Authority in the Archives

Paul Halliday


This article offers a critique of the sensory deprivation under which legal studies normally operate by exploring how material forms shape law’s substance. Archives and the objects in them used for storing precedents have a history that we must understand if we are to ascribe meaning and authority to the texts they contain. Thus the images here do not simply illustrate propositions; they raise and answer questions about how physical forms constrain what is knowable as law. We can see this by studying practices in the eighteenth-century English court of King’s Bench, and especially the manuscript precedent books made by that court’s clerks. Examining one case—of the liberal campaigner, John Wilkes—we can watch clerks shaping authority as they used indexing tools of their own making to find the crucial precedents. Those same clerks then turned the case into a precedent by storing the results in the archive over which they were masters.

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