Wednesday, September 15, 2010

James S. Cockburn

The sad news of the death of James S. Cockburn, a distinguished historian of English crime and criminal law, has just reached us. Cockburn (LL.B., LL.M., Ph.D., Leeds University, England) was a professor emeritus in the History Department of the University of Maryland. For many years (including as recently as 2009-10) he taught a seminar on the history of crime and punishment here at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The description of his seminar from our catalog conveys something of Cockburn's wide-ranging interests:
This seminar introduces students to the major themes of and some of the most recent writing on the history of crime and punishment. It will begin with a brief overview of the various theories about the causes and treatment of crime advanced over the last five hundred years, and go on to examine the history of deviance, criminal justice administration, policing and punishment from primitive times down to the 20th century. Reference will be made to many cultures--Classical Greece and Rome, Asia, Africa, China and Europe--as well as to religious attitudes--pagan, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic--towards criminals and their treatment. All the readings, however deal with the English experience, a fact attributable to the relatively underdeveloped states of criminal justice history in continental Europe and the United States. Much of the discussion, too, will focus on the history of English criminal courts, process and law enforcement machinery, much of which was exported to the American colonies and eventually found its way into the law enforcement structure of the United States; of criminal transportation, which brought thousands of English convicts to Maryland and Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries; and of the gradual substitution (in England, Europe, and the United States) of imprisonment for the physical punishments of earlier generations. Throughout, the discussion will pay particular attention to the role of women in criminal activity, to differences in the patterns of male and female criminality, and to distinctive features in the punishment of women convicts.
Many legal historians will be indebted to him for his scholarship, including his classic work, A History of English Assizes 1558-1714. For example, from Cockburn we learned that the average duration of a trial at the assizes at the turn of the seventeenth century was between 15 and 20 minutes.

A lasting memory for me was the panel "The Criminal Trial Jury in Early Modern England" at the 1983 annual meeting of the American Society of Legal History. Cockburn commenced with "The Elizabethan and Early Stuart Jury"; John Beattie followed with "The Eighteenth-Century Jury"; Thomas Green chaired and commented. Of course the research and exposition were world class, but what has most stayed with me is Cockburn and Beattie's frank acknowledgment of the ways in which their findings failed to line up with each other and their invitation to the audience to help reconcile the two. Other scholars might have engaged in jousts and point-scoring, but what the two conveyed to this novice legal historian, attending his very first ASLH meeting, was a sense of the field as a collective and collaborative enterprise. I can think of no better scholarly legacy.