Friday, May 9, 2014

Pigs, positivism, and the distance between sub-disciplines

Agricultural History recently published Dolly Jørgensen's "Running Amuck? Urban Swine Management in Late Medieval England". The subject immediately brought to mind the classic "Pigs and Positivism" by Hendrik Hartog, mentioned by Adam Wolkoff here in one of his great posts on teaching the history of law and the environment. Yet Jørgensen appears not to be aware of Hartog's piece, so well-known in the legal history community. Here's her abstract:
Swine as agricultural products were extremely common in the medieval townscape, but pigs are also notoriously damaging if allowed to run amuck. This article explores how local governments tried to regulate pig rearing as an integrated element in urban space, arguing that the authorities attempted to control the movement, feeding, and slaughter of swine as much as possible to circumvent damage to goods, crops, and even people. Urban government and court records from the most populous English urban centers as well as smaller towns from the end of the thirteenth century through the sixteenth century show that swine were not free roamers in towns of the Middle Ages. Because swine were a daily part of urban life, and an integral part of local agricultural production, they required cradle-to-grave controls.
Now Jørgensen is an accomplished environmental historian, but might not her research have benefited from the insights of a leading legal historian (never mind one that wrote on exactly her environmental topic, albeit in a different time and place)? Here's what Hartog had to say at the beginning of his article:

Frank Leslie´s Illustrated Newspaper, August 13, 1859
(Researching Food History)

Did 19th century residents have a right to keep pigs in the streets of New York City? In 1819, a court said no. But in what ways, if any, did that decision conclude the inquiry? Did it mean there no longer was such a right, implying that there once was? Did it mean that the law could never recognize such a right? What was the legal significance of the judicial denial of the right to keep pigs in the streets?
In this Article I will attempt to answer those questions using two rather different-and competing-interpretive strategies. The first, which I think of as the ordinary practice of American legal history writing, regards the case-and cases generally-as a text expounding and developing legal doctrine. The second, which I think  of as characteristic of the practice of some social anthropology and  some social history, visualizes the case as an instance or episode of  conflict between contending normative orders.
I want to use these contrasting strategies to make sense of the claimed and denied legal right of some 19th century New Yorkers to keep pigs in the streets of the city. I hope this study will help provide a starting point for a larger and more general study of the legal significance of American social customs. The relative silence of American legal doctrine on questions of customary law, a silence trumpeted by the legal language that enveloped efforts to rid New York City of its pigs, strikes me as pointing to the need to explore the problematic relationship between our social pluralism-the multiplicity of our social practices and normative identities-and the values we impute to legal order. But such a grandiose project will necessarily rest on numbers of smaller studies of the legal regulation of particular social practices, of which the essay that follows is an example. And whether such a larger project can ever be carried to completion, I can begin by trying to set out the complex relations between legal argument and social and political practice as they were revealed by the 1819 pig case and its aftermath. If I can succeed at that, the rest can wait, or perhaps, will follow. 
While Hartog's interests here are clearly different than Jørgensen's, it seems to me that her reading of the legal texts could have benefited from the kind of approach taken by Hartog.

What amazes me (once again) is how environmental historians writing on legal topics and legal historians writing on environmental ones so often proceed in blissful ignorance of the neighboring sub-field. I sit on committees in my university's school of environmental studies, where we spend a lot of time agonizing about how to encourage interdisciplinarity between, say, lawyers and geophysicists, or economists and ecologists. What hope is there for that kind of boundary-crossing if two sub-fields of history can't talk to each other?

No comments:

Post a Comment