In July 2024, the University of Bristol Law School and the Centre for Law and History Research will welcome legal historians from the UK and the world, as Bristol hosts the 26th British Legal History Conference. This is a major gathering of those working on histories of law, held every two years at a different UK university, and returning to Bristol for the first time since the early 1980s. The academic organisers are Gwen Seabourne and Joanna McCunn, and here they are, ‘in conversation’, to share a few thoughts on the conference.
GS: Well, less than a year to go (see clock above for clunky visual allusion to passing of time): a little bit scary, but we have made quite a lot of arrangements already. I am especially pleased with the conference theme. Will you tell the nice people on the internet about it, Joanna – what it is, and what sorts of things we hope to hear about?
JM: Yes – it’s all very exciting! Our theme is ‘Insiders and Outsiders in the History of Law’, which was really inspired by the legal history of Bristol itself. Bristol has been a significant gathering place for legal ‘insiders’, like lawyers and merchants, for centuries, but it’s also been an important site for legal ‘outsiders’, who have been involved in protesting, reforming or resisting the law.
We’re hoping to bring these two sides of Bristol’s history together, and to hear about powerful legal actors as well as those who have been marginalised by the law: enslaved people, women, LGBTQ+ people and so on. We’re also interested in how the law draws dividing lines more broadly, and in whether there might be ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the study of legal history itself.
GS: Thank you. Lots of different ways people can take it, and see how their own work might chime in with it, I think.
The British Legal History Conference is a really good opportunity to hear about all sorts of current research. Thinking back to the last BLHC – an excellent one, in Belfast in 2022 – I went to papers on subjects ranging from core ‘classical legal history’ topics to papers about things on the social history end of the spectrum, and I moved around from 12th century England to a number of periods in Irish history, and the history of the British Empire, to 19th century Malta.
I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy going to one or two things which are really outside my own research area. For me, that tends to be work on more modern periods, or on different jurisdictions. Listening to a good paper on a new topic is nearly 100% profit, and, human brains being what they are, it does also tend to prompt me to make connections with my own work as well. I suspect that we will be doing a lot of rushing about and organising, but I do hope to see a good number of panels as well.
JM: I always enjoy the variety that you get at the BLHC! I’ve learnt about everything from medical negligence in nineteenth-century Germany to arson in medieval Wales. As you say, it’s very exciting to learn about something completely new – but conferences are also a great opportunity to meet people working in a similar area to your own. The coffee breaks and meals can be just as important as the panels, because they allow you to follow up on those connections and have deeper conversations. That’s especially helpful for early career researchers, or other scholars investigating legal history for the first time.
GS: It is definitely a good chance to get new inspiration, and make new connections. One other thing that I have in mind, as we put this conference together, is how to make the whole thing a good experience for those who don’t necessarily know others who are attending. That was my position several times early in my career, and I don’t think it is uncommon. I think it is one of our important tasks to make sure that people (even slightly introverted types!) feel welcome and are able to get to know fellow legal historians.
JM: Absolutely! Let me ask you something now – what do you think are the most interesting things happening in legal history research at the moment?
GS: Well, there’s all sorts… I am glad to see increasing interest in historical perspectives amongst legal scholars, and I try hard to keep up with the work on legal topics (especially in the ‘crime’ and ‘family’ areas) being done by those based in History departments. There are a lot of productive conversations to be had with them, and a lot to learn from their approach to sources and debates. More recently, I have been looking at a lot of work by those examining connections between law and literature. And now that I have got to the stage of being asked to supervise and examine Ph.D. theses, and to mentor up-and-coming scholars in Law and History, I have seen some fantastic work in the last few years: new sources, new perspectives, and a willingness to challenge some of the orthodoxies of the discipline. All very promising – provided that academia gives new legal historians the space they need to develop their skills and think things through.
JM: It’s been really exciting reading abstracts as they come in – there is so much interesting work being done at the minute, and I can’t wait to hear about some of it next July. What can we tell people about legal history in the University of Bristol Law School?
GS: It’s going strong! We have a well-established undergraduate Legal History unit, with a bit of a ‘dream team’ teaching it this year (ourselves, plus Catherine Kelly and Andrew Bell). Then there is a Roman Law unit as well, so our students can get a fair bit of legal historical content, if they so desire. Several of the staff in the Law School either specialise in legal history, or have significant historical perspectives in their work, and we have a dedicated research centre to foster excellent research and collaboration with others beyond the School and University. And, oh, we have a legal historian – Catherine – as Head of School now. So we are taking over, bit by bit …
But back to the conference! What do you think Bristol itself has to offer for our conference delegates?
JM: Lots of excellent cafes and restaurants, for a start! And hopefully some sunny weather… The harbourside is lovely on a summer’s day, and I’m a big fan of historic ships, so I would always recommend a visit to the SS Great Britain. Anyone who’s interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history really can’t go wrong in Bristol, but there are some fascinating older survivals too. Medievalists might like to check out the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, and early modernists should try to drop by the Red Lodge Museum.
GS: Also Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe, for medieval and early modern fans. We will definitely need to put together some information on legal/historical sites in and around Bristol, for our guests. Lots to think about!
JM: I visited St Mary Redcliffe for the first time on Saturday – it has a whalebone brought from America by John Cabot in 1497! I also stopped at two seventeenth-century pubs en route, because I’m a very diligent researcher.
GS: Such dedication! We will need to include information on ‘historic hostelries’ as well, won’t we? And what would you say that we have learned so far, in our ‘conference organising journey’?
JM: Haha, well, I’ve learnt just how much work goes on behind the scenes of a big conference! But I’ve also learnt how supportive both the legal history community and the Bristol community are – organising this sort of event is definitely a team effort. And I’ve learnt that you missed your calling in the marketing business!
GS: Well thank you – my strategy has been embracing bad puns, clunky visual metaphors and nerdiness. I know my audience… And finally, as we collapse in a heap the day after the conference, next July, what would we like to think we will have achieved?
JM: I hope that our attendees will have learnt something new and been challenged to think differently about legal history. And I also hope that it’s a really welcoming, enjoyable conference – that nobody goes away thinking that they were an ‘outsider’.
GS: Nicely done! And I agree entirely.
GS and JM
29th August, 2023.