Thursday, February 27, 2020

ASLH 2019 Symposium Report: What is a Legal Archive?

[We are grateful to Kalyani Ramnath, the Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics at the Center for History and Economics, Harvard University, for passing along to us this report on the half-day symposium on legal archives that took place during the annual meeting of the ASLH last November.  It was written by the attendees Dr. Sonia Tycko (Oxford) and Sally Hayes (Harvard).  DRE]

Report on “What is a Legal Archive?”:| A Half-Day Symposium Organized by the Center for History and Economics, Harvard University and the American Society for Legal History

Sonia Tycko & Marcella McGee Hayes

What is a legal archive, how can we improve our skills and vocabulary for working with legal records, and what questions are legal historians asking about documentation, writing, and bureaucracy? How does this shape everyday life for historical actors? These were the guiding questions convenor Kalyani Ramnath, Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics at the Center for History and Economics, Harvard University, posed at a symposium hosted by the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University and the American Society for Legal History on Wednesday, November 20, 2019. Center co-director Emma Rothschild began proceedings by observing how Hendrik Hartog's field-changing early work established an approach to legal history without boundaries. Legal history, then, works in analogous ways to economic history as pursued in its most capacious form at the Center. Each panel put a historian of South Asia and Latin America in conversation.

Panel 1: Bhavani Raman, Associate Professor History at University of Toronto, spoke about her current book project on martial law and the state of exception in the nineteenth-century Madras and Bengal presidencies. Raman emphasized that historians have neglected this topic, despite its huge archive, due to the lack of catalogues and calendars. She argued that the martial law records show how inaccessible imperial justice was, despite the conceit that the British Empire brought justice to all. Her three areas of focus were on appeals, the amicus brief, and on military focus, including ways in which precedent on martial law circulates between Bengal, Madras, Jamaica, South Africa and in the present day, to Guantanamo Bay. She concluded by asking how we might think of the legal archive, by adding more documents, or by rethinking what the archive means.

Michelle McKinley, Bernard B. Kliks Professor of Law at the University of Oregon Law School and director for the Center for the Study of Women in Society, presented her work on the freedom suit of enslaved woman, known simply as Juana, from a Lima convent in 1687. McKinley posed the question: how can enslaved people create an archive? She emphasized the importance of the Spanish American notarial archives as a counterpoint to the convent's corporate records of manumissions. By focusing on Juana instead of the much better-documented woman religious who claimed her as a slave, McKinley championed a subaltern perspective but welcomed feedback on how to find the appropriate level of speculation. She also encouraged symposium participants to invest in learning paleography and build good working relationships with archive staff to gain access to a wider range of documents.

Panel 2: Julia Stephens, Assistant Professor of History, Rutgers University, focused on a will that "haunted" her while researching her current project on financial and memorial legacies of families in the nineteenth-century South Asian diaspora at the National Archives at Kew, UK. She recounted how she found a sealed envelope while going through one series. Upon careful unsealing by the conservators, the envelope revealed the will and photograph of a South Asian man, Sher Dilkhan, who left his property to the as-yet-unborn child Ussuf in Tianjin,  Stephens, like McKinley, meditated on the boundary between speculation and fabulation. She argued that migrants used photos simultaneously as bureaucratic tools and affective tokens.
Caroline Cunill, Faculty Member, History Department, Universite du Maine, shared her research on the construction of imperial legality in the sixteenth-century Spanish monarchy. She advocated for reconstructing the dialogic nature of archives across multiple collection series. Cunill demonstrated how she connected related vassals' reports to the Council from Yucatán, intra-Council note taking and record keeping, and the legislation of imperial decrees. With careful paleography, Cunill was able to track individual hands in the marginal comments of these records, identifying the diplomatic practices and influence of anonymous ministers who had significant cumulative power.

Panel 3: Elizabeth Lhost, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dartmouth Society of Fellows, explored the idea of the fatwa , a non-binding legal opinion issued by a mufti, a scholar of Islamic law as an archive of socio-legal history. Her talk used the case study of Mariam Bi, a woman in mid-twentieth century Hyderabad who wanted to know whether the disappearance of her husband meant that she could seek a judicial nullification of her marriage, to illustrate this concept. Anyone with a juridical problem to solve could write in to get an opinion on their case; they would receive a reply with a transcription of the original question, an answer, and an official seal at the top. Querents who wanted a particular type of answer might "forum shop" by writing to a number of different authorities from different schools of thought. Religious authorities sometimes published anonymized fatwas in local newspapers in hope of helping readers with similar problems. Lhost talked through several ways of reading fatwas as a legal archive. She also talked about how to combine fragmentary evidence to create historical narrative including embracing the anonymous subject, combining cases together to create longer narratives, connecting different characters or places across cases, and undoing internal categories that law creates.

