The Common Law and Civil Law Traditions


Canon law – the body of laws that govern the Catholic Church and its members, deriving from the decrees and rules (“canons”) made by the pope and ecclesiastical councils.

Civil law – the system of law that emerged in continental Europe beginning in the Middle Ages and is based on codified law drawn from national legislation and custom as well as ancient Roman law.

Code – the collection of laws of a country or laws related to a particular subject.

Codification – the process of compiling and systematizing laws into a code.

Common Law – the system of law that emerged in England begin- ning in the Middle Ages and is based on case law and precedent rather than codified law.

Corpus iuris civilis – meaning“body of civil laws,” the name given to the compilation of Roman law ordered by the Byzantine em- peror Justinian I in 529 CE.

Equity –in English common law tradition, a body of legal princi- ples that emerged to supplement the common law when the strict rules of its application would limit or prevent a just outcome.

Precedent – a judicial decision in a court case that may serve as an authoritative example in future similar caseses.

Writ – a formal written order from a judicial or administrative authority that directs a form of legal action. Originally writs were royal orders from the court of the English king.

Yearbooks/reports – collections of common law court cases and judicial opinions recorded and organized by year. Yearbooks were the earliest editions compiled in England from the mid-thirteenth century until 1535, when they were superseded by officially printed and bound editions called Reports.

Select Bibliography/Further Reading

J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (London, 2002).

Manlio Bellomo, The Common Legal Past of Europe 1000-1800 (Washington DC, 1995).

Alan Cromartie, The Constitutionalist Revolution: An Essay on the History of England 1450-1642 (Cambridge, 2006).

Joseph Dainow, “The Civil Law and the Common Law: Some Points of Comparison,” American Journal of Comparative Law 15 (1966-7), p. 419-35.

S.F.C. Milsom, Historical Foundations of the Common Law (London, 1981).

Peter Stein, Roman Law in European History (Cambridge, 1999).

R.C. Van Caenegem, The Birth of the English Common Law (Cambridge, 1988).