Thursday, March 14, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Ada Kuskowski

Today's Scholar Spotlight features Ada Kuskowski, University of Pennsylvania. Earlier in this series, 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 interview series aims to showcase female scholars and their work. Its special focus is scholars of European legal history. 

Ada Kuskowski is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia, PA, United States. 


Alma maters:

B.A., History, McGill University, 2001.
B.C.L. and L.L.B. (Bachelor of Common Law and Bachelor of Civil Law), McGill University Faculty of Law, 2005.
M.A., History, Cornell University, 2008.
Ph.D., History, Cornell University, 2013.

Fields of interest:

Legal History and Culture, Medieval History, French History, Social Histories of Knowledge, Vernacular Writing and Translation, Court Culture, Colonization and Colonial law.

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

I fell in love with history in my undergraduate classes at McGill University, especially the classes on late antiquity with Elizabeth DePalma Digeser. This was when I realized that I preferred the puzzle of messy periods of transition and change to classic or golden ages. However, I went to law school afterwards, partially out of a perceived need for a “real” profession and partially because Quebec tuition rates for Quebec residents make it possible to go to law school to learn and to think without the burden of great debt and a future of corporate-law work to pay them off.

Studying common law and civil law side by side made clear to what extent law is both a cultural and historical product. I was able to explore that in various independent studies that ranged from the Roman law of treason, to cultural property law debates to histories of codification thanks to generous mentors, namely Nicholas Kasirer, Blaine Baker and Daniel Jutras. I also minored in Classics to pick up the languages to apply to graduate school, because I had decided to see whether I could make a career out of my real passion. I then went to graduate school at Cornell and ended up with a dissertation based on texts I had discovered in a dusty basement section of my law school library. At Cornell, I was the extraordinary beneficiary of the intellectual dynamism and true generosity of Paul Hyams, Bernadette Meyler, Duane Copris and Eric Rebillard. How great a part the human chain plays in academic careers.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

Penn is full of wonderful historians, medievalists and legal historians and I feel very lucky to be part of such a vigorous and engaging intellectual community. The legal historians have a group called “Writer’s Block,” run by Sophia Lee, Sally Gordon and Serena Mayeri that is especially fruitful for workshopping current work. The library and its fantastic curators are also a terrific resource. My class on the history of property was there yesterday and Dr. Mitch Fraas, senior curator, assembled various delights for the students, including a thirteenth-century dowry agreement, a sixteenth-century will, and a nineteenth-century sheriff’s sale broadsheet from Philadelphia.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently completing a book manuscript titled Law in the Vernacular: Composing Customary Law in Thirteenth-Century France. This cultural history of legal knowledge explores the move to set a previously oral custom into writing. This shift from oral to written has been treated legalistically by scholars who describe custom as “crystallizing” and being “set in writing” seemingly on its own. Focusing on the coutumiers, texts written in thirteenth-century Northern France to describe the customs and procedures of secular courts, I argue that these early texts of written custom were authored compositions that changed the world of law.

Their authors chose to write custom in the vernacular, the language of lived law and everyday life, rather than in Latin, the language of the church, universities, and written record until that point. This opened the conceptual world of law to lay people and changed custom from a community practice to an erudite form of vernacular knowledge. This form of knowledge was not aiming at petrifying the “good old law” but at shaping a new intellectual discipline for a new type of jurist, one who knew custom and thought in the vernacular. 

This legal history is thus also a history of the construction and transmission of knowledge, the development of sophisticated modes of thinking outside of the universities, and the effect of the technology of writing on the history of lay thought and institutions.