. 8
( 9)


judicial and historical interpretations of texts.
A few preliminary remarks are in order. We begin by observing
that a `text' is a set of connected words. By `words', I mean verbal
signs ± visual or audible ± of communication. Since language is an
ambiguous means of communication, words require interpreta-
tion. For our discussion, I de®ne `interpretation' as an activity
whose aim is to clarify meanings of words. I refrain from offering
a de®nition of `meaning'. I simply use it to indicate `that which is
communicated' by words. The meaning of a word cannot be
discussed unless a system of meanings (i.e., a semantic structure)
is postulated. Communication which relies on a system of signs (of
which language is an example) is possible `only by virtue of the
fact that . . . signs are all part of a system of signs'.2 To `clarify'
the meaning of a word is to propose a meaning which is intended
to enhance the overall coherence of this semantic structure.
Another point which needs to be made at the outset is that every
speech community has only a limited range of texts to draw upon.
This phenomenon can be explained on both diachronic and
synchronic scales. At any given time, for example, there are
several speech communities (theologians, lawyers, mathemati-
cians, engineers, etc.), each drawing upon a distinctive range of
texts. In this case, systematic attempts are often made to delimit
the range of texts which can be legitimately exploited by members
of the speech community. Canonisation, for instance, serves this
purpose in theological discourse. Codi®cation in civil law coun-
tries is also aimed at delimiting the range of texts which can
properly be used in legal discourse. However, the systematic
delimitation of texts is accomplished mostly by professional
training. An adequately trained common lawyer, for example,
should know the range of texts which it is permissible to draw
upon in legal argument. Also, if we focus on a particular speech
community and observe it diachronically, we may see that the
range of texts which are communicated or communicable within

`[Communication of meaning] is possible only by virtue of the fact that verbal

signs are all part of a system of signs. [I]t is this system which makes meaning
possible, since the signs of any code are only de®ned by other signs.' Eugene A.
Nida and Johannes P. Louw, Lexical semantics of the Greek New Testament
(Atlanta, 1992) p. 4.
Aliens in medieval law

the speech community changes over time. New texts are con-
stantly composed and replace old ones to some extent.3
Whether or not a proposed meaning of a word contributes to
the coherence of a semantic structure, will be judged only within
the range of texts thus delimited. `Coherence' of a systematic
structure is not conceivable unless the scope of the system is
delineated in the ®rst place. Lawyers, for instance, have a semantic
structure for their professional discourse which does not interfere
with the one observed in colloquial discourse. Colloquial inter-
pretation of a text, therefore, does not have immediate relevance to
legal interpretation of the same text. Similarly, an interpretation
of a text which creates least inconsistency within the semantic
structure of a sixteenth-century speech community may well
create an unacceptable level of inconsistency for a thirteenth-
century speech community.
Consider, for example, a text, `aliens cannot claim inheritance
in England'. In the sixteenth-century legal vocabulary, it is better
to interpret `aliens' as `persons who were born out of the king's
allegiance'. Such a rendering will contribute to the overall
semantic coherence of the sixteenth-century legal vocabulary
where the word `alien' was invariably used in connection with
subjection, allegiance, legal protection, kingdom, liberty,
equality, etc. But the same interpretation will create an unaccep-
table level of inconsistency in the thirteenth-century legal voca-
bulary. If, however, `alien' is rendered as a `person who was born
out of England', it will enhance the semantic coherence of the
thirteenth-century legal vocabulary, where the term was closely
associated with trial, jury, cognisance, king's writ, bastardy,
inheritance, proof, etc. But, of course, such a rendering will be
damaging to the semantic coherence of the sixteenth-century
legal vocabulary. One can also understand, for example, that in
the sixteenth century, `God' was depicted as `summa ratio'; and
`reason' was portrayed as `the most precious gift of God' to
human beings. These meanings would certainly be detrimental to
the semantic coherence of the eighteenth-century philosophical
discourse where `God' was attacked in the name of `reason' and
`humanity' (as opposed to `divinity').

Texts are either visible or audible; in the latter case, it is perhaps better to say

that the new `modes of speech' replace the old ones to some extent.
Excursus 215

One of the aims of language learning is to enable one to judge
which of the various proposed meanings of a word ± in a particular
text ± is more conducive to the overall coherence of a given
semantic structure. This is how communication is usually possible
among adequately trained users of a language. Contested cases,
however, will arise. A speech community often has a formally
established mechanism of determining which of the proposed
meanings will create least inconsistency of meanings. Judges and
in¯uential jurists, for example, are called upon when the ambi-
guity of legal vocabulary in a particular text cannot be resolved
between the parties. Ecclesiastical hierarchy and theologians carry
out the same function. In the case of historical interpretation,
established historians do the same job.
Unlike judges or the ecclesiastical hierarchy, however, estab-
lished historians do not have at their disposal an institutionalised
means of coercing their judgement. Why? Because historical
interpretation of a text is not immediately concerned with
distribution of resources. Religion and law, on the other hand,
involve distribution of resources, spiritual or material. Law is
responsible for distribution of material resources among
members of society. To a large extent, successful law enforce-
ment depends on human beings' acquiescence to the power of
words, hence, the importance of the interpretation of legal texts
(although the ultimate source of the power of words may
probably reside in violence). Also, just as much as our spiritual
needs and aspirations are de®ned and expressed in words, so
much will the attainment of spiritual liberation depend on words
and their meanings. Exegesis, therefore, is vitally important in
many religious dogmas because whether or not one will be given
spiritual reward often depends on interpretation of canonised
texts. In short, legal and religious texts are instrumental to the
distribution of material and spiritual resources. Resource distri-
bution, however, will inevitably require coercion. For material
resources, their limited availability explains the need for coercive
distribution. For spiritual resource, coercion is required to
uphold a distribution pattern where a certain group of people
shall remain deprived of spiritual reward. Without such a dis-
tribution pattern, spiritual reward would become valueless
because the inexhaustible nature of spiritual resource would lead
to a situation where everyone can have an unlimited enjoyment
Aliens in medieval law

of spiritual resources. Accordingly, priests and judges (priests of
the law4) have the means of coercing their decision.
Allocation of resources is a matter of praxis here and now. A
legal text is not a set of gnomic statements embodying eternal
values. Rather, it is a `utilisation manual' according to which the
institutionalised power is to be mobilised here and now. The
commands included in a legal text ± regardless of its date of
composition ± need to be intelligible to the participants of the law-
enforcement mechanism. This means that legal texts and the
commands contained therein are invariably interpreted according
to the present semantic structure shared by those currently
involved in law enforcement. No doubt, texts which were com-
posed in the past may well be discussed by lawyers. For that
matter, moreover, all recorded texts are ± strictly speaking ± texts
which were composed at some point in the past. But lawyers and
judges refer to them because those texts can provide the discursive
contents which can be pro®tably exploited to strengthen the
persuasive power of their present legal argument, which is invari-
ably about how the present case should be decided now.
Unfortunately, this point is not always fully appreciated. The
constitutional jurisprudence of the United States, for example, is
heavily burdened by allusions to the `intentions of the ``founding-
fathers'' '. In a similar vein, lawyers have made claims about the
supposed relevance of the `legislative intention'.5 But, why do
they do this? Are they really interested in knowing the social,
economic and ideological circumstances of the late eighteenth-
century North America? Do they really want simply to know how
a particular clause of a statute was intended to be understood at
the time and under the circumstances it was composed, and stop
there, rejoicing in the historical accuracy of their interpretation?
The only reason they recite the so-called `legislative intention' is
because such a recital is thought to add some weight to their
present legal argument. The sole concern of lawyers is to offer a

Cf. D. 1. 1. 1 (`cuius merito nos [jurists] sacerdotes appellet').

Francis Bennion, Statutory interpretation, 2nd edn (London, 1992) p. 345 (`The

sole object in statutory interpretation is to arrive at the legislative intention').
Note, however, that Bennion de®nes `legislative intention' as `what the legislator
is taken to have intended'. See Ibid. This is how Bennion can recognise that `on
arrival in the present, they [i.e., statutes composed in the past] deploy their native
endowments under conditions originally unguessed at' (p. 618).
Excursus 217

