The stout man in the beekeeper’s outfit waved as we approached him on the trail from Machynlleth to Llanbrynmair. “You must be the Weiners,” he said as he took off his helmet and smiled.
“We—we are,” I replied, dumbfounded to be recognized on a secluded byway in the Welsh midlands. “How on earth did you know?”
“Who else could you possibly be, then? Only one or two people pass by here every day. You’ll be staying with me tonight. I’m your innkeeper.”
It was another typical encounter in Wales—a warm welcome extended in a remote, green landscape. This summer, my wife and I walked 350 miles through that lush country, roaming over hill and dale, or bryn and cwm, just after lambing season, when the fields echoed with the sweet, insistent bleating of sheep and their young.
The walk marked both an ending and a beginning for us, and we walked with a purpose.
For the past ten years, I worked as a law professor in Newark, New Jersey. I adored my students, and introducing them to the study of constitutional law and legal history, my core subjects, was one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I also felt proud to train future members of the legal profession. I view the work of lawyers in grand terms.
But I was commuting three hours each way to my job, and my life was growing out of balance. My recurring dreams typically involved improbable feats of train travel, many of which obviously violated the space-time continuum. Every few nights I awoke from a nightmare in which for some urgent but unstated reason I needed to use the New York City subway to travel from Chicago to Norway in two hours.
This spring, I left my job to lead a slower life. I wanted more time at home, with my wife, to devote to the things that had drawn me to a scholar’s career: books, ideas, and thoughtful conversation. I also had some nagging questions on my mind that I wanted solitude to contemplate—questions about the future of law in a diverse, multi-cultural world and how to write about those questions for a general audience.
So as we ambled along gently curving paths lined with wildflowers and marveled at the iridescent fields of rapeseed blanketing the Welsh countryside, we also were walking into a new phase of our life as a couple and of my life as a writer about law.
It turned out that our path through Wales touched at every point on these matter of law’s future that I intended to take up when I came home.
For one, the story of Welsh law illuminates a recurrent theme in human history: that people around the world and across time have understood law in radically different ways. Common law, civil law; American law, French law; Western law, Asian law; Islamic law, Jewish law; Hindu law, tribal law. There are as many ways of understanding law—its purpose, its methods, its form—as there are classes in zoology or botany. Medieval Welsh law was as distinctive as the Welsh language (and yet, like that language, its development was bound to the larger history of the European continent).
The existence of global legal diversity poses an enormous challenge to the progress of the rule of law in an increasingly interconnected world. That’s why legal diversity will provide a framework for this blog in the coming years, as I use a range of tools, including images, audio, and video, to tell stories about the subject.
Some of my posts will place American legal issues in a global perspective. How do legal systems outside the United States treat the question of whether “corporations are people”? How do other nations approach the legality of race-based affirmative action? Domestic legal controversies look very differently when seen from a comparative perspective.
But my focus will be much wider than the United States. Look soon for discussions about a range of legal issues from around the world: Russian blasphemy prosecution and its cultural aftermath, criminal procedure in Norway, how the South African constitution prepares the country for states of national emergency, Iranian marriage law, and many other issues.
Look for posts, too, that illuminate global legal differences through funky perspectives and surprising facts, or that explore issues one might not associate with a legal blog, such as why lawyers in Europe or Latin America describe their law as aesthetically beautiful.
Did you know that even the very best German law students typically can’t name more than a few of the sixteen members of their highest court—even though it is one of the most respected institutions of their country? (Most American law students can quickly name all the members of the Supreme Court and tell you a good deal about their political views and personal lives.) German law students are some of the most diligent and informed students in the world; their lack of knowledge is the result of their distinctive understanding of legal institutions.
There’s also a more specific reason I’m interested in Welsh law, one that earlier motivated my interest in the law of medieval Iceland. The story of legal development in this green, peaceful country resonates with the challenges facing liberal state builders in Afghanistan, Somalia, and other hot-button regions of the world today. In particular, Wales was long organized politically and legally along lines of kinship—of extended family groups. But on that, more next time.
For three weeks, Stephanie and I followed two long-distance routes of Britain’s national trails system, Offa’s Dyke Path, which runs south to north along the border between Wales and England, and Glyndwr’s Way, which runs east to west through the midlands. Each route points toward distinctive aspects of Welsh legal development.
I invite you to walk with me as I follow these two great paths—and the many other trails I hope to walk in the years ahead as I explore the many, fascinating, essential worlds of law.
As the Welsh say, Hwyl am rwan! Bye for now.