Smith, David Chan, Sir Edward Coke and the Reformation of the Laws: Religion, Politics and Jurisprudence, 1578-1616.
Social historians are familiar with the methodological mechanism often termed 'social biography', whereby a person or collective of persons serves to focus research and discussion in ways that examine and illuminate past social worlds. This book does a similar thing, but with law. Here, Edward Coke is the object of a 'legal biography', a study of the law and politics of Coke's age, rather than a biographical study of the man himself. Essentially, David Chan Smiths purpose is to add complexity to scholarly understandings of Coke's legal world. Challenging a longstanding and quite simplistic approach to the legal developments of the period, which frames the primary context productive of legal change as a binary conflict 'between liberty and royal power' (p. 5), Smith aims to go further than this power struggle dualism. He achieves this by approaching Coke's legal thought and judicial activities through a series of interconnected thematic chapters, mainly concerned with specific case studies that address wider legal contexts, Coke's own professional preoccupations, and the epistemological framework of each.
This book does not, therefore, mimic any conventional biography. It is best approached with some familiarity with Coke and his world, especially because many of the arguments are predicated on rebutting established historiographical constructs and adding nuance to existing scholarship. It is very detailed, comprehensively argued, but at times very dense, making it a book hard to put down and pick up with ease. A few more breaks in the text would not have gone astray. While an impressive addition to the body of scholarship of this period and subject, this reviewer would not recommend it as an aid to teaching. This is a shame, because many of its points are excellent and some detail particularly fascinating. It is an expert book for the experts.
Smith contextualises his study by exploring Cokes own professional history, using this to illustrate some of the complexities and tensions in the common law, and to illuminate how in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries various old legal processes were adopted, adapted, resisted, and re-envisaged across that broad period. Through this, Cokes reforming activities are situated in a broader professional context, not entirely excising politics from the legal developments of the period, but certainly diminishing any sense of straightforward ideological constructions devoid of disciplinary or professional constructions, constraints, and concerns. Over the first few chapters, Smith builds a picture of Coke as being concerned to remedy the perception of the law, generally improve its practice, and particularly weed out corrupt usages of it. This provides a comprehensive counter-argument to simplistic presentations of Coke as a sort of champion of the common law. As part of this, Smith uses a case study of law in the Fens in Chapter 3, which may also be of interest to scholars with that regional interest.
Chapters 4 and 5, addressing Coke's own historicising of the common law, are among the most interesting in the book. In Chapter 4, Smith engages with the way Coke addressed the relationship between the common law and the Church courts. This illustrates how an overarching historical narrative, aligning the common law with royal authority against invasive foreign powers, developed from and in a mutually informing relationship with Protestant histories familiar to Coke. Similarly, in Chapter 5, Smith examines the way that Coke held up the common law as an expression of accumulated reason, positioning it as the arbiter of wisdom, and thereby both the measure and measurer of other legal authorities, laws, and processes.
The final chapters of the book delve into the details of jurisdictional battles, procedural developments, and Coke s wider reforming agenda. Smith explores contemporary arguments and actions in connection with the High Commission for Causes Ecclesiastical and Cawdrey's Case (1591), tensions over the role and limits of Chancery, and developments and tensions connected with the theory of delegation of royal authority. Through these, Smith explores and resolves the seemingly ambiguous position of Coke as an enthusiast of royal authority who worked towards limiting its power.
This is a complex book for a complex man in complex times, and Smith has done well to engage meaningfully with that multilayered complexity.
Nicholas D. Brodie, Hobart, Tasmania
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|Author:||Brodie, Nicholas D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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