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The Victorian Age, Part Two
Historians, Biographers and Political Orators
> Frederic William Maitland
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.
Historians, Biographers and Political Orators
§ 21. Frederic William Maitland.
In Frederic William Maitland, who, after a brilliant, but all too short, career as teacher of English law and writer on English legal history, was taken away when at the height of his intellectual powers, his contemporaries, as of one accord, had come to recognise a foremost authority on the studies with which he had identified himself. Rarely has a more modest self-estimate (he judged himself, for instance, incapable of narrative history) coexisted with more fascinating mental and personal qualities, more penetrating insight into theory, a rarer art of illustrating it by the use of practical example and a quicker and pleasanter wit. His power of epigram was considerable, and imparts a delightful spontaneous sparkle to his writings on subjects in the treatment of which few readers expect diversion to be blended with instruction.
He had inherited from his father, Samuel Roffey Maitland, a vivid interest in English history and a thorough independence of judgment.
After giving himself up at Cambridge to philosophical reading, he had, during eight years, acquired a full experience of the practice of the law, but preferred its historical side, and further equipped himself for the work of his life by an assiduous study of continental legal history. Savignys influence was, necessarily, very strong upon him, and he began a translation of the great
Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter
which he never completed. As the purpose of his labours gradually shaped itself in his mind, and he resolved upon accomplishing for the history of English, what Savigny had achieved for that of Roman, law, he perceived the necessity of associated effort, if this end was to be reached. He thus became the founder, and, afterwards, the director, of the Selden society, to whose publications he contributed nearly half of those issued in his lifetime. The history of common law had never been taken in hand after Bracton and Blackstone; and the very language of the law of the later middle ages had been left without dictionary or grammar.
Maitland did not claim to be a palaeographer; but he taught himself by teaching others, and came to be esteemed an expert on MSS. and in the criticism of texts.
In his own first important production,
(1887), he claimed for a British Museum MS. the character of a collection of materials for the famous treatise
De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae.
By such researches as these, many of which were published by the Selden society, and the whole range of which his paper entitled
The Materials for English Legal History
showed him to have under his ken, he prepared himself for the publication, in conjunction with his friend Sir Frederick Pollock, of their
History of the English Law before the Time of Edward I
(1895). This book, which at once took rank as the standard authority on its subject, deals chiefly with the latter part of the twelfth, and with the thirteenth, centuriesa luminous age throwing light on both past and future. But Maitlands attention was by no means absorbed by this period of the laws and institutions of England. His essays entitled
Domesday Book and Beyond
belong to a relatively late date in his career (1897), and touch on debatable ground. In his Selden volume
Bracton and Azo
(1895), he had discussed the relations between English law and the
to which, indirectly if not directly, the English judge had been held to be deeply indebted. The general subject of these relations possessed the greatest interest for him, and connected itself with the special question of English canon law, which he discussed in six essays entitled
Roman Canon Law in the Church of England.
Much controversy followed, and Maitland briefly reverted to the subject in the course of a very judicious contribution to
The Cambridge Modern History
entitled The Anglican Settlement and the Scottish Reformation. His Rede lecture (1901) entitled
English Law and the Renaissance,
with its humorous half-outlook on the future, will not easily be forgotten.
His reputation as a teacher had long been established; so far back as 1887, he had delivered a course of lectures entitled
The Constitutional History of England,
which extends over five periods from the death of Edward I to the present day, and, though analytical in form, combines, with a clear statement of principles, an abundance of illustration, while showing a wonderful alertness and ability of, as it were, entering into the minds of his hearers. The course was not published till 1908, and furnishes the fittest memorial of Maitlands capacity as a lecturer. The Oxford
(1898) dealt with the growth and definition of the idea of a corporation, an abstraction admitting of being rendered impressive by means of concrete illustrations, such as always had a peculiar fascination for him. In his last years, in the face of obstacles such as few scholars have braced themselves to resist and overcome, Maitland continued to read and write, even in his distant winter home. He proved his literary skill in a charming life of Leslie Stephen; but, most of his time was, when possible, given to
The Year Books of Edward II
(130710)a series begun late by him but carried through three successive volumes. These monuments take the student back straight into the middle ages, whose life they conjure up out of the dust of the law-courts. Maitlands introduction to the first volume could only have been written by one who had acquired a complete intimacy with his material.
. See Petit-Dutaillis, C.,
Studies and Notes supplementary to Stubbss Constitutional History,
parts I and II (originally published as notes to the French translation of the work); English translation by Rhodes, W. E., Manchester, 190814.
. Cf. Vinogradoff,
. See, for some illustrations, Smith, A. L.,
Frederic William Maitland
. S. R. Maitland, who during part of his life was librarian at Lambeth, in an early work on the Albigenses and Waldenses (1832), treated the pretensions of Joseph Milners
with much contempt, and, in later publications, attacked both him and Foxe, the author of
The Book of Martyrs.
The elder Maitlands numerous contributions to
The British Magazine,
of which he became editor, gave much offence to the evangelical party; but they have gained high praise both by their learning and by their force of style. See bibliography.
. See Maitlands chapter (
) in vol. 1 of the present work, The Anglo-French Law Language.
. See his introduction to the edition of
The Mirror of Justice
by his friend Whittaker, W. J. (Selden societys publications, vol.
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