“The Principles of Universal Jurisprudence Combined with an Accurate Knowledge of Our Own Municipal Constitutions”
William Blackstone and the Western Legal Tradition.
The purpose of my research is to investigate the scope of William Blackstone’s engagement with Western jurisprudence and assess its relevance for the scientific understanding of English municipal law outlined in his Commentaries (1765-1769). More broadly, I intend to review the normative and scholarly authorities recalled by Blackstone in the Commentaries (both expressly and through silent paraphrase) and examine how they conceived the relationship between the English legal tradition and the common European legal experience.
Existing scholarship has shown how a prominent current of English jurisprudence began, in the twelfth century, to articulate a scientific interpretation of English municipal sources, by reading them in light of a common European jurisprudence. Law books such as Glanvill and Bracton conceived the law of England as being a municipal law established-upon and fitted-within a universal legal order. It was within such framework that English law understood itself as emanating from leges and consuetudines. This distinction mirrored the partition of civil or municipal law found in the authoritative texts of the Roman legal tradition, collected by Justinian in the sixth century, and became, during the age of the ius commune, one of lens through which political bodies interpreted the purview of their jurisdiction and the foundation of their normative powers. This same partition (and, to an extent that remains still to be determined, the effort that laid behind it) defined the first history of the Common Law of England, written by Matthew Hale in the seventeenth century, and eventually informed the structure, as well as the purpose, of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which offer therefore a privileged vantage point from which to consider retrospectively the English legal tradition and its relation to the Continental legal experience.
To scope my research, I will undertake a close reading of the Commentaries. This will allow me to investigate both the textual traditions Blackstone received and re-interpreted, as well as the principles according to which he digested the Common Law, and it will ultimately allow me to place Blackstone’s work within the long arch of the Western legal tradition.
I strongly believe that this area of research is of critical importance, given how the very unity of Europe is being challenged and claims in favor of separateness and insularity seem to be on the rise across the West. Considering such predicament, the capacity to look beyond contingent concerns and retrace the ongoing dialectic through which the historiographical, political, religious, and jurisprudential foundations of Western societies have been periodically reinterpreted seems to have become ever more urgent.