We have word that the William Nelson Cromwell Article Prize, awarded by the trustees of the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation on the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on the Cromwell Prizes of the American Society for Legal History, has gone to Maureen E. Brady, Harvard Law School, for “The Forgotten History of Metes and Bounds,” Yale Law Journal 128 (2020): 872-1173. From the recommendation of the ASLH committee:
…The subject of the article would not seem promising. … Though regarded by historians as a relic deserving only antiquarian interest, in Brady’s hands it commands our attention as a vital legal tool that enabled communities to use the law to impose order on an uncharted terrain through the creation of property rights. It has long been a commonplace that recording boundaries and conferring title create rights in property, but Brady’s article gives new meaning to the practice. Her mastery of seemingly arcane procedures and the legal rights they created reveals the many ways that the law of metes and bounds provided a supple and flexible means of securing the property rights that served the social and economic ordering necessary to foster communities bound together by law. …–Dan Ernst
The ability to focus on apparently strange or insignificant aspects of a lost world and use them to cast light and provide surprising insights is the mark of a more mature scholar, but it is readily evident in this article. Brady’s compelling argument is based on an exacting and concentrated study of the documents generated by the process of determining and enforcing metes and bounds. Her analysis original and her noteworthy. More than the other articles, it shows a real historical flair in terms of both the research and the presentation. It does more than just marshal the past to make a point in the present—although, of course, that is what we expect of law review articles. Rather, [it] is great history, excavating a past that that was lying in plain sight, but that no one had really bothered to explore. She walks us through that world and its logic, which does not appear very logical to us today; by scrupulously reconstructing the way that these documents were created and used, she brings to life communal practices and legal activity in a world that we have lost. Hence the humor, which she deploys masterfully. Then she shows why that history is important today, recasting basic assumptions and opening up new ways of thinking about contemporary problems.