad students out there looking for MA or PhD thesis topics, 18th-century English legal history is a wide open field. The sources are comparatively abundant and easy to use. A lot of the printed material is online. Many of the assumptions in the secondary literature are inaccurate because the research hasn’t been done. As I've worked, I've collected a list of topics that seem to need exploration, though I have not researched some of them to see what is out there, nor do I know that they are all plausible topics. What I do know is that a lot of work needs to be done on the period.
POSSIBLE TOPICS: jury instructions by judges (a lot of information in the newspapers—which are now largely online—printed trials reports, but not much talked about in the treatises); opinions of counsel (barristers’ opinions on case stated; tons of manuscripts and printed compilations); the status of serjeants in the last years of the order (serjeants were supposedly lazy and unspectacular barristers by the 18th century, but the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a number appointed to the bench and leading their circuits—what was up?); the style and use of case briefs (the de Grey archives at the Norfolk Record Office has a bunch, as does Lincoln’s Inn, but we don’t know much about the genre of the case brief prepared for en banc sittings or about how much the judges knew before hearing the case. We also don't know how much they knew about a case before they heard the trial on assize); the advice of judges to the House of Lords sitting as a court of last resort and advice concerning proposed bills (discussed in the newspapers, in the House of Lords Journals, perhaps manuscript material in the Parliamentary Archives); the library of Serjeant George Hill (a late 18th-early 19th century barrister, Hill had a huge and very impressive library collection, the MS catalogue of which is in the British Library, and many of his books are at Lincoln’s Inn. The books have a very unique set of marginalia so other copies should be identifiable); 18th-century legal publishers and publishing; the jurisprudence of Common Pleas and Exchequer (only King’s Bench has been studied at all, and it is time to test the assumption that KB represented common law orthodoxy); counsel letters of the attorneys general (this is especially interesting given that the AG was asked to comment on events surrounding the American Revolution). A nice MA paper would be to study the Introduction to Law Relative to Trials at Nisi Prius. A dispute remains about the authorship (between Henry Bathurst and Francis Buller). What appears to be Bathurst’s autograph MS is in the Parliamentary Archives, in the Truro Collection—Bathurst notebooks. Another possibly early manuscript is at Middle Temple. Then there are the later printed editions with lots of marginalia (often interleaved copies—three of them are in the Anthony Taussig collection) of lawyers demonstrating how the text was used. The reports of settlement cases are interesting studies of the poor laws. A few interesting judges to study might be: John Willes (CJ CP); Francis Yates (KB); Francis Buller (KB, CP); John Eardley Wilmot (KB, CJ CP); Michael Foster (KB). I think they all have some papers in archives and libraries.

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