Sunday, October 28, 2007

ASLH Article Prizes to Butler, Morantz and Wertheimer

More news from the American Society for Legal History meeting: Article Prizes.

Sutherland Prize

The Sutherland Prize, named in honor of the late Donald W. Sutherland, a distinguished historian of the law of medieval England and a mentor of many students, is awarded annually, on the recommendation of the Sutherland Prize Committee, to the person or persons who wrote the best article on English legal history published in the previous year.
The 2007 Committee consisted of Professor David Lemmings from the University of Adelaide (chair), Professor Joseph Biancalana from the University of Cincinnati, and Professor David Sugarman from the University of Lancaster.
The ASLH Donald Sutherland article prize for 2007 went to Professor Sara M. Butler of Loyola University, New Orleans for her article`Degrees of Culpability: Suicide Verdicts, Mercy, and the Jury in Medieval England', published in the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 36:2, Spring 2006. Butler's article is an exhaustive and imaginative study of the verdicts passed by coroners' inquests in cases of suicide recorded by the courts of late medieval England. It is remarkable for several outstanding features. First, the research is wide-ranging and precise: she has studied every coroner's roll that has survived from the period up to 1500 and also all the eyre and assize rolls from this period for the counties of Essex and York. Together they yield a database of over 700 cases in all where the jurors pronounced a verdict of felonia de se. Second, it is empirical history at its best because the author has reflected carefully but creatively upon the few words that describe the circumstances of each case and is thereby able to elucidate the complex attitudes of medieval people towards common experiences of everyday life such as child-rearing, insanity, the death of loved ones and old age. Indeed Butler's analysis delights the reader with her ability to explain the apparently paradoxical: for example, why did the apparently accidental death of a baby boy by stabbing himself with a pair of shears generate a verdict of suicide in a fourteenth-century coroner's court, given the severe consequences for his parents of a shameful burial in unconsecrated ground and failure to set his soul to rest? Answer: because the jurors wanted to send a public message to the community that parental negligence was unacceptable.
It is this imaginative ability that generates the article's significant and sometimes revisionist conclusions, which are its third outstanding feature. Butler argues that medieval jurors could be compassionate in exceptional circumstances, but insists they were more concerned about mortal sin; she suggests in general that they exhibited complex attitudes towards life-events which were very different from those a modern reader would expect; and most importantly, she demonstrates that the decisions of late medieval law courts represented the values of local communities, as much as the doctrines of the law.

Surrency Prize
Every year the Surrency Prize goes to the best article published in the ASLH journal, Law and History Review. Alison Morantz, Stanford Law School, and John Wertheimer, Davidson College, share the Surrency Prize this year.
In "There's No Place Like Home: Homestead Exemption and Judicial Constructions of Family in Nineteenth-Century America" (Vol. 24, No.2, 2006), Alison Morantz uses a careful and original analysis of homestead exemptions in state law to weave a new national story about the, relationship between land ownership and family. The article argues persuasively that seemingly straightforward homestead statutes,originally designed to protect the family home, raised questions about the mechanisms for state intervention and opened a process that helped to redefine the family. Exposing the links between the contours of private law and modern state structures, Morantz's story suggests that the nexus of gendered legal norms and state regulation - often associated by historians with the emergence of the welfare state in the twentieth century - arose earlier and in overlooked legal arenas.Her piece forces a reconsideration of some of the most fundamental assumptions about the intersections of private and public in nineteenth-century law.
John Wertheimer's "Gloria's Story: Adulterous Concubinage and the Law in Twentieth Century Guatemala" (Vol. 24, No. 2, 2006) is a captivating account of the legal construction of property and family in Central America. The article masterfully juxtaposes the story of two people's social and legal relations over several decades and an analysis of broad trends in Guatemalan law that influenced and constrained these subjects' choices. The approach reveals the emergence of unintended consequences from the combination of haphazardly composed individual legal strategies and well-intentioned shifts in legal policy. Wertheimer argues that progressive reforms in family and property law can inadvertently facilitate retrogressive social arrangements - in this case, adulterous concubinage. In blending micro-history with a careful attention to wide political and social contexts, Wertheimer provides a methodological map for exploring the workings and construction of everyday legal consciousness.