Frederic William Maitland

Historian, lawyer, and legal scholar Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906) was the first major English historian to break with the classic Whiggish interpretation of English legal and constitutional history.

Frederic William Maitland was born in London on May 28, 1850, the son of John Gorham and Emma Daniell Maitland. He was prepared in a number of fortuitous ways for his extraordinary scholarly career. Perhaps most important, the early deaths of both his parents placed him in the care of an aunt who provided him with a series of German governesses from whom he learned the language so well that the whole range of 19th-century German historical scholarship was opened to him at a time when that scholarly tradition was at its peak. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in moral sciences (philosophy) in 1872, he afterward enrolled at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar in 1876.

The year 1879 saw the publication of Maitland's first learned article, which marked the beginning of an extraordinarily productive scholarly career. His work, although specialized, was characterized by a subtle perception and a style of writing so clear and supple that it has never ceased to awe and charm scholars, a circumstance which helps to account for his great reputation as a historian's historian. The most important works of his extensive personal bibliography are History of English Law before the Time of Edward I, with Sir Frederick Pollock (1895; rev. ed. 1898); Domesday Book and Beyond (1897); Township and Borough (1898); Canon Law in England (1898); and English Law and the Renaissance (1901).

Maitland's originality of outlook and his ability to comprehend the essential nature of a scholarly problem made it possible for him to break through the deeply rooted assumptions of English historiography, which had been so widely accepted by 19th-century historical scholarship. He realized that the past had to be understood in its own terms and not in the light of later developments or 19th-century scholarly presuppositions. He tried to see the world of the past through the eyes of men who had lived it. This imaginative transposition sufficed to make his scholarship both original and seminal in its influence upon others.

For Maitland, history was a product of human thoughts and actions which create uncertainties, paradoxes, and confusions that cannot always be resolved by imposing the sometimes false clarity of scholarly analysis. He raised questions and suggested hypotheses within a new context which may be said to have profoundly altered Englishmen's views of their medieval past and to have significantly influenced the whole nature of historical inquiry throughout the English-speaking world. If his specific findings in certain areas of study—parliamentary origins, for example—do not always square with the researches of a later generation, still he suggested the right lines of inquiry. His profound intelligence, his thoroughly Victorian habits of intellectual labor, and the firmness of will which kept him at work in the face of a long illness that forced him to live in a warmer climate during much of his last years all combined to make him "a man of notable goodness and nobility of character and of singularly attractive personality." He died in the Canary Islands on Dec. 19, 1906.

Further Reading on Frederic William Maitland

Studies of Maitland include H. A. L. Fisher, Frederic William Maitland: Downing Professor of the Laws of England (1910); A. L. Smith, Frederic William Maitland: Two Lectures and a Bibliography (1908); James R. Cameron, Fredrick William Maitland and the History of English Law (1961); and H. E. Bell, Maitland: A Critical Examination and Assessment (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Cameron, James Reese, Frederick William Maitland and the history of English law, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977, 1961.

Elton, G. R. (Geoffrey Rudolph), F.W. Maitland, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.