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Interpretation and Meaning in the Renaissance: The Case of Law.

The importance of law as a mechanism for entry into the complex structures of Renaissance Europe has recently been powerfully reinforced by a number of studies which look beyond traditional legal and institutional history and into the social practice and intellectual models of early modern society. The two works under discussion, Kuehn's Law, Family and Women, and Maclean's Interpretation and Meaning in the Renaissance, extend this process by investigating in the first case the operation of law as it was practised to illuminate the study of social history, to forge, in fact, a "legal anthropology" of Renaissance Italy. In the second book, the author uses the language of law to investigate the mind of Renaissance Europe, attempting to determine as accurately as possible what sixteenth-century writers intended in their work through an analysis of their language and "to link abstract theory with institutional and social forces" (p. 8).

Thomas Kuehn's work is already well established in the field of Florentine studies, especially legal history. Working in the tradition of Kirshner and Molho, Kuehn uses the vast riches of the Florentine State Archives, especially the notarial cartularies, to elucidate the reality of social history through the example of concrete documents of human interaction reflected in legal consilia, arbitration, litigation, wills, and similar materials. Using the models developed by anthropologists, Kuehn then draws conclusions about the true nature of Italian (almost without exception Florentine) society by going beyond the firm declarations of statute into the nuances of practice which often developed to obviate the more inflexible - or expensive or inappropriate - prescriptions of the law.

The book is a collection of Kuehn's previously published essays. Seven out of ten chapters appeared in learned periodicals over the past decade, including the Canadian journal Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Reforme. Divided according to three broad themes, these essays form a remarkably homogenous collection, despite the unavoidable repetitions and the use of the same sources for different purposes. Kuehn's skilful application of his documents to the larger issues contained in the law provides an engaging and nuanced discussion of his subjects. Never does he decline into the professional jargon of the disciplines employed; and never does he draw extravagant conclusions from limited evidence. Indeed, Kuehn on several occasions notes the need for further, broader study to confirm or revise his tentative conclusions. He recognizes that he is working in a still developing subdiscipline of historical analysis which requires the legitimization of a body of accepted scholarship outside the traditional areas of legal history (as least as practised by lawyers) and established social history (which has not yet taken full advantage of the kinds of sources Kuehn knows so well).

It would be impossible to review each of the ten chapters and give full credit to each. It must be sufficient to note how useful many of Kuehn's examples will be in exploding many of the comfortable myths about Florentine Renaissance society. The facts emerge that families could and did fail (and not uncommonly) to sustain their cohesion, integrity, and wealth, despite the numerous abstract exhortations to unity, collective honour and mutual responsibility. Women enjoyed in practice some greater authority over property and as heirs than the statutes, legists, and men indicate. Obviously, their rights were greatly restricted and often only obtained in the most unusual of circumstances; nevertheless, they were occasionally recognized, especially over the rights of non-kin. The very issue of what constituted property, the nature of male control over women, the resort to informal arbitration instead of litigation, the impediments of illegitimacy - all of these themes are explored with insight, skill, and clarity. Kuehn's scholarship is prodigious and his application of his knowledge to difficult but instructive documents provides a remarkably successful entry into the mentality as well as the daily functioning of Renaissance Florence. Consequently, this surprisingly coherent volume without doubt merited being issued, collecting in one place related essays on closely interrelated themes.

Maclean's Interpretation and Meaning in the Renaissance is a very different kind of study. It is a work for a specialist, written in a dense style, employing the vocabulary of jurisprudence and philosophy and built on complex references to original ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sources. It represents, then, the category of legal history which Kuehn remarked is of little value to the social historian.

This is not to say, however, that the work is without merit. On the contrary, Maclean has written a coherent study which addresses the contention that Renaissance writers enjoyed no "general theory of language" through a close investigation of texts of jurisprudence. He relates these theories to the traditions of formal education, especially the trivium; he discusses the form in which legal texts were printed; he compares the Renaissance principles of meaning and interpretation in legal language to those of the ancient world and the Middles Ages, as well as introducing modern semantical and language theory as a tool of research. Generally, the material for the book comes from the continent, with its unifying tradition of the Justinian Code and the Latin language. Nevertheless, there is an interesting section on England and useful and insightful discussion of the Common Law and its theorists which almost serves as a form of control on the conclusions drawn from continental sources.

At the end of this closely argued and complex book, Maclean makes some general statements which might not appear profound but do result from his exhaustive analysis. One is to refute Waswo and conclude that Renaissance jurists did not really believe that "linguistic categories actually structure the world" (p. 213). Such an opinion is contrary to the very foundations of legal thinking. Also, Maclean observes that there is a continuum in legal thinking and language which links even the modern world to the Renaissance and the Renaissance to the Middle Ages. Certainly circumstances, conditions, terms of reference, and many other factors are fundamentally different; but there is a kind of common legal concept of language. Finally, he notes that Renaissance jurists were far more eclectic than modern theorists. They were trained in a very broad culture and saw the advances made by humanism in other disciplines as appropriate materials to be applied to their theories and practice of the law.

One of the most useful areas of analysis for those historians of the Renaissance not specifically concerned with the history of jurisprudence or language theory is the interrelation of humanist method and legal thought. Maclean's careful application of humanist pedagogical principles, textual concerns, historical context, and rhetorical emphasis makes his work a valuable addition to the study of the influence of humanism on the intellectual institutions of the Renaissance. Although he consciously tries to keep humanism in its place, it continues to emerge as a formative influence on legal education, theory, and practice. This observation should not be surprising; but it is important to have it documented from such a wide variety of sources.
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Author:Bartlett, Kenneth R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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