Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Crane on Common Law and Common Folk in Early America

Elaine Forman Crane's Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America (Cornell Press) is the subject of a recent issue of Rorotoko.* The book, which Crane (Fordham University) classifies as "microhistory," is composed of "six stories about early Americans and how brushes with the law affected everyday life."

Here's Crane on the book "in a nutshell":
The chapters range geographically from New England to New Amsterdam and from Maryland to Bermuda. Men and women, free and enslaved, humans and spirits rub elbows throughout the pages as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries collide with the early nineteenth.  Although social issues dominate the story lines, sex and money are integral to the narratives.
Taking a "wide angle" view, Crane writes:
What . . . ties the chapters together and makes a coherent narrative of six disparate stories is the widespread knowledge of and reliance on legal principles that had stood the test of time in the Dutch and Anglo-American worlds. In all of the chapters, the actors display an amazing grasp of law and an astonishing comprehension of their “rights.”
And the takeaway:
Those debtors, tenants, and servants played as much of a part in the creation of a legal culture as did the legislators who wrote the laws. By obeying such laws, common folk legitimized the authority of those above them. By circumventing the system and seeking justice or punishment through private negotiations, common folk created common law.  
 Read on here.

*As regular readers can probably tell, I love the Rorotoko format because it encourages authors to consider their books from different angles and to explain themselves in jargon-free prose. For historians and consumers of history, the format is particularly useful: it allows authors to talk about "pay off" and process in a way that might be inappropriate for the book itself, but is nonetheless fascinating for readers. Viva, Rorotoko!

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