Socio-Legal Readings of Historical Text


The panel explored how socio-legal readings of historical texts can not only help to deepen our understanding of the meanings and operation of law in societies of the past, but also shed new light on the origins and forms that laws have taken over time. Fernanda Pirie presented a legal code that apparently regulated hunting practices in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries. She demonstrated that by considering the contemporary social and power structures of the society, the concerns, and intentions of the ruler to reinforce a social hierarchy and limit practices of vengeance, became clear. Meanwhile, comparing documents on oaths and ordeals from medieval Europe shed light on the meaning of an obscure clause in the Tibetan laws concerning proof of intention.

Next, Kimberley Czajkowski examined papyrological archives which had once belonged to two Jewish women in Roman Arabia (ca. 96-132 CE). Kimberley argued that close comparison of the styles and references in the documents demonstrate the importance of various historical factors in determining the use of legal forms during the period. These included the level of literacy, the expertise available to ordinary people, and individual encounters with authorities, such as the Roman administrators. 

Marina Kurkchiyan, on the other hand, argued that legal forms should not be treated as mere instruments that have been shaped and transformed by social forces, but also as a phenomenon that reveals an internal drive for rationality and uniformity.   She undertook readings of birch bark letters that people sent to each other in Early Rus’ (11th-15th C). She posed the question of what the letters can tell us about the emergence and growth of law and legal forms in a polity where there was no evidence of law making by the civilian authorities. Her readings suggest that legal forms should not be perceived as the evolutionary product of everyday customs, which is what the mainstream literature tends to assume. Rather we should see them as a distinct and separate form of social interaction that has always coexisted with custom.