A Festschrift for Helmholz: New Book Honors Professor as a Scholar, Mentor, and Gentleman

Helmholz

When Troy L. Harris was earning his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in the 1990s, he asked Law School Professor R.H. Helmholz to serve as the advisor on his dissertation, “Law and Religion in the Eighteenth Century: The English Ecclesiastical Courts, 1725 – 1745.”

“His interest in the intersection of law, religion, and history is really unique, and it’s something that I’d been interested in since my undergraduate days,” said Harris, who had already earned a JD and had been practicing law for several years when he decided to study legal history. But when Harris approached him about advising his dissertation work, Helmholz had a question: “Can you read Latin?”

And the answer, for the most part, was no.

So, at Helmholz’s urging, Harris hired a tutor and, on top of his other studies, learned the ancient language well enough to use ecclesiastical court records. “He was matter-of-fact about it,” said Harris, now a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “And he’d done the same thing in graduate school, so he wasn’t asking me to do something that he hadn’t done himself.”

Harris paused and laughed: “Of course, don’t tell him this, but if I’d known what I was getting myself into, maybe I would have just continued to practice law.”

Now, nearly two decades later, Harris is honoring his mentor by editing a Festschrift—a collection of 17 essays by Helmholz’s colleagues and former students that pays tribute to his influence not only as a scholar but as a mentor known both for his unwavering demand for excellence and his quiet generosity. Studies in Canon Law and Common Law in Honor of R.H. Helmholz was published this month by the Robbins Collection at the University of California at Berkeley, an international center for comparative legal and historical studies that includes one of the foremost libraries for religious and civil law.

“Dick Helmholz has been a wonderful mentor and model for two generations of legal historians, on both sides of the Atlantic,” said contributor John Witte, Jr., