Ada Maria Kuskowski

Ada Maria Kuskowski

Assistant Professor of History

Medieval History, Legal History

College Hall 306E


Ada Kuskowski is a medieval historian and a legal historian whose work is driven by a fascination with how and why foundational legal ideas develop. Her writing focuses on understanding medieval legal cultures and their broader place in European history and legal history. Combining approaches from history, law and literature, she is especially interested in recovering the cultural lives of law.

She recently published Vernacular Law: Writing and the Reinvention of Customary Law in Medieval France (Cambridge, 2023): 

  • Short description: Where does law come from? In the Middle Ages, there were generally two answers: legislation and custom. Later history would see custom largely pushed out of the realm of the legal, notably because of the advent of the legislative state and philosophies of legal positivism (with some exceptions). During the Middle Ages, however, legislation was piecemeal and record-keeping nascent. Large swathes of legal life were governed not by fiat but by custom. Vernacular Law offers a new kind of history of customary law by tracing how innovative thinkers transformed social practices into coherent bodies of written rules and created a field of knowledge known as customary law. Medieval customary law tends to be seen as nameless, aggregate, and synonymous with tradition; it is defined by a popular consensus that emanates from social practices over long periods of time. However, lawbooks composed in 13th century France, known as coutumiers, reveal a different story: customary law was not only the product of mass social forces expressed in popular practices but also the product of individual thought, innovation, and craft.

Her next book project, titled 'Law of Conquest: A Medieval History of Colonial Law,' explores the development of legal cultures in post-conquest polities. This project examines how settlers in Latin Christendom between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries imagined law and governance in the centuries-long aftermath of conquest, especially conquests at great distance from homelands or involving populations that were religiously or culturally different. I seek a wider understanding of medieval European law itself as well as to understand how these medieval developments participated in the wider history of legal cultures framed by conquest, dispossession, and Christian mission.

Dr. Kuskowski completed her Ph.D. at Cornell University in 2013, where she specialized in medieval legal history. She also holds Bachelor of Common Law and Bachelor of Civil Law degrees from McGill University Faculty of Law, and a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University. Prior to her arrival at Penn, she held the Jeremy duQuesnay Adams Centennial Professorship in Western European Medieval History as assistant professor at Southern Methodist University. She was also a fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (Fall 2012), a Law & Society Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Wisconsin Madison Law School (2012-3), a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in legal history at New York University Law School (2011-12), and a visiting scholar in the Quebec Research Centre for Private and Comparative Law at the McGill University Faculty of Law (2010).

She is currently seeking graduate advisees. She encourages those interested in pursuing their PhD at Penn History to reach out with a note of introduction to ensure the work they wish to pursue is a good fit.

Office Hours
Tuesdays 8:45-10:45 or by appointment

Ph.D., History, Cornell University, 2013

M.A., History, Cornell University, 2008

L.L.B. (Bachelor of Common Law, equivalent to J.D.) and B.C.L. (Bachelor of Civil Law), McGill University, Faculty of Law, 2005

B.A., History, McGill University, 2001

Research Interests

Her intellectual interests include legal history and culture, law and literature, vernacular writing and translation, court culture, social histories of knowledge, history of the book, conquest and colonial culture.

Courses Taught

Europe: From Fall of Rome to Age of Exploration

War and Conquest in Medieval Europe

Foundations of Law

Taking Things: A History of Property and Law

Histories of Law: Pre and Early Modern (grad)

The Vikings

Love, Lust & Violence in the Middle Ages

Inquisitors, Heretics and Witches

Selected Publications

"The Time of Custom and the Medieval Myth of Ancient Customary Law" Speculum 99 no.1 (2024) 143-182.

​“Translating Justinian: Language, Translation and Repurposing Roman Law in the Middle Ages” in Law and Language in the Middle Ages, ed. by Matthew W. McHaffie, Jenny Bentham and Helle Vogt. Brill, 2018. 

Lingua Franca Legalis? A French Vernacular Legal Culture from England to the Levant” Reading Medieval Studies 40 (2014) 140-158.

“Inventing Legal Space: From Regional Custom to Common Law in the Coutumiers of Medieval France” in Medieval Constructions of Space: Practice, Place, and Territory from the 9th to the 15th Century, edited by Meredith Cohen and Fanny Madeleine (Ashgate, June 2014) 133-155.  

“The Development of Written Custom in England and in France: A Comparative Perspective” in Law, Justice, and Governance, New Views on Medieval English Constitutionalism, ed. by Richard Kaeuper (Brill, 2013).

“The Poor, The Secular Courts, and Access to Justice in Thirteenth Century France” in Poverty and Prosperity in the Middle Ages, edited by Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott (Brepols, 2012).