persuasive argument that the allocation of resources under dispute
must be carried out according to their interpretation of the text,
rather than their opponent's. All they say is that their client
should win the present case. Lord Reid's following remark
explains this point most elegantly:
We often say that we are looking for the intention of Parliament, but that
is not quite accurate. We are seeking the meaning of the words which
Parliament used. We are seeking not what Parliament meant but the true
meaning of what they said.6
The preoccupation with the so-called `founding-fathers' inten-
tion' or with the `legislative intention' has a curious feature. The
gist of the argument is that since a particular text was intended to
have such and such a meaning, the same meaning ± as was
originally intended, or as is taken to have been intended ± must also
be assigned to the text now. What the parties strive for is to
ascertain the present meaning of the text. The supposed `original'
meaning is invoked merely to add weight to the party's current
assertion as to the present meaning of the text. The emphatic
argument that we must `go back' to the original intention of the
legislator is therefore disguising the transcendental conception of
law which recognises no historical change of law. If it is to be
acknowledged that law does change over time and according to the
changed circumstances, then what is the point of talking about the
intention of the legislators, who operated at a different time and
under different circumstances? No wonder Edward Coke ± who
believed in the transcendental validity of the common law ±
claimed that the court's duty was to interpret an act `according to
the intent of them that made it'.7 Coke could make such a claim
because he did not recognise that common law could ever change.
According to him, law ± understood as optima regula ± can never
change; it can only be `found' or `hidden'.
Historical interpretation of a text, on the other hand, does not
aim to resolve the question of resource distribution here and now.

Black-Clawson International Ltd. v. Papierwerke Waldhof Aschaffenburg AG

[1975] AC 591, 613. Quoted from Rupert Cross, Statutory interpretation, 2nd
edn (London, 1987) p. 25.
The Fourth part of the Institutes of the laws of England (London, 1797) IV, p. 330.

Blackstone repeats the same view. He argues that the courts are bound `to
interpret statutes according to the true intent of the legislature'. Commentaries on
the laws of England, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1765±9) III, p. 222.
Aliens in medieval law

The aim of historians, when they interpret a text, is to clarify the
meanings of a text according to the semantic structure of a certain
epoch in the past. We have already suggested that semantic
structures change over time. Semantic changes open up new
possibilities of interconnecting old words. Morphology of vocabu-
lary usually survives semantic changes. This is why old termi-
nology is continually used; but in constantly different ways. When
we say `new' texts replace old ones, we are in fact referring mainly
to the changing ways of putting the words together. The range of
available `texts' ± de®ned as `sets of connected words' ± undergoes
constant change. Words themselves seldom change.
For the purpose of a historical interpretation of a text, it is
therefore necessary to reconstruct the semantic structure of an
epoque in the past. In order to do so, one must ®rst of all
establish the range of texts which were available to the contem-
poraries of the period which one proposes to study. This is
because the contemporaries' system of meanings (semantic struc-
ture) is valid only within the range of texts available to them. As
the range of available texts changes, so does the pattern of
semantic coherence change. No doubt, historians will consult
texts which were composed earlier than the period of their study.
This is inevitable because, at any given time, a certain amount of
anterior texts would survive; and they form part of the corpus of
texts upon which the contemporaries' semantic structure is con-
structed. Also, historians will consult texts which were composed
later than the period they proposed to examine (knowing that
they were composed later). This is simply because the posterior
texts ± because of, say, their chronological proximity to the period
being studied ± might throw some light on the semantic structure
of the period in question. Whether historians consult anterior
texts or posterior texts, their aim is always the same. That is, to
ascertain the meaning of a text which will ± in the opinion of the
historian ± create least inconsistency within the semantic structure
postulated as having been prevalent during the period under
It has often been suggested that the meaning of a text must be
ascertained in light of the historical context in which it was
composed. It is a cliche which is familiar to all of us, historians as

well as non-historians. But, what is context? Is there any context
(social, military, cultural, economic, etc.) which is knowable
Excursus 219

