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Law & Policy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Common Law

A Concise History of the Common Law by Theodore F.T. Plucknett (Liberty Fund) As always during its long history, English common law, upon which American law is based, has had to defend itself against the challenge of civil law's clarity and traditions. That challenge to our common law heritage remains today.

A Concise History of the Common Law provides a source for common-law understanding of individual rights, not in theory only, but protected through the confusing and messy evolution of courts, and their administration as they struggled to resolve real problems. The first half of the book is a historical introduction to the study of law. Theodore F.T. Plucknett discusses the conditions in political, economic, social, and religious thought that have contributed to the genesis of law. This section is a brief but full introduction to the study of law. The second half of the book consists of chapters introducing readers to the history of some of the main divisions of law, such as criminal, tort, property, contract, and succession. Plucknett (1897-1965) was a legal historian whose lifelong passion was the investigation of early English law and society; he dedicated himself to tackling this specialized subject and was equally obsessed with explaining his findings to those less informed. He was a fellow of the British Academy and president of the Royal Historical Society from 1949 to 1953.

In A Concise History of the Common Law, Plucknett takes readers on a journey through the history of English law. Part 1, "A General Survey of Legal History," is a dash through the centuries. It begins with a description of the Roman Empire, whose destiny was to rule the nations and crush resistance and continues with the empire's subsequent breakdown and the formation of the English state under the Anglo-Saxon kings. Then the steady growth of the common law under Edward I, the rise of Christianity, and the development of a powerful papacy in the Middle Ages are examined with respect to their implications for the rule of modern law. The survey concludes with the French Revolution and the liberalism and reform movements of the nineteenth century. Throughout, Plucknett stresses the conditions in political, economic, social, and religious thought that have contributed to the formation of common law.

Part 2 is a more-detailed treatment of topics discussed in the first part. The history of the courts and the jury system, the various types of law, crime and tort, real property, and contract, as well as equity and succession, are laid out in chronological fashion. Important juridical figures of each era come alive: King Henry II in the twelfth century; Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII, Sir Edward Coke, and Francis Bacon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and Sir William Blackstone in the eighteenth.

A detailed table of contents; three extensive reference tables of historical cases, modern cases, and laws and statutes; and a comprehensive index provide ample help for readers.

Clear and candid, Plucknett's seminal work is intended to convey a sense of historical development not to serve merely as a work of reference. Written in an engaging writing style, A Concise History of the Common Law will be of interest to those just embarking on their quest in legal history while still providing enough substantial information, references, and footnotes to make it meaningful for well-versed legal history readers.


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