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Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition [Paperback]

Harold J. Berman
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1985 0674517768 978-0674517769

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.

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Editorial Reviews


A magnificent volume, broad in scope and rich in detail; this may be the most important book on law in our generation. (American Political Science Review)

This is a book of the first importance. Every lawyer should read it ... Clearly written and well-organized, it is a work of immense scholarship. (Los Angeles Daily Journal)

Superb... A tour de force of insight and erudition The principal text divides into two parts, the first dealing with the papal revolution and its distinctive legal system of canon law and the second describing the emergence of secular legalism through its roots in feudal, manorial, mercantile, urban, and royal systems... A magnificent topping-off to the conventional [law school] curriculum. (The Benchmark)

By demonstrating the revolutionary character of the papal reformation, Berman upsets periodizations commonly accepted by Church historians, positivists, Marxist historians, and historians of the law... Law and Revolution is itself a revolutionary book in obliging the practitioners of many university disciplines to readjust their focus and to see in law a revolutionary cultural force. (George H. Williams)


By demonstrating the revolutionary character of the papal reformation, Berman upsets periodizations commonly accepted by Church historians, positivists, Marxist historians, and historians of the law... Law and Revolution is itself a revolutionary book in obliging the practitioners of many university disciplines to readjust their focus and to see in law a revolutionary cultural force. (George H. Williams) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674517768
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674517769
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #534,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Layman's View December 23, 2000
As an average US citizen without any legal training or education, I've always found the subject of law a bit overwhelming and intimidating to grasp. It is so primary in our "nation of laws" that law permeates almost every aspect of our lives. How does one even begin to get a handle on it? I asked a law professor if he had any recommendations, and he recommended "Law and Revolution", by Harold Berman. This book finally lifted the veil for me, on what law is in our society, and how it got that way. It portrays a huge panorama of the evolution of law from primitive trials by fire, to trials by church and by competing states, to our modern systems. I learned, for example, that one of the first and enduring reasons for criminal law is to prevent persons from retaliating in person against criminals. Back a thousand years ago, it was common for families to take revenge into their own hands, and the civil systems tried many ways to control this "need" to avenge, and modern criminal law grew out of those efforts. Another interesting learning was that the early church spent enormous efforts learning how to intellectually "reconcile" conflicting church dogmas, devising such techniques as "thesis, "anti-thesis" and "synthesis". Then, later, these highly refined intellectual skills were turned to the extremely complicated and confusing arena of law, and helped to gradually sort out and codify successful ways of acting civilized as a society. Ok, you get the idea. Just a few tidbits from this vast book. A wonderful reference for the average citizen who wants to understand the role of law in our lives. It stands as one of the top ten books I've ever read! Roger Matthews
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two books in one August 5, 2002
By grapabo
At its core, the thesis of the book is this: that the origins of the western legal tradition can be traced to a "Papal Revolution" in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Papal Revolution, in essence, was an effort by scholars like Peter Abelard, Gratian, and Bracton, who applied an ancient Greek method of abstraction and analysis to the remnants of Roman law dating back to Justinian five or six centuries earlier. The Greek philosophers never gave much regard to the laws of their city-states, and the Romans wilfully avoided applying any level of abstraction to their laws, so when the 11th and 12th century scholars applied the Greek analytical method to the Roman law, something truly unique was born.
But that's only the beginning. Berman goes to great lengths to show that the "Papal Revolution", though it may not have taken place as abruptly as the other later revolutions in the western world, was no less an epochal event. The first half of the book traces how the canon law and papal power first separated itself from the secular law of the territorial kingdoms, and then asserted its own kind of jurisdiction. Although the level of detail sometimes distracts from Berman's main point, the organization of the chapters in Part I are careful to build up the story of how the need to gloss the old Roman texts led to a "science of law" in itself, and then to competing jurisdictions between emperor and pope, and how the development of the law led to the resolution of these conflicts. Part I ends with a short chapter on the personal conflict between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, which Berman proposes is the personification of the competing interests of the papacy and the secular authority.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book. April 10, 2000
"Law and Revolution" is a tour de force and a lasting contribution to legal scholarship. Scholars fortunate enough to be familiar with Berman's earlier book, "The Nature and Functions of Law," will immediately recognize Berman's approach to law as a social institution; an approach that is firmly grounded in history and experience, but which also takes into consideration the realm of ideas. Berman's thesis is that the Western legal tradition was created by a series of social "revolutions," and that we are currently at the end of an era and experiencing a "revolution" that will transform our legal institutions. "Law and Revolution" is Berman's attempt to trace the development of our Western legal tradition in order to glean knowledge that will be useful to us in weathering the storm of the current "revolution" in our legal institutions. As Berman states, "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." The result of Berman's approach is a long book-Berman simply could not achieve his purpose in a brief essay. Berman writes well, however, and he manages always to fascinate the reader. Berman's depth of thought is as beautiful as it is rare. This is a book to read, to ponder, and to re-read. It deserves a broad audience both inside and outside legal academia.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book -- what legal history should be May 4, 2005
By Thomas
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful, wonderful book. I'm a law professor, but this book makes me wish I were a legal historian. I loved this book so much I taught a seminar where what we did mainly, was read this book. The only criticisms I have are that it is like one of those overwhelming meals where you cannot possibly ingest, let alone digest and appreciate, everything that is offered. The book is also an important corrective to the PC notion that the West is the source of all evil in the world. Instead you learn how deeply rooted are the ideas of individual freedom and dignity (not least, the dignity of women) in Western legal traditions, that can be traced ultimately to the complex interplay of Christian and Roman legal traditions. I teach at a (somewhat nominally) Catholic law school. I wish I could require all of our students to read this book before they graduate.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Magisterial in its development, prodigious in its documentation,...
It is not often a book appears that forces the reader to change or challenge long held historic concepts and narratives. Read more
Published 5 months ago by John
5.0 out of 5 stars Explains growth of western culture as result of conflict of...
Berman states that western culture, especially the freedoms that the rest of the world did not develop, comes from the two competing institutions, the King vs the Pope. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Clay Garner
5.0 out of 5 stars medieval revolution
This is a book of revolutionary importance to understanding European history: enormous in scope & documentation both. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Peter the Bandit
5.0 out of 5 stars From the author's research assistant
I was the research assistant to Professor Berman at the Harvard Law School while he was engaged in drafting the first volume of "Law and Revolution", over thirty years ago. Read more
Published 10 months ago by BuckerooBanzai
4.0 out of 5 stars Berman's penmanship
As a journalism student, I found it quite easy to follow the history of our legal system specially because Berman includes a whole bunch of references, is very well informed, and... Read more
Published on February 13, 2011 by Luis Barrueto
4.0 out of 5 stars As good as it gets in terms of legal history...
This is a very long review. I did not originally intend to write such a long review but it kind of got away from me. Read more
Published on January 16, 2011 by Brian C.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book about a Forgotten Tradition
Prof. Berman wrote a comprehensive book about a forgotten historical topic. LAW AND REVOLUTION is precise explantion of the gradual developement of carefully crafted legal... Read more
Published on December 20, 2005 by James E. Egolf
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for any legal historian....
Berman's evidence and comprehensive detail is irrefutable. Heavy reading and may require exploration of other references. Read more
Published on November 30, 2001 by Christopher
5.0 out of 5 stars The book is indespensible for understanding the west
Law and Revolution is indespensible to understand how western civilization came about. Berman, in the exhaustive fashion of Gibbon, present an irrefutable case that Western... Read more
Published on September 17, 1999
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