Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition


The roots of modern Western legal institutions and concepts go back nine centuries to the Papal Revolution, when the Western church established its political and legal unity and its independence from emperors, kings, and feudal lords. Out of this upheaval came the Western idea of integrated legal systems consciously developed over generations and centuries. Harold J. Berman describes the main features of these systems of law, including the canon law of the church, the royal law of the major kingdoms, the urban law of the newly emerging cities, feudal law, manorial law, and mercantile law. In the coexistence and competition of these systems he finds an important source of the Western belief in the supremacy of law. Written simply and dramatically, carrying a wealth of detail for the scholar but also a fascinating story for the layman, the book grapples with wideranging questions of our heritage and our future. One of its main themes is the interaction between the Western belief in legal evolution and the periodic outbreak of apocalyptic revolutionary upheavals. Berman challenges conventional nationalist approaches to legal history, which have neglected the common foundations of all Western legal systems. He also questions conventional social theory, which has paid insufficient attention to the origin of modem Western legal systems and has therefore misjudged the nature of the crisis of the legal tradition in the twentieth century.


This is a story of origins, of "roots" -- and also of "routes," the paths by which we have arrived where we are. The skeptic may read it with nostalgia, retracing in his mind the course by which he came to his alienation. The believer may hope to find in it some guidelines for the future. "The past has revealed to me how the future is built," wrote Teilhard de Chardin.

My own motivation is somewhat more desperate. It is said that a drowning man may see his whole life flash before him. That may be his unconscious effort to find within his experience the resources to extricate himself from impending doom. So I have had to view the Western tradition of law and legality, of order and justice, in a very long historical perspective, from its beginnings, in order to find a way out of our present predicament.

That we are at the end of an era is not something that can be proved scientifically. One senses it or one does not. One knows by intuition that the old images, as Archibald MacLeish says in The Metaphor, have lost their meaning.

A world ends when its metaphor has died. An age becomes an age, all else beside, When sensuous poets in their pride invent Emblems for the soul's consent That speak the meanings men will never know But man-imagined images can show: It perishes when those images, though seen, No longer mean.

Because the age is ending, we are now able to discern its beginnings. In the middle of an era, when the end is not in sight, the beginning also is hidden from view. Then history does indeed give the appearance, in . . .

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