By Thomas P. Gallanis
The College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford -- or All Souls College -- was founded in 1438 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, and by King Henry VI. The founding statutes provided for a Warden (the head of the College) and forty fellows who were to pray for the souls of the dead (especially those killed in the what we now call the Hundred Years War) and to pursue higher learning in theology and civil and canon law. The fields of study undertaken by the fellows have broadened in the centuries since the founding. But All Souls is unique among Oxford and Cambridge colleges in that it continues to have only a warden and fellows -- no undergraduate students. As the College describes itself, it is "primarily an academic research institution with particular strengths in the humanities and social and theoretical sciences".
In the 1960s, the College began a regular program of inviting academics from other universities to conduct research at All Souls as visiting fellows. The competition for an invitation is intense, as there are many more applicants than the College can accept. Applicants must describe their proposed research and provide letters of reference. One of my referees (based at Yale) told me candidly that I should not be disappointed by a rejection, for no one he had recommended had ever been accepted. When the letter came from the College, it was in a thin envelope. My heart sank, for thin envelopes rarely contain good news. To my surprise, this one did. From the dean of visiting fellows, the letter began with the words "I am pleased to invite you...." And to my delight, the invitation was for not one, not two, but three Oxford terms -- a full academic year. The visiting fellowships carry no stipend, but the College provides accommodation, workspace, access to libraries, and lunches and dinners. Everything is taken care of, so that the visiting fellows can focus on their research.
The Codrington Library, with the statute of William Blackstone at the end of the main reading room
My field of research is the history of English law. During this year, I am working on two book-length projects concerning English law in the eighteenth century. One project is to prepare, for publication by the Selden Society in London, a scholarly edition of a set of unpublished courtroom notes taken by Sir Dudley Ryder when he was Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench (1754-56). Ryder's notes provide a uniquely detailed window into courtroom proceedings, because Ryder knew shorthand. He was able to record, much more fully than any other judge of his era, what happened in court including the arguments made by lawyers and the testimony offered by witnesses. His notes are a boon to historians. The second project is to prepare, as part of an international team commissioned by Oxford University Press, a variorum edition of one of the most important treatises of English law: Sir William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England", originally published in 1765-69, with seven further editions appearing in Blackstone's lifetime. Our variorum edition will trace the changes from one edition to the next, exploring how Blackstone's views on the English common law evolved over time.
Blackstone was a fellow of All Souls, and there is a marble statute of him in the College's magnificent Codrington Library. It is inspiring to work literally in his shadow.
Thomas P. Gallanis is the N. William Hines Chair in Law and Professor of History at the University of Iowa.