Some Thoughts on Legal History Research During the Pandemic


Here are some preliminary thoughts on possible legal history research during the pandemic. I have focused on freely available primary source material, some ways of navigating the material, and an example of how historians associated with the Center have employed some of these sources. These are illustrative, and not exhaustive. I hope to keep adding to this over the course of the academic year.

British Library digitised image from page 11 of "Ballads of the Bench and Bar; or, Idle Lays of the Parliament House [Edited by J. B. Paul and J. J. Reid.]"

 Case law is the most commonly used primary source in legal history research, and this is increasingly available online. CommonLII: a rich source of case law, legislation, government reports and other legal and administrative material relating to the former British colonies. Click through each tab that takes you to a dedicated page featuring each country’s LII page. BAILII also contains the papers of cases that came before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (plaintiff’s and defendants’ submissions are also available for cases from 1923 onwards). This is an incredibly rich source that students can use to write histories of litigation that originated in British colonies. Students can try looking for a particular subject, say “succession” or for a particular colony, say “Ceylon”, which allows one to track change over time. See De, Rohit. “‘A Peripatetic World Court’ Cosmopolitan Courts, Nationalist Judges and the Indian Appeal to the Privy Council.” Law and History Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014, pp. 821–851. On Islamic law globally, see HLS’s Intisar Rabb’s SHARIAsource, which features a phenomenal collection of treatises, manuals, biographies, and court records.

 The vast majority of materials on international law are freely available, including this repository of decisions made by the International Court of Justice (from 1946 to the present) or this list of proceedings before the Permanent Court of Arbitration. For example, see this award in Muscat Dhows case between Great Britain and France. Then see Bishara, Fahad Ahmad. “‘No Country but the Ocean’: Reading International Law from the Deck of an Indian Ocean Dhow, Ca. 1900.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 60, no. 2, 2018, pp. 338–366 for an example of how to write a microhistory of international law. See Emma Rothschild, Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations, inviting accounts for microhistories of international law (2015 address at the Harvard Law School). Most recently, the case law,

 If you teach the Second World War, check out this digitized collection of Joseph P. Keenan Papers at the Harvard Law School for a perspective on the Tokyo War Crimes Trials or this collection on the Nuremberg Trials available through the Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. See Exeler, Franziska. “Nazi Atrocities, International Criminal Law, and Soviet War Crimes Trials.” The New Histories of International Criminal Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019, pp. The New Histories of International Criminal Law, 2019–03-21.

 A number of legal treatises or textbooks are freely available and digitized online. Pick a legal treatise or textbook that is freely available, either through Google Books or Internet Archive. Using CommonLII free text search, trace its “travels” across the world. Excellent examples that can be used in this manner include the Indian Penal Code or Modi’s Medical Jurisprudence. See Ramnath, Kalyani. “Intertwined Itineraries: Debt, Decolonization, and International Law in Post-World War II South Asia.” Law and History Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–24; Durba Mitra, and Mrinal Satish. “Testing Chastity, Evidencing Rape: Impact of Medical Jurisprudence on Rape Adjudication in India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 49, no. 41, 2014, pp. 51–58. for ways in which historians have used these sources.

 A keyword search for “law” in the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme’s online collections brings up around a hundred collections. The collections are not fully online, but there are definite possibilities here! Check out this collection of Tamil customary law, or this partial view of the Alexander Johnston papers, suitable for a history of late nineteenth century Ceylon via legal biography

 Other ideas: look for accounts of crimes, trials etc in digitized newspapers available freely online, through the Google Newspaper Archive, for example. Consider ways in which laws and significant events in legal history have been celebrated / commemorated. Paintings, monuments and sculptures are excellent options; several of these paintings can be viewed online. You could try looking either at paintings or sculpture. See Paul Halliday’s account here of law in Ceylon via artwork or Sanne Ravensbergen’s account here. See this special issue on art and international justice, including discussions on judicial iconography. The Spaces of Law project contains examples of projects that have employed courtroom architecture to great effect. See Bianca Premo and Yanna Yannakakis on not going to court in Spanish America here, or Rahela Khorakiwala on the Bombay High Court here. See Mitra Sharafi’s guide to using film to teach global legal history. 

 Finally, here are two excellent pieces on process and “reading” legal sourcesthis piece by Catherine Evans for Law and History Review’s The Docket on reading capital case files and this piece by Fei-Hsien Wang on the promise and possibilities of the archives of the Shanghai Mixed Court.


Kalyani Ramnath
10 September 2020