without having to rely on some textual sources? Of course, if a
person is presented with a bill after having a meal in a restaurant,
for example, he will understand the bill (a text) in light of the fact
that he has ®nished a meal. In this case, the usefulness of the
notion of context, as distinct from the text, is obvious. The
person's understanding of the circumstances accompanying the
composition of the text is non-linguistic and immediate. Food
does not talk. But, can a historian hope to be in a comparable
situation? The least we can say is that a historian is not a story-
teller who recounts his own personal, ®rst-hand experience of an
If, however, the person of our example keeps the bill, and later
explains the situation to his friends and shows them the bill, his
friends are in a situation somewhat comparable to that of a
historian. Now, which is the text and which is the context? Both
the bill and the accompanying explanation are in the form of
words, the only difference being that the former is written and the
latter is spoken. His friends have no means of understanding the
so-called `context' other than by textual means. Can they under-
stand any of the texts offered to them ± spoken or written ±
without having to `interpret' them? By distinguishing a text from
its historical context, and implicitly suggesting that the context is
somehow not of textual nature, one commits the cognitive fallacy
of confounding the reality with the means of knowing it. How do
we know, for example, the so-called `social context' of a thir-
teenth-century English town, unless we rely on an interpretation
of some texts? In fact, the distinction between a text and its
historical context shows a crude resemblance with a type of
laboratory experiment technique. There, measurement of a vari-
able is conducted in an arti®cial environment where all other
variables are controlled. Historical interpretation of a text cannot
be done in this way. It is, as it were, a multi-variate analysis where
not a single variable can be controlled.
We must reject the notion of `historical context' because it is
prone to epistemological errors. For a historian, the only sensible
distinction ± if one insists on having one ± is between `a text' and
`other texts'. In short, the precise meaning of a historical text can
only be ascertained in relation to other texts which were simulta-
neously available to the speech community of the period under
investigation. Any reference to `historical context' ± if the term is
Aliens in medieval law

employed to mean something other than texts ± is misleading as
well as unnecessary.8
To some extent, this point has already been recognised. Pro-
fessor Skinner, for instance, points out certain inadequacies of the
contextual approach, and characterises his approach as `intertex-
tual'.9 However, he does not seem to be entirely consistent in
rejecting the notion of context. Instead, he still stresses the
supposed importance of `the context and occasion of utterances'.10
Moreover, he appears to suggest a distinction between the `social
context' and the `wider linguistic context'.11 In other words, he
does not question the propriety of using the notion of `context' as
such. This is precisely the point to which I object. For example,
he reaf®rms Collingwood's argument in the following terms:
`[U]nderstanding any proposition requires us to identify the
question to which the proposition may be regarded as an
answer'.12 But how do we `identify' the question? Is it a process
which is somewhat different from the process of `understanding'
the proposition? Can we somehow get a free ride straight to the
stage where the question is already `identi®ed' so that we do not
have to go through the process of interpretation and under-
standing? Or, is it possible to introduce a time sequence so that the
question is ®rst identi®ed before one embarks on an understanding
of the proposition?13 Ultimately, is it possible to `identify' the
question without `understanding' the proposition? No proposition
is born with labels such as `proposition' or `question'. All we have

I have sometimes used the term `context' in this book. However, that was to

avoid a lengthy explanation of the process through which we arrived at our
proposed interpretation of the given text. What I meant by `context' is in fact
the co-textual determinants within a given text, or the broader textual environ-
ment in which the given text is located. See Keith Allan, Linguistic meaning, 2
vols. (London, 1986) I, pp. 36±54 for a de®nition of `context'.
`Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas', 8 History and Theory

(1969) 3±53 at 47; `A reply to my critics' in Meaning and context, Quentin
Skinner and his critics, ed. James Tully (Oxford, 1988) p. 232, respectively.
`A reply to my critics', p. 274.

`Meaning and understanding', 47, 49.

`A reply to my critics', p. 274.

Professor Skinner argues that `[t]o recover that context in any particular case, we

may have to engage in . . . historical research' (`A reply to my critics', p. 275).
Probably, he is assuming that this `historical research' is to be conducted either
prior to, or separately from, the research of the `particular case' to be investi-
gated (so that the particular case can then be interpreted once the context has
been recovered as a result of the said `historical research').
Excursus 221

