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Exploring Legal Multiculturalism in the Irish Sea

Exploring Legal Multiculturalism in the Irish Sea: Multiculturalism, ProtoDemocracy, and State Formation on the Isle of Man from 900-1300

By M. Joseph Wolf

Master’s Thesis,  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2014

Isle of Man
Isle of Man

Abstract: This thesis explores the relationship between proto-democracy, multiculturalism, and state formation. In the introduction, I express the desire to ascertain how legal multiculturalism on the Isle of Man could be viewed as a product of the shared protodemocratic character of the Irish and the Norse legal traditions. Further, I wish to explore how this multiculturalism influenced the development of the state on the island and, coming full circle, what multiculturalism and state formation meant for the future of proto-democracy on the island. In this thesis, I conclude that many of the institutions that played a role in fostering state formation on Man, such as the keys, coroners, and parishes, were themselves a product of legal multiculturalism. Further, I argue that this legal multiculturalism and state formation in turn results in a loss of institutions on Man that characterized the separate legal traditions as proto-democracies.

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Introduction: The leading men take counsel over minor issues, the major ones involve them all; yet even those decisions that lie with the commons are considered in advance by the elite. Unless something unexpected suddenly occurs, they gather on set days, when the moon is either new or full… When it pleases the crowd, they take their seats armed, at the command of the priests there is silence, since at this time they too have the right of enforcement. Then, according to his age, birth, military distinction, and eloquence, the king or leading man is given a hearing, more through his influence in persuasion than his power in command. If his views are ill received, the men reject them with a roar if well received, the clash their spears.

Tacitus’s account of the Germani circa 98 A.D. represents the oldest known depiction of Germanic assembly practices and has fascinated minds for generations. By modern standards, Tacitus’s account is considered unreliable, yet it still provides a useful introduction to the study of assembly traditions in Northern Europe during the early Middle Ages. Assemblies of this kind were not found exclusively amongst the Germanic peoples; rather, they appear to have been quite common in ancient Europe. Frenand Braudel argues that by virtue of being pre-industrial, an “upper limit” was placed on European society. So long as every culture possessed a relatively homogeneous means of production and relied on similar economic and social conventions, there was no reason to expect that political conventions would differ greatly.

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What stands out in depictions of these ancient assembly traditions is a character that in a way could be understood to be in some sense “proto-democratic:” political decisions that would affect the people were made by the people themselves. Further, though not apparent from this passage, these assemblies appeared in a societal context that lacked a coercive executive power, which is conventionally associated with states. While law might have been made and promulgated at these assemblies, society relied on informal forces to enforce it. The term proto-democracy then refers to assembly traditions such as these that are characterized by features that appear “democratic” in an era before the formal development of the state.

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Click here to read this thesis from Virginia Tech

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