Melissa Teixeira, Assistant Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania, examined the legal archives left behind by authoritarian legalisms. She looked the corporatist dictatorships that came into power in the 30s across Latin America and Southern Europe, especially Portugal and Brazil. These states tried to carve out a third path between collectivist communism and free market capitalism by taking a predominant role in the economy. This strategy often failed to address the chronic economic challenges it was designed to meet, but it did transform the everyday economic lives of citizens in ways the state did not foresee. In both Brazil and Portugal, tribunals designed to catch high-level white-collar crimes such as cartel formation became venues for citizens to file complaints about everyday petty commerce. The prices of bread, butter, and oranges became a way for these people to stake a claim to economic justice and air out personal grievances. Teixeira explained that the dictatorships wanted to be seen to enforce the law fairly, yet citizens had different ideas about these tribunals and were able to direct them to their own ends. The legal archives of economic lives serve two functions - first, as a blueprint of national economies they envisaged, and second, as an (incomplete) account of how people navigated everyday economic lives.

Panel 4: Tatiana Seijas, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University, used civil court records to reconstruct the worlds and life histories of market sellers in seventeenth-century Mexico City. By building rich micro-histories out of disputes over affairs such as land deals, dowries, and wills, Seijas illustrated the purchasing power and agency of Mexico City residents both rich and poor, male and female, enslaved and free. She showed how these cases could be read to illustrate the logics of their decision-making and the stakes of their lives, and she explained her decision to make a tacit argument about these people and the way they lived by immersing readers in these narratives.

Durba Mitra, Assistant Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University, explained how she used a vast corpus of materials such as biographies, manuals, and civil criminal court records to understand the idea of the "prostitute" in British India particularly during the nineteenth century. She did not seek to uncover the life histories of Indian women who may or may not have engaged in sex work; her goal was to construct the archetype as generations of Indians understood it. She posited that sometimes the legal archive is described as fragmentary, when what that person really means to say is that it does not tell us the story we want to hear. From the perspective of the people who built and assembled the archive, it may not be fragmentary at all. By reading with the people who constructed this archive, rather than against the grain, Mitra was able to show what they had in mind when they imagined the prostitute.

The official program abstract and schedule follows [after the jump]:

What is a Legal Archive? A Half-Day Symposium Organized by the Center for History and Economics, Harvard University and the American Society for Legal History

Cambridge, MA | 20 November 2019

Location: S030 (Lee Gathering Room), CGIS South, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA

What are the archives of law? What definitions and notions of law do we work with as we assemble, read and interpret archive sources? In this workshop that brings historians of South Asia and Latin America working on projects about law, paperwork, bureaucracy and procedure, scholars will draw on their engagement with legal sources and records, as well as their own approach to "reading" legal materials. We will also look at the promise and perils of working with fragmented archives, with sources in multiple languages, and in multiple geographical locations. In course of discussions, we hope to raise questions of knowledge production, indigenous agency and governance. By looking at different frameworks that we can construct around our "archive stories" and considering the legal encounter alongside the archival encounter, we hope to arrive at creative and critical rethinking of what constitutes a legal archive, how it is constructed and read.

This half-day symposium will follow a workshop model. Each participant will submit a reflection paper on approaches to archival legal sources - both in their own projects as well as in the classroom. Each historian of South Asia would be paired with one historian of Latin America for thematic conversations. The goal of the workshop is two-fold. The first is to generate a set of teaching resources for undergraduate legal history courses that we could potentially host online, open access. The second is to set up a working group to continue conversations on bringing legal archives into the classroom.


9 AM - 9.30 AM Coffee and Breakfast

9.30 AM - 9.45 AM Opening Remarks
Emma Rothschild (Harvard University)

9.45 AM - 10.45 AM     Panel 1
Bhavani Raman (University of Toronto, Scarborough)
In the Mirror of the Present: Reading for Justice in the Archives of Counterinsurgency

Michelle McKinley (University of Oregon School of Law)
Secrets and Silences in the Archive

11 AM - 12 PM     Panel 2

Julia Stephens (Rutgers University)
Apparition in the Archive: 'Reading' the Legal Legacies of Sher Dil Khan's Indian Ocean Migration

Caroline Cunill (Universite du Maine)
Margins of Power in the Legal Sources of the Spanish Empire's Archives

12 PM - 1.30 Lunch

1.30 PM - 2.30     Panel 3
Elizabeth Lhost (Dartmouth College)
Beyond the Jurists' Words: Fatwas as an archive of socio-legal history

Melissa Teixeira (University of Pennsylvania) 
The economic lives of legal archives

2.45 PM - 3.45 PM     Panel 4
Tatiana Seijas (Rutgers University)
Reading civil court records to reconstruct the 17th-century history of market sellers in Mexico City.

Durba Mitra (Harvard University)
Female Sexuality and the Legal Archiving of Social Life in Colonial and Postcolonial India

3.45 PM - 4 PM Closing Remarks