are propositions; and every proposition poses the same kinds of
interpretative problems all at the same time. As far as I can see,
there is no difference between `understanding' of a proposition
and `identifying' of a question. In both cases, what we have is a
proposition that needs `interpretation'.
It has also been suggested that in order to understand the
meaning of a statement, the circumstances under which it was
issued must be recovered; for, otherwise, we may not know the
intention of the agent (the issuer of the statement). It has been
strenuously put forward that `[w]e need to ®nd a means of
recovering what the agent may have been doing in saying what was
said, and hence of understanding what the agent may have meant
by issuing an utterance'.14 This approach, of course, is grounded
upon the assumption that `words are also deeds'. According to
Professor Skinner, `Austin's analysis of speech-acts provides us
with a convenient way of making a point of fundamental impor-
tance about the understanding of utterances, and hence interpreta-
tion of texts.'15 It is not my aim to examine whether the
assumption that `[s]peech is also action' is in itself philosophically
defensible. I simply wish to point out certain dif®culties which
might ensue when this assumption is applied to historical inter-
pretation of a text.
Consider, for example, a text from Justinian's Digest 1. 5. 3, `all
men are either free-men or slaves (omnes homines aut liberi sunt aut
serui)'. It may be a legitimate aim for a historian to interpret the
meaning of the text. We may agree that in order to do that, it is
necessary to recover what the `agent', who issued the statement in
the East Roman Empire in the sixth century, may have been doing
in issuing the statement. We may ± following Professor Skinner,
who accepts Austin's terminology ± suppose that the `illocutionary
force of the utterance' must be fully analysed before the meaning
of the statement can be understood.
However, who was the `agent' responsible for the issuance of
the text of D. 1. 5. 3? The text itself was a sixth-century restate-
ment of a second-century text of the Roman jurist Gaius. Who
knows, Gaius himself might have copied it from yet another
anterior author. Of course, copying of a statement does not
destroy or replace the original statement. To re-issue a statement

`A reply to my critics', p. 260. Ibid.
14 15
Aliens in medieval law

is merely to compose yet another statement which has to be
interpreted on its own. Consider, therefore, the text of D. 1. 5. 3 as
an `original' statement issued in the sixth century. Still, we may
ask who the `agent' was. Was it Justinian, who gave the ®nal
approval for the text of the Digest? Was it Tribonian, who was
responsible for general editing work? Was it the individual jurists,
who were involved in the compilation of the Digest? Was it all,
some or none of the foregoing? How are we to assess the degree of
involvement and the relative importance of these individuals'
`intentions'? If one wishes to rely on the notions of the `agent' of a
text and the `intention' of the agent, one must be prepared to meet
the following remarks of Sir Rupert Cross:
Only human beings can really have intentions, purposes or objects . . .
The words [such as Parliamentary intention, legislative intention, etc.] are
used by close analogy to the intentions of a single legislator. The analogy
is more remote when the `intention of Parliament' is used as a synonym
for what the average member of Parliament of a particular epoch would
have meant by certain words or expected as the consequences of a
statutory provision . . . The analogy with the human mind emphasises a
certain coherence and consistency. Consistency and coherence are values
which guide judicial interpretation of the law, and the metaphor of a
single legislative will or intention gives expression to this ideal. The
expression is thus not so much a description as a linguistic convenience.16
His remarks are focused on the `intention of Parliament'. But they
are equally applicable to any text which cannot be proved to have
been the result of sole authorship.
Austin's proposition `speech is also action' may hold true if, and
only if, one observes the speech while it is being uttered. The
moment the speech is completed, however, it ceases to be action
and, provided that its contents have somehow been recorded or
registered, it begins a new life as a text. In other words, speech
may be an action, but a text is not an action: it is the remnant of an
action. This is why I believe that the `speech-act' theory (which
entails the concept of the `agent' of an action) creates more
problems than it can solve if it is invoked in interpreting a text.
Recorded words must be distinguished from an action. An action
is a singular event. It is possible, and indeed necessary, to
postulate the `agent' of an action. Being a singular event, an action
need not, and cannot, be examined separately from its agent and

