The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. 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. Savigny’s 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, Bracton’s Notebook (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, centuries—“a luminous age throwing light on both past and future.” But Maitland’s 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 corpus juris 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 Maitland’s capacity as a lecturer. The Oxford Ford Lectures (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 (1307–10)—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. Maitland’s introduction to the first volume could only have been written by one who had acquired a complete intimacy with his material.