Thomas McSweeney, ‘Property Before Property: Romanizing the English Law of Land’

We tend to treat the idea of property as if it is a neutral way to speak about the relationship between people and things. In comparative legal studies, it is easier to compare two different cultures’ approaches to people and things when we assume that both can usefully be spoken of in terms of property. But property has a history. Terms like proprietas and possessio, which give the modern common law a vocabulary for speaking about that relationship, arose in the context of the classical Roman law and were worked into a systematic language of property by medieval Roman law scholars. The early common law, however, did not use the language of property to describe the relationship between people and things.

In this paper, I will examine the period when English justices first attempted to turn English norms and practices concerning landholding into a law of property. Between 1187 and 1258, several justices tried their hands at writing treatises in which they translated English court practices into a systematic property law on the Roman model. The justices of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly the justices who wrote the treatise known as Bracton, were heavily invested in the idea that English law was part of the Romano-canonical ius commune. They realized, however, that the practices of the English courts and the landholding norms of the Anglo-Norman landed elite could not be made to fit neatly into a Roman law mold. The authors of Bracton embarked upon what we might consider an early exercise in comparative law scholarship. They created several complicated and contradictory schemes to try to express English landholding in Roman law terms, but ultimately failed in their attempts to create a coherent English law of property. Their failure is useful to us, however, in that it shows us very clearly that the language of property is not natural or essential and in that it helps us to understand a way of talking and thinking about landholding that is alien to us today. We can use the ways the Bracton authors creatively misunderstood the Roman law of property to help us to understand the cultures of landholding they came from: those of the English courts and the Anglo-Norman landed elite of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

McSweeney, Thomas J., Property Before Property: Romanizing the English Law of Land (2012). Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2012.

First posted 2013-09-22 16:01:04

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