Cross, Statutory interpretation, p. 26.
Excursus 223

the circumstances under which it was carried out. Once the action
is removed from its agent and the circumstances, it loses its
singularity, and it is no longer an action. Words, while they are
being composed and issued, have the characteristics of a deed. But
once they are completed and registered in memory or recorded in
physical devices, words cease to be an action; they become `traces'
of an action.
Traces can remain. They can exist as a topic of analysis over a
period of time. An action, however, cannot be said to exist as soon
as it is completed. Between the present moment of analysis and
the past moment of its singular occurrence, the action cannot be
said to continue its existence as an object of analysis. Therefore,
each time an action is analysed, one must always go back to the
original circumstances of its occurrence. In this case, the investi-
gator would have no choice but to examine the `intention' of the
`agent' and various other factors which are necessary to reconstruct
the singularity of the event. But, a text can be said to exist even
after the moment of its initial issuance. Furthermore, as soon as
the issuance is completed, the agent or the circumstances of
utterance quickly lose signi®cance. From then on, it is the
singularity of reception, rather than the singularity of issuance,
which determines the meaning of a text.17 The `agent' and the
`intention' of the agent ± as they are merely some of the factors
contributing to the singularity of the issuance ± need not necessa-
rily be taken into account because they no longer conclusively
determine the meaning of the text.
In my view, the model which is grounded upon the `speech-act'
analysis is somewhat inadequate to bring out the characteristics of
the historical interpretation, which is not so much about utter-
ances currently being issued as about the remnant of utterances
issued earlier. One may perhaps understand `issuing' in a broad
sense so that each time a text is communicated to a user, it is being
issued anew by an `imaginary' agent which the user might

The `historical' interpretation is no doubt a `modern' approach to texts. Before

historicism became fashionable, texts had been received and interpreted with
very different aims and concerns. The meanings reached thereby may be
different from those arrived at through a `historical' interpretation of the same
text. The `unhistorical' meanings of a text, however, must not be brushed aside
as `wrong' meanings. Ultimately, historicism itself is no more than one
particular way of receiving a text.
Aliens in medieval law

postulate. This will provide a means of explaining that a text is
reusable over a long period of time in many different ways. This
will also enable one to claim that a text is no different from
utterance of a speech; therefore, if historians want to ascertain the
meaning of a text, they must always investigate the `original'
circumstances of utterance, or, to use Professor Skinner's phrase,
`what the agent might have been doing in issuing the statement'.
But I doubt whether such an explanation ± let us ignore the
violence it does to the conventional usage of the term `issue' ± can
resolve the problem which I shall now discuss.
Whenever a text is communicated to a user, the user interprets
the text. In this sense, a historian is also a `user' of a text.
Historians who embark on an interpretation of a text will often
®nd that they are not the only users of the text. A text can, in
theory, have an in®nite number of users before it reaches a
historian. Moreover, no historian can claim to be the last user of
the text. All users interpret the text. Now, my question is: what
distinguishes a historian's interpretation of a text from all other
users' interpretation of the same text? Especially, how is historical
interpretation to be distinguished from legal interpretation? As we
saw, some lawyers claim that their aim is to understand the `true
intent of the legislature'.
To say that historians deal with `old' texts does not explain any
features peculiar to historical interpretation of a text. Since all
recorded texts are past texts ± no matter how brief is the time which
has lapsed since the text was issued ± all interpreters deal with `old'
texts. As we saw, however, `issuing' may be understood in such a
way as to allow no time lag between issuance and interpretation of a
text. In that case, all texts would be present texts.
Professor Skinner, on the other hand, offers the following
explanation which stresses the methodological uniqueness of
historical interpretation:
[T]he appropriate methodology for the history of ideas must be con-
cerned, ®rst of all, to delineate the whole range of communications which
could have been conventionally performed on the given occasion by the
utterance of the given utterance, and, next, to trace the relations between
the given utterance and this wider linguistic context as a means of
decoding the actual intention of the given writer.18

