New Approaches to New Challenges: The Nature of Historical Research for Laidlaw

I began Laidlaw with the expectation that my university experience had adequately equipped me for undertaking a ten-week-long research project on legal history, a topic in which I am keenly interested. I had written multiple 5,500-word essays before and figured this would be no different, except in the duration of the research. What I quickly learned, however, is that the difference is not simply quantitative, i.e., it does not lie solely in the amount of reading, notes, and time required, as these factors necessitate a qualitatively different approach

Essays for class are often short enough that I can construct a sound argument with no more than fifteen sources. This is not the case for a research project the length of Laidlaw, and as such I cannot rely on the same informal research methods I use for those assignments. For class, I will often try to identify information that strengthens or weakens my overall argument while reading and taking notes on a source. The more sources I use, however, the more information I need to incorporate into my arguments, and the number of sources I am using for Laidlaw is such that I cannot effectively analyze and read them at the same time. Consequently, I needed to partition my project into more discreet chunks of reading and analysis to ensure my arguments are as comprehensive and coherent as possible. With the assistance of my supervisor I constructed a more detailed itinerary to give some shape to the next ten weeks.

Since all history is founded on the analysis of primary sources, I began my project by gathering and critically reading the extant introductory materials (not necessarily prologues, strictly speaking) of most legal codes (again, broadly defined) issued between the fifth and eighth centuries AD. I attempted to identify problems or themes relating to my question, i.e., how these prologues used history to make value-laden claims about reality. This opened several avenues for me to approach my secondary literature, which has occupied my time up to now.

A manuscript leaf from the Lombard Edictum Rothari

I divided my secondary reading thematically, and attempted to have my themes roughly correspond to each week of study. So far, I have focused most on each code’s respective manuscript tradition and any problems of transmission, any scholarly work on the uses of history in the early middle ages more generally, the history of identity, particularly ethnicity, the nature of kingship in the Germanic kingdoms and late Roman Empire, and any relevant political history surrounding the promulgation of codes. Although my perennial concern is that my reading is not as comprehensive as it should be, the work I have done so far has hopefully equipped me with the context required to start effectively analyzing the codes’ uses of history, which I will likely begin next week.

This analysis will entail me reviewing all my notes and organizing them based on an interrogation of the questions I think are most relevant to constructing a sound argument. This will also allow me to determine what questions require more research once I have spent some time analyzing my existing notes. Two questions with which I have already struggled are “what constitutes a prologue?” and “What constitutes a code?”. These have major methodological implications as they determine the scope of my research. So far, I have been relying on very loose definitions, which has allowed me to survey a wide variety of legal texts. But this raises the concern that the “codes” or “prologues” I am studying are all categorically different, meaning I risk generalization. Ultimately, I may have to discard much of the material I have studied to construct a more conservative, but also more persuasive, argument.

A Mosaic of Justinian I, the author of the Corpus Iuris Civilis

So far, I have had no problems finding the motivation to work every day, and it will be interesting to see whether this motivation remains now that my task is all the more abstract.Although I foresee this being one of the most exciting parts of the research process, it is also one of the most challenging, and will test my abilities to synthesize a larger body of information than any I have examined before.

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