Frederic William Maitland Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frederic William Maitland 1850-1906

English historian and lawyer.

Maitland was the preeminent English legal historian of the late nineteenth century. In such works as The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (1895), which he coauthored with Sir Frederick Pollock, Maitland traced the development of common law, which comprises the body of law based on custom, precedent, and judicial decisions rather than on written statutes and which forms the basis of the modern English and American judicial systems. Maitland's prolific scholarship includes volumes on medieval property laws, public institutions, constitutional law, canon law, the history of malice aforethought, and judicial cases dating back to the thirteenth century. In addition, through his role as a founder and literary director of the Selden Society, Maitland was instrumental in publishing numerous primary sources to aid scholarship in the area of legal history.

Biographical Information

Maitland was born in London in 1850. He was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, taking a B.A. in 1873 and a master's degree in 1876. He considered an academic career but, having failed to win a fellowship in history, began law studies at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1872. Maitland was called to the bar in 1876 and entered a legal firm in London, where he specialized in conveyances, the drawing of deeds and leases for transferring ownership of real property. While working as a barrister in the late 1870s and early 1880s he began contributing articles on historical topics to the Westminster Review and the Law Magazine and Review. In 1884 he left legal practice to return to Cambridge as a reader in English law. During this period he was instrumental in founding the Selden Society, a group devoted to publishing primary materials for the study of English law, and in 1888 he was named Downing Professor of the Laws of England, a position he held for the remainder of his life. From 1899 onward Maitland spent winter months in the Canary Islands, where he died in December 1906.

Major Works

During the twenty years of Maitland's publishing activity he completed a broad range of works, including numerous volumes of primary materials that he annotated and edited. Until the late-Victorian period, the source materials for the study of English legal history remained largely unknown although readily available in public records offices in England. Maitland is credited with initiating interest in these court records and other public documents through his early works, including Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester in 1221 (1884) and other records of judicial cases from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In his works Maitland traced ideas and general principles that by the nineteenth century had become seminal in English law back to their roots in particular events and court cases. His History of English Law before the Time of Edward I presents an exhaustive survey of Angevin law—law under the rule of the Plantagenet monarchs who reigned in England from 1154 to 1399—and focuses on technical aspects of such areas as matrimonial law, class distinctions, criminal law, and contract law, among other topics. Domesday Book and Beyond (1897) extends Maitland's earlier efforts to an examination of the English manorial system using as source material the "Domesday book," a survey of English life in 1086. Another area that Maitland had examined in History of English Law was the relationship between church and state in medieval England, and in Roman Canon Law in the Church of England (1898) he argued that, contrary to the position outlined by the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Courts in 1883, English ecclesiastical courts of the Middle Ages did uphold papal law. Among other works, Maitland's lectures were published in such volumes as Township and Borough (1898), English Law and the Renaissance (1901), and The Constitutional History of England (1908).

Critical Reception

Both Maitland's original works and those he compiled were instrumental in uniting the study of law with the study of English history, which in the nineteenth century had largely been focused on the monarchy and struggles over governing power. Later historians have broadened scholarly inquiry into subjects that Maitland first brought to the fore, and the primary materials that were made available through his efforts continue to serve scholars in researching legal history. Assessing Maitland's influence, W. S. Holdsworth commented in the 1930s that "In an age of great historians I think that Maitland was the greatest, I think that he was the equal of the greatest lawyers of his day, and that, as a legal historian, English law from before the time of legal memory has never known his like."