Spring 2017

Histories of Judgment 

Listed in: Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, as LJST-220

Moodle site: Course


Sarah Johnson (Section 01)


(Research Seminar)  Although their jobs are distinct, the judge and the historian confront a number of similar questions. How, for instance, can we arrive at sound judgments about events that have occurred? What kinds of evidence should we rely upon as we do so? What should be our standard of proof? In what ways do our social and cultural contexts inform our judgments? Can we ever be certain in these judgments? In this course, we will explore answers to these questions as we consider the similarities and differences between the roles of the judge and the historian. We will do this by studying exceptional histories of several trials—Natalie Zemon Davis’ account of an imposture trial in sixteenth-century France and Jill Lepore’s study of conspiracy trials of slaves in colonial New York—along with primary documents from these cases and essays on historical methodology. Taken together, this material will help us to analyze the logics through which legal judgments were reached in the various trials and to explore questions about legal evidence and standards of proof at different times and in different societies. It will also allow us to consider the kinds of judgments that historians can make about past societies given the primary evidence that is available to them, as well as the significance of their investigations for the present.

Beyond class discussions, students will explore these issues as they conduct their own historical research on a trial of their choice and the society in which it took place. Assignments and workshops will help students to master the stages of the research process, such as developing a manageable and interesting research question, identifying and interpreting primary sources, and assessing secondary literature. We will also discuss and practice the elements of advanced academic writing. The course’s various research and writing exercises will guide students through the process of planning, writing, and revising a 30-page research paper.  

Recommended requisite: LJST 110. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Visiting Professor S. Johnson.

If Overenrolled: priority given to LJST Majors


Attention to Research, Attention to Writing


2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015, Spring 2017