`Meaning and understanding', p. 49.
Excursus 225

If, however, one explains that decoding of the `actual intention of
the given writer' is the aim of historical interpretation, it would be
somewhat dif®cult to maintain a distinction between historical
interpretation and the legal interpretation of those who claim that
their mission is to `arrive at the legislative intention'. This is not
to suggest that Professor Skinner does not, or will not, recognise
the difference between legal, theological or literary interpretation
of texts on the one hand, and historical interpretation of texts on
the other.19 The point I am making is simply that if one insists on
having an issuer/interpreter (or agent/historian) model, one is
likely to experience some dif®culty in explaining the characteristic
features of historical interpretation which distinguish it from
other types of text interpretation activities.
In my view, the only `agent' worth postulating is the interpreter
himself. The only `intention' worth mentioning is the interpreter's
intention to understand the texts which he investigates. The
business, therefore, is between the interpreter ± a historian, a
lawyer, a theologian, a literary critic, etc. ± and the texts. The
composer of a text, whether dead or alive, can never interfere with
this business and dictate20 to the interpreter how he should
interpret his (the composer's) text. This point can be illustrated
by what my readers may do with this very text of mine. Those
who read the text which I now compose will form a view as to
what I intend to mean by this text (or what I intend to achieve by
issuing this text). But their attribution of my intention is a
business of their own, about which I cannot do anything author-
itative. If I should say or write something to correct my inter-
preters and clarify what I really meant to say, I should simply
have composed yet another text. Both my former and latter texts
would then be in the hands of my interpreters, who may make
another attempt at attributing an intention to me in light of the
added information. In other words, each time an author issues a
text, the text is wholly and irrevocably removed from the author

Rather, he has certainly recognised that the distinctive feature of historical

interpretation must be sought in its contribution to illuminating the change of
language. See `Meaning and understanding', p. 50 (`The understanding of
statements uttered in the past clearly raises special issues and might yield special
insights, especially about the conditions under which languages change').
A living author can, of course, in¯uence the interpretation of his texts. But his

interpreters are no less in¯uential in this matter.
Aliens in medieval law

and falls into the hands of its interpreters. As soon as a text is
communicated to its interpreters, the author loses the authority as
to the meaning of that text. If the author wishes fully to retain his
authority over the meaning of his text, there is only one possible
way of doing it: not to communicate the text. As far as commu-
nicated texts are concerned, the question is not what senses the
supposed `agent (author)' must have made, would have made, or is
deemed to have made. The question is what senses can the
interpreter make of the texts.
Discarding the concepts of `agent' as well as its `intention' and
focusing instead on the text and its reception do not necessarily
lead, as some post-modernist authors would appear to claim, to
the `vastly open ®eld of indeterminate and indeterminable inter-
pretations' where each interpreter can claim an unencumbered
right to play an endless game.21 As each speech community
draws upon a limited range of texts at any given time, the
possibility of interpreting a text located in a given speech
community is also limited. The so-called limitless play of mean-
ings must remain an improbable hypothetical possibility which is
conceivable only when all texts available to human species are
aggregated over an inde®nite period of time. In reality, a text
situated in a particular moment in history carries a limited range
of possible meanings. Whether or not a particular historian's
interpretation of the text is an optimum solution can, and can
only, be determined by the good judgement of the professional
body of historians. Whether they like it or not, they are the
ultimate arbiters. There is, after all, no agency over and above
the present body of established historians which retains a
superior authority to determine the ultimate truth of a historian's
interpretation of text.
An interpreter can, of course, choose to remain silent. All we
can say is that we are not concerned with such an interpreter. We
only deal with those interpreters who choose to communicate
their understanding. Communication cannot succeed unless the

See, for example, Jacques Derrida, `La structure, le signe et le jeu' in his

L'e‚criture et la diffe
‚rence (Paris, 1967) p. 411 (`L'absence de signi®e transcen-

dantal etend a l'in®ni le champ et le jeu de la signi®cation'); p. 427 (`Dans le
‚ Á
hasard absolu, l'af®rmation se livre aussi a l'indetermination ge ‚tique, a
Á ‚ Á
l'aventure se ‚minale de la trace').
Excursus 227

participants share the same semantic structure.22 In this respect,
lawyers, theologians, literary critics and historians all rely on the
present semantic structure to communicate their understanding of
texts. This, however, is where the unique feature of historical
interpretation comes to the fore. What distinguishes history
writing from other text interpretation activities is that the history
writer relies on the semantic structure of the present in order to
talk about a semantic structure of the past. Lawyers, even when
they claim to investigate the intention of the legislator, remain
entirely within the semantic structure of the present. The `ori-
ginal' intention of the legislator is discussed, understood and
communicated among lawyers and judges who need not postulate
any semantic structure other than the present one. The uniqueness
of historical interpretation must be found in the intention of the
historians themselves. In other words, historians have the two-
fold intention: i) to ascertain the meaning of a text which will
create the least con¯ict with a postulated semantic structure of the
past; and ii) to communicate such an interpretation to his collea-
gues, or to the general public, using the semantic structure of the
present. The interesting thing about language is that it allows a
means of talking about itself ± its past, present, and future self.

