Ada Kuskowski is a medieval historian and a legal historian. Her work weaves together approaches from history, law and literature with the larger goal of understanding how legal cultures developed in Europe during the Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500). Her writing has focused on sources that might be described as “black letter law” and are often prone to positivist approaches. However, she interprets these materials as legal narratives that are imbedded in larger cultural contexts and examine them through the values, representations, expectations and mentalités that produced them and gave them meaning. She thus uses these sources to think about the stories that medieval actors told themselves about law, the language they used to express the norms by which their societies should function, and more broadly how ideas about right and order developed into ideas about law.
She recently published a book titled Vernacular Law: Writing and the Reinvention of Customary Law in Medieval France (Cambridge, Oct. 2022). Legislation was piecemeal and record-keeping nascent during the Middle Ages, which meant that large swathes of legal life were governed not by law but by custom. What custom meant, however, went through a radical shift during the period. Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, custom went from being a largely oral and performed practice to one that was also conceptualized in writing. Based on French lawbooks known as coutumiers, Vernacular Law traces the repercussions of this transformation – in the form of custom from unwritten to written and in the language of law from elite Latin to common vernacular – on the cultural world of law. It offers a fresh understanding of the formation of customary law as a new field of knowledge. Instead of a fossilized and somewhat inaccurate presentation of legal practice, this book shows authors combining ideas, experience and critical thought in order to transform disparate individual customs and practices into a new medium that presented them as a cohesive 'customary law.' Medieval customary law, commonly seen a community norm repeated by rote, emerges also as a product of individual craft and a law of dynamic innovation.
Her next book project, titled Law of Conquest: A Medieval Prehistory of Colonial Law, will provide a larger history of medieval legal approaches to conquest and colonization and the ways in which those set the stage for later colonial legal thought.
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).
Ph.D. Cornell University, 2013
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.
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)
Love, Lust & Violence in the Middle Ages
Inquisitors, Heretics and Witches
“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).