Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Elizabeth Papp Kamali


Featured today in our Scholar Spotlight series is Elizabeth Papp Kamali, Harvard University. In our earlier interviews, we noted that only three of the fifty contributors to the recently published Oxford Handbook of European Legal History were women. Like Women Also Know History, this Scholar Spotlight series aims to showcase female scholars and their work. Its special focus is scholars of European legal history. 

Elizabeth Papp Kamali is an Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Websites: https://hls.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/11491/Kamali 

Twitter: @LizPappKamali

Alma maters: A.B. (History), Harvard College, 1997; J.D., Harvard Law School, 2007; Ph.D. (History), University of Michigan, 2015.

Fields of interest: English legal history, medieval law, criminal law.

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

A class taught by Charles Donahue sparked my interest in medieval law during my freshman year of college, when I was contemplating a variety of majors, including engineering. The class reading focused on primary sources, and I discovered that I had a passion for dissecting and making sense of unfamiliar, at times perplexing, legal texts. I knew nothing about law going in (‘Torts? Is that a kind of cake?!’), but I knew by the time the semester ended that I wanted to find a life in the law, preferably of the medieval variety.  With the encouragement of Prof. Donahue and then-graduate students Carol Symes and Claire Valente, I undertook senior thesis research using fourteenth-century manorial court rolls held in the Harvard Law Library’s collection. What a charmed undergraduate life!

Upon graduating from college, I decided to work in Wall Street consulting for a year or two to pay off my undergraduate debt before moving on to law and/or graduate school. Life intervened. I met my future spouse in Manhattan and ended up following him to rural California, where he was obligated to work in a doctor shortage area for several years. When his work commitment ended, he (and our one-year-old son) followed me, in turn, first to Cambridge, MA, for my law studies, and later (with our one-year-old daughter and then nearly five-year-old son) to Ann Arbor, MI, for my PhD studies in History. I am ever grateful to have a spouse who has made my flourishing his priority. At the University of Michigan, I studied with Tom Green, historian of the English jury, just as he was entering retirement. I am most fortunate to enjoy his continued mentorship and friendship, and I hope I can live up to his generous example in making time to read and comment upon others’ scholarship. Academic life dulls when solitude—admittedly necessary at times when, for example, the archives beckon or a publishing deadline looms—supplants community.

The University of Michigan was an exceptional place for me to pursue a PhD in medieval legal history. In addition to outstanding medieval historians on the History faculty, the university had a vibrant medieval studies community and incredible course offerings at the law school, where I studied English legal history with Brian Simpson, Roman law with Bruce Frier, and medieval Icelandic bloodfeuds with Bill Miller. My dissertation committee included Diane Owen Hughes (see my recommended reading below) and Kit French from the History department, Cathy Sanok from the English department, and my long-standing mentor from college and law school, Charlie Donahue, as co-chair with Tom Green.

Now, at Harvard Law School, I have the pleasure and privilege of teaching Criminal Law to first-year students, some of whom will hopefully help shape public policy and legal practice during this critical moment in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system. I also teach English Legal History and a seminar on Mind and Criminal Responsibility in the Anglo-American Tradition.

What projects are you currently working on?

My forthcoming book, Felony and the Guilty Mind in Medieval England (Studies in Legal History Series, Cambridge University Press) explores the role of mens rea as a factor in jury assessments of guilt and innocence during the first two centuries of the English criminal trial jury. The book argues that issues of mind were central to jurors’ determinations of whether a particular defendant should be convicted, pardoned, or acquitted outright. Writing it required me to sift through legal records (accessible here http://aalt.law.uh.edu/ on the amazing website created by Robert Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Houston Law Center) as well as literary and religious texts from the period. What a charmed law professor’s life, teaching Criminal Law by day and reading Aquinas, coroners’ rolls, and Gower by night!

I am also working on what I affectionately call my “living dead” paper on the topic of proof of death in medieval English criminal and civil law as well as an article on the treatment of intoxication in the medieval common law.  Late ordeal practice fascinates me, and I hope to publish a lengthier treatment of it, building upon an essay I wrote for a recent Festschrift honoring Bill Miller.

Is there an article, book, film, website, etc. that you would recommend to LHB readers?

It is rare that a work of academic scholarship can be described as moving, but thankfully such pearls exist. This is not primarily a work of legal history, but an article I recommend nonetheless to LHB readers:  Diane Owen Hughes, “Distinguishing Signs: Ear-rings, Jews, and Franciscan Rhetoric in the Italian Renaissance City,” Past & Present 112 (1986), 3-59 (https://doi.org/10.1093/past/112.1.3). The closing paragraphs continue to give me chills, and behind them is a wonderful personal story about how Prof. Hughes stumbled upon the Bellini portrait that clinches the article.  I leave that personal story to Prof. Hughes to tell, and only hope that I might learn to craft a work of scholarship as beautifully as she did in these few pages of Past & Present.

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