Skinner, `Meaning and understanding', p. 24 (`If there is to be any prospect that

the observer will successfully communicate his understanding within his own
culture, it is . . . inescapable that he should apply his own familiar criteria of
classi®cation and discrimination').


A brief chapter on `Aliens' in Pollock and Maitland, The history of English
law, which ®rst appeared in 1895 (vol. I, pp. 441±50) forms the basis of
modern British historians' understanding of the history of the English law
of alien status. Sir Maurice Powicke's monumental work on the loss of
Normandy (1913) discusses the circumstances surrounding the seizure of
terrae Normannorum in great detail. But Powicke does not doubt Mait-
land's thesis that `the king's claims to seize the lands of aliens is an
exaggerated generalisation of his claim to seize the lands of his French
enemies' (p. 423). A relatively longer chapter entitled `subjects and aliens'
in Holdsworth, A history of English law, vol. IX (®rst published in 1926,
pp. 72±104) does not contain much original argument as far as the origin
of the law of alien status is concerned. He repeats Maitland's claim that
the English law of alien status began with the loss of Normandy. Holds-
worth adds, unhelpfully, a further confusion that the doctrine of alle-
giance `has its roots in the feudal idea of a personal duty of fealty to the
lord from whom land is held' (p. 72). This confusion, of course, dates
from some of the sixteenth-century authors (see our discussion in chapter
7). The confusion lingered on into the twentieth century. The second half
of John Salmond's somewhat jurisprudential speculation on `Citizenship
and allegiance' ± appearing in the Law Quarterly Review in 1901 and 1902
± revolves around the conviction that `the modern law of citizenship has
its immediate source in feudalism'. Salmond's attempt to trace the origin
of the modern law of citizenship was done without any reference to
Maitland's work: understandably so, because Maitland was of opinion
that `feudalism is opposed to tribalism and even to nationalism: we
become a lord's subjects by doing homage to him, and this done, the
nationality . . . and the place of our birth are insigni®cant'. Clive Parry's
British nationality law and the history of naturalisation (Milan, 1954)
offers some discussion of materials antedating the statute De natis ultra
mare (1351) and a great deal of discussion on the letters patent issued to
foreigners in the fourteenth and ®fteenth centuries. His argument is, on
the whole, judicial rather than historical. He assumes Maitland's explana-
tion of the origin of the law of alien status as unquestionable and proceeds

Bibliography 229
to argue that the mid-fourteenth-century letters patent granting the
liberties of a city (London, usually) must be viewed as the forerunners of
the letters of denization (see our discussion in chapter 2). There are a
number of works of varying quality dealing with nationality from the
viewpoint of immigration law and international law. They sometimes
contain a chapter on the history of nationality law which simply repro-
duces the works of Maitland and Holdsworth in a summarised format. A
useful bibliography for this type of work can be found in Ann Dummett
and Andrew Nicol, Subjects, citizens, aliens and others: nationality and
immigration law (London, 1990). On the history of the Scottish law of
alien status, see A. C. Evans, `Nationality law in pre-union Scotland', 28
Juridical Review, n.s. (1983) 36±50. On the history of the law of alien
status in the Irish context, see G. J. Hand, `Aspects of alien status in
medieval English law' in Dafydd Jenkins (ed.) Legal history studies, 1972
(Cardiff, 1975) pp. 129±35.


BL Hargrave MS 379, fos. 202±6 (Liber primus, Johaniis Page, De
BL Harleian MS 555, fos. 11r±47v (Anthony Brown's treatise)
BL Harleian MS 849, fos. 1±18 (Plowden's treatise, 1567)
BL Harleian MS 4627, fos. 10r-26v (`Allegations against the Surmised
Title . . .')

Cambridge University Library, MS Gg. iii. 34, fos. 107±17 (an answer to
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Public Record Of®ce, King's Remembrancer, Memoranda rolls, 18 m. 12d
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III, m. 6; 37 Henry III, m. 21
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III, part 2, m. 4; 17 Edward III, part 2, m. 32v; 25 Edward III, part
1, m. 27; 50 Edward III, part 1, m. 5

Borthwick Institute, York, Reg. 10, fo. 255v
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