Frederic William Maitland: A timeless historian of law and jurisprudence

Historians in the News

The 19th century was the century in which the craft of history became a thoroughly modern profession. It was the Age of great historians - of Ranke and Mommsen, Burckhardt and Fustel de Caulanges, Macaulay and Maitland, and of that great subverter of accepted pieties, Karl Marx. All these great historians and writers produced imperishable masterpieces, defining new fields and bringing new methods and new perspectives to familiar subject matter. Their books have become imperishable for two reasons. First because they were all great stylists whom we continue to read for sheer pleasure. Second because they were not only great servants of Clio, the Greek muse of history, but also greater servants of her long-time associate, Literature. While these writers did not turn their back on beauty, yet their passion for truth came first. Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906) pioneered the study of early English legal history. A talented and prolific scholar, Maitland imaginatively reconstructed the world of Anglo-Saxon law.

As a historian of Law and Jurisprudence, Frederic William Maitland has an immortal place in the historic Hall of Fame. To quote Peter Gay and Victor G Wexler: As a historian of Law, Maitland has earned the respect and won the admiration of his colleagues throughout the world. For his devotion to his vocation, the fine qualities of his works, and his intense awareness and understanding of the skills and temperament required of the professional historian, Maitland has, in fact, often been called the historian's historian. But to limit thus the range of his appeal is to do great injustice to his captivating style, which makes all that he has written on subjects as abstruse and technical as exists in legal history delightful reading, even for non-specialists.

Maitland was of the view that it was the historian's proper assignment and even duty not only to discover what men have done and what they have said in the past but also to determine as far as possible what they could or would have thought. In order to achieve this aim, the historian must conquer the almost insurmountable barriers of time and place which separate him from his subject. As a historian, Maitland has been praised for his ability to grasp and articulate the great central themes underlying the development of the common law, and his ability to penetrate and render the inner meaning of words. He enjoyed being a historical detective, sifting through masses of often contradictory and confusing sources to find historical truth. Despite his respect for the English common-law tradition, Maitland was not an antiquarian. He actively supported the major law reform efforts of his day.

The earliest and the most enduring influence that helped to shape Maitland into the historian that he became was that of his grandfather, the Reverend Samuel Roffey Maitland, who was Librarian to the Arch Bishop of Canterbury and the author of several distinguished books on Ecclesiastical History, including 'The Dark Ages' (1844). The elder Maitland convinced his grandson that the greatest obstacle to historical knowledge was the fallacy of an anachronism: the application of modern language and concepts to the life of the Middle Ages. To quote Frederic William Maitland in this context: As difficult as the task may be, the historian must try to divest himself of the associations and circumstances that constitute his own frame of reference if he hopes to achieve the goal of understanding the mentality of a distant Age....

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