Maitland, Frederic William


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Maitland, Frederic William

Frederic William Maitland pioneered the study of early English Legal History. A talented and prolific scholar, Maitland imaginatively reconstructed the world of Anglo-Saxon law.

Maitland was born May 28, 1850, in London, England. He graduated from Cambridge University and then studied law at Lincoln's Inn. He joined the bar in 1876 and soon proved himself a skilled attorney. Maitland's interests subsequently shifted to the history of English Law. He set as his goal the writing of a scientific and philosophical history of English law that took into account its interaction with the social, economic, and cultural life of the English people. His first book, Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester, was published to acclaim in 1884. In that year he left his law practice and became a reader in English law at Cambridge. In 1888 he was named a professor of law at Cambridge.

Between 1885 and 1906, Maitland published many volumes of English history, including Justice and Police (1885), The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (with sir frederick pollock, 1895), and Domesday Book and Beyond (1897). He also helped form the Selden Society, an association devoted to the preservation and analysis of Old English legal history. Maitland contributed many introductions to society publications, which mainly consisted of reprints of primary legal documents. Finally, Maitland was a popular lecturer. His published lectures include Constitutional History of England (1908), Equity (1909), and The Forms of Action (1909).

As a historian, Maitland has been praised for his ability to grasp and articulate the great central themes underlying the development of the Common Law, and his ability to penetrate and render the inner meaning of words. He enjoyed being a historical detective, sifting through masses of often contradictory and confusing sources to find historical truth. Despite his respect for the English common-law tradition, Maitland was not an antiquarian. He actively supported the major law reform efforts of his day.

Maitland's historiography was not based on ideology or theory. History, to Maitland, was not the product of impersonal social or economic forces, but something more complex. Therefore, in the world described in his writings, individual personalities, particular events, cultural traditions, and the peculiarity of language play significant roles. Running through his work is a deep respect for the toughness, resiliency, and vitality of English common law. Common-law lawyers and judges are intellectual and moral heroes in his evocation of medieval England.

"The history of law must be a history of ideas."
—Frederic Maitland

Though many of Maitland's claims have been qualified or refuted by later research and scholarship, he is recognized as a seminal figure in the study of English legal history.

Maitland died December 19, 1906, at Las Palmas, Canary Islands.