At heart, legal history is the biography of the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s all about blasphemy, thieving, adultery, coveting, murder – the assertion of the personal id over the communal superego. But generally you wouldn’t know this from the bloodless analytics of historians. It takes the popular arts to remind us that law is integral to human culture, to the flesh and blood of society as a collective of individual life experience – another ritualized belief system in a world of sex, thugs, and rocky shoals.
Consider the hundreds of murder, poacher, drunkard, and “bedtrick” (rapist disguised as lover) ballads, the more modern paeans to Bonnie and Clyde and “Hurricane” Carter, the novels of Dickens, Walter Scott, and Sarah Caudwell, historically sensitive TV dramas such as “Kavanagh, Q.C.,” “Rumpole of the Bailey” … and, sure enough, “Downton Abbey.” Actually, especially “Downton Abbey,” the globally popular, twenty-first century iteration of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” set this time between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and British property law reforms of 1925.
Nothing has made the general public more aware of the increasingly sclerotic history of Anglo-American feudalism, particularly in its modern, classist vestiges. Almost miraculously, the show has caused the law of fee tail, a persistent and now obscure holdover of medieval property law, to feature on Twitter and pop culture blogs. Even a proposed law has been named after the show, following the bill’s introduction in the House of Lords in 2013. Ralph Palmer, 12th Baron Lucas, proposed the Equality Titles Bill, nicknamed the “Downton Abbey law” given that it would have permitted female descendants to inherit peerages. This addressed the core issue early in the TV series – that because Lord Grantham had three daughters but no son, a third cousin he’d never met, and not one of his own children or grandchildren, stood to inherit his title and associated entail (his property rights connected with Downton). Mind you, while the bill was accorded two readings and royal assent, it died in committee.
Coincidentally with the bill’s death, and during “Downton’s” fourth season, in “real life” the three daughters of the Earl of Northesk saw their father’s title go to their eighth cousin, a man they and their father had never met. The heir is 14 years older than the earl would have been (he died at 55) and has no direct descendant, while, when title passed, the earl’s daughters were 23, 26, and 30.
Probably many “Downton” acolytes normally would scoff at the law as an incomprehensible tool of plutocracy. Now they sit enthralled over plot-lines driven by the obscurities of primogeniture and other legal challenges for women and their families in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when abortion and homosexuality were serious crimes (whether you were upstairs – as with Lady Edith – or downstairs, as with Thomas the footman), “illegitimacy” was not only scandalous but socially and financially ruinous, racism against blacks and Jews was du rigueur and mostly legal, mental illness was hidden away in shame (as with Mrs. Hughes’s sister), and you could be hanged for murder – a particular problem if you were wrongfully accused, as with Bates the valet.
Most of this mirrors problems in North America at the time, less entrenched, perhaps, but exacerbated by the legacy of slavery. Wider public appreciation of that awaits a new series, “Upton Mansion,” let’s call it. “Upton” could chronicle the life and times of a John D. Rockefeller sort, John D.’s life having spanned the Civil War through Prohibition to the rise of Adolph Hitler. There are at least six seasons in the saga, John D.’s father having been a bigamist and adulterer, and his grandson Nelson, the business kingpin, vice-president under Gerald Ford, and New York governor, having died at 71 in flagrante delicto (credible rumour has it) with his 25-year-old assistant, when adultery was still a matter of “fault” under matrimonial law. Seize the day, Hollywood, and rescue legal history from the historians!