Thomas J. McSweeney
Professor of Law
Areas of Specialization
Legal History-Early History of the Common Law, Common Law's Relationship to Civil Law, History of Lawyers; Property Law; Trusts and Estates
Representative Professional Activities and Achievements
Thomas McSweeney earned his B.A. from William & Mary, where he was a James Monroe Scholar. He continued his studies at Cornell University, where he earned a J.D. and a Ph.D. in medieval history. After completing his Ph.D., Professor McSweeney worked for two years as a visiting assistant professor at Cornell Law School, teaching property and legal history. During his time at Cornell, he won three awards for his teaching. In 2018, he received a Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence from William & Mary. In 2019, the graduating class at William & Mary Law School presented him with the Walter Williams L. Award for Excellence in Teaching and in 2021 the first-year class presented him with the 1L Professor of the Year Award.
Professor McSweeney's research focuses on the early history of the common law. He is particularly interested in the ways the judges and lawyers of the thirteenth century taught and learned the law. His book, Priests of the Law: Roman Law and the Making of the Common Law's First Professionals (Oxford University Press 2019), which was awarded an honorable mention for the Selden Society’s David Yale Prize for an “outstanding contribution to the history of the law of England and Wales,” examines the ways in which thirteenth-century justices modelled their practices on those of the jurists of Roman law to make the case that the English common law was part of a pan-European legal culture. He visits the United Kingdom regularly for his research and has been awarded research grants to work at the Huntington Library, the British Library, and the British National Archives. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Ames Foundation at Harvard Law School, which funds research in legal history, and in November of 2021 began a five-year term as an editor for the American Society for Legal History’s book series, Cambridge Studies in Legal History, at Cambridge University Press.
A devoted alumnus of William & Mary, Professor McSweeney has also written on the history of the college. His article A University in 1693, co-authored with law students Katharine Ello and Elsbeth O’Brien, argues that William & Mary was awarded the status of a university in its 1693 charter, and thus has a claim to the title of oldest university in the United States. His current research project returns to the thirteenth century, and examines the texts that England’s earliest generations of lawyers used to learn the law.
In the News
- Kristine Hojnicki, Clues in W&M’s charter may reveal its founding as a university 330 years ago, W&M News, February 8, 2023. Online.
- Brian Frye, Interviewed about Priests of the Law, Ipse Dixit, May 10, 2020.Online.
- Guest Blogger, Five posts available, Legal History Blog, Mar. 2020. Online.
- Al Zambone, Interviewed about Priests of the Law, episode 158, Historically Thinking podcast, May 13, 2020. Online.
- David F. Morrill, New Book by W&M Law Professor Studies Early History of the Common Law, William & Mary News, Jan. 29, 2020. Online.
- Priests of the Law: Roman Law and the Making of the Common Law's First Professionals (Oxford U. Press, 2019). Online.
Articles and Book Chapters
- Appealing Magna Carta, U. Chi. L. Rev. Online (forthcoming 2023).
- Rights in the English Common Law, in The Cambridge History of Rights, Volume 2: The Middle Ages (Cambridge U. Press, forthcoming 2023).
- Those Things Which are Written in Romance: Language and Law-Teaching in Thirteenth-Century England, 62 Am. J. Legal Hist. 285 (2022). Online.
- A University in 1693: New Light on William & Mary’s Claim to the Title of “Oldest University in the United States, 61 Wm & Mary L. Rev. Online 91 (2020) (with Katharine Ello & Elsbeth O'Brien). Online.
- Fiction in the Code, 34 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 581 (2018). SSRN.
- Creating a Literature for the King’s Courts in the Later Thirteenth Century: Hengham Magna, Fet Asaver, and Bracton, 37 J. Leg. Hist. 41 (2016). Online.
- Salvation by Statute: Magna Carta, Legislation, and the King's Soul, 25 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 455 (2016). SSRN.
- Michèle K. Spike, The Significance of the Corpus Iuris Civilis: Matilda of Canossa and the Revival of Justinian's Body of Roman Law, in Matilda of Canossa and the Origins of the Renaissance 21 (Michèle K. Spike ed., 2015).
Translated into Italian as L’importanza del Corpus Iuris Civilis: Matilda di Canossae la riscoperta del diritto romano in Matilda di Canossa, 1046-1115: La Donna che mutò il corso della storia 29 (Michèle K. Spike ed., 2016).
- Magna Carta and the Right to Trial by Jury, in Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor (Randy J. Holland ed., Library of Congress' 800th Anniversary Volume 2014).
- Magna Carta, Civil Law, and Canon Law, in Magna Carta and the Rule of Law (Reb Brownell et al. eds., American Bar Association's 800th Anniversary Volume 2014) (Academia.edu). SSRN.
- The King's Courts and the King's Soul: Pardoning as Almsgiving in Medieval England, 40 Reading Medieval Studies 159 (2014) (Special Issue, Law's Dominion: Medieval Studies for Paul Hyams 2014) (Academia.edu). SSRN.
- Between England and France: A Cross-Channel Legal Culture in the Late Thirteenth Century, in Law, Governance, and Justice: New Views on Medieval English Constitutionalism (Richard Kaeuper ed., Brill 2013).
- English Justices and Roman Jurists: The Civilian Learning Behind England's First Case Law, 84 Temp. L. Rev. 827 (2012) (Academia.edu). SSRN.
- Property Before Property: Romanizing the English Law of Land, 60 Buff. L. Rev. 1139 (2012) (Academia.edu). SSRN.
- 96 Speculum 233 (2021), reviewing Elizabeth Papp Kamali, Felony and the Guilty Mind in Medieval England (Cambridge U. Press 2019) (book review) .
- 34 Law & Hist. Rev. 227 (2016), reviewing John Hudson, The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume II: 871-1216 (Oxford U. Press 2012) (book review).
- The Medieval Rev. (2011), reviewing Kenneth Pennington and Melodie Harris Eichbauer, Law as Profession and Practice in Medieval Europe: Essays in Honor of James A. Brundage, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011.