Individuals and Legal Institutions Around the Medieval Mediterranean

March 7-8, 2016 at Duke University

While there is a vast literature on medieval Jewish and Islamic law, the histories of medieval Jewish and Muslim legal institutions received substantially less attention. A relative dearth of documentary sources and a privileged position given to prescriptive texts have led to a top-down approach that views courts predominantly from the perspective of the central political power and/or the legal tradition. This situation contrasts with the study of courts and the legal arena in Christian Europe where there has been a long tradition of studying legal institutions “from below,” whether through the lens of dispute settlement, microhistory, or legal anthropology. A new approach has been recently developed by Daniel Lord Smail in his book, The Consumption of Justice. Viewing litigants as consumers who have options allows us to explore the choices they make both in terms of the venues they utilize and the strategies they pursue. This, in turn, necessitates a re-thinking of the institutions themselves as we learn to appreciate the ways they derived their power and legitimacy by structuring and accommodating consumers’ choices.

This conference will bring together scholars of medieval Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular legal institutions to think comparatively about the study of individuals and legal institutions “from below.” In order to supply a comparative perspective, we will be joined by scholars who have tackled such questions in adjacent fields, from Late Antiquity to the Ottoman Empire. By bridging the gap between the study of legal culture and practice in medieval Europe and the Islamic world, we hope to test the limits of the ‘consumer’ model as a way of understanding legal institutions and litigants’ choices.