The case for a history of global legal practices

Abstract

The contextual understanding of treatises of great legal thinkers has become an important focus in the historical study of international law. This article argues for an alternative approach going beyond classics of legal doctrine to study the interlinked broader global legal practices that constituted actual patterns of social order. Dead practitioners can, however, only be accessed through texts that remain under-conceptualized. I argue that literary theory provides the most helpful insights for developing a framework for studying legal texts. The historical importance of a legal text depends not only on why it was written, but also on how it was used, reinterpreted and even modified by later practitioners. The new method highlights an important alternative dynamic of legal change that first takes place through practice and is introduced to doctrine only afterwards, with posthumous editors often drastically modifying canonical works in order to make them more useful for contemporary practitioners.

Tomas Wallenius is Departmental Lecturer in International Relations