If, around 1880, an educated person in Britain had been asked to list the most important intellectuals of the previous generation, he or she might well have mentioned, alongside Darwin and John Stuart Mill, the name of Sir Henry Maine, the subject of Karuna Mantena’s valuable new study. His name isn’t heard much anymore, but in his own day Maine (1822-88) was regarded as a towering public intellectual. He became regius professor of civil law at Cambridge at the age of 25, then a writer for the Morning Chronicle, law member of the government of India in 1862, professor of historical and comparative jurisprudence at Oxford and finally, master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Maine appeared to have shown Victorians how Europe, and Britain in particular, had achieved social and political modernity through the evolution of law and political institutions. He charted this progress from the original village community, through the development of private property to the ‘Teutonic mark’ (a group of co-sharing villagers), the medieval manor and, ultimately, to representative government by educated and propertied elites. According to Maine, the persistence of Roman legal concepts played a critical part in this evolution in much of Europe. By contrast, the ‘Aryan outliers’, India in particular, and Ireland before the English settlement, remained immured in the primitive form of the village community dominated by patriarchy, caste or tribalism. Indeed, these primitive forms had widely persisted into the present. As Maine put it, ‘in the East aristocracies became religious, in the West civil or political.’ Thus India was an ‘assemblage’ of ‘fragments of ancient society’: fragments which were then in some cases locked in place by British rule.
LRB 14 July 2011 | PDF Download