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Professor Emeritus and Prominent Scholar Thomas Barnes Dies at 79

By Andrew Cohen

Thomas Barnes, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, died of complications resulting from a stroke on Tuesday, March 9. He was 79.

A prominent legal historian who specialized in English, French, American, and Canadian law and history, Barnes began teaching in UC Berkeley’s Department of History in 1960 and joined the law faculty in 1966. He retired from teaching in 2005.

Barnes authored or edited eight books, the last of which was Shaping the Common Law: From Glanvill to Hale, 1188–1688. A 2008 publication, it features 15 essays by Barnes that explore how influential common-law jurists and documents such as the Magna Carta shaped common law from its origins in 12th-century England to its arrival in the American colonies.

Barnes served as director of the American Bar Association Anglo-American Legal History Project from 1965–1986. He also co-founded UC Berkeley’s Canadian Studies Program in 1982, and was its director from 2006 until his death. The Thomas Garden Barnes Endowed Chair in Canadian Studies was created in his honor in 2005.

A member of the American Society for Legal History, the Royal Historical Society of England, and the Selden Society, Barnes was editor of the Gryphon Legal Classics Library. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1952, and his doctorate in history at Oxford University in 1955. 

In 2007, co-editors Buchanan Sharp and Mark Charles Fissel honored him by publishing Law and Authority in Early Modern England: Essays Presented to Thomas Garden Barnes. After describing Barnes’ ideas in textbooks he had written as “clear, well considered, forcefully expressed, and supported with richly detailed examples,” Sharp and Fissel added the following:

“What they cannot convey is the wit and humor of the lecturer and the rich tones and organ-like modulations of his preacher’s voice …. a true master of his craft, who was eager to share his knowledge of people, places, ideas, sources, and research techniques with his students.”