Buffalo Law Review

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In Law and Revolution, author Harold Berman argued that our society’s commitment to law’s autonomy and to law’s efficacy for social change are persuasively synthesized in an idea of legal science originally developed by medieval canon lawyers to justify the centralization of authority under the Pope. According to Berman, this idea of progress through law became the model for the modern state and inspired progressive social change. This essay challenges these claims. It argues that medieval scholasticism had a static view of history and that Berman systematically misreads synchronic representations of hierarchy and dominion in scholastic thought as diachronic representations of change and progress. It further argues that neither the centralization of the church nor scholastic legal thought had progressive influence in medieval society. To the contrary, the centralization of authority under the pope led to the persecution of self-governing communities of worshippers as heretic, while scholastic legal thought rationalized and legitimized the emergent feudal system. This was a change, but hardly progressive, leading to peasants’ loss of property, free status, and self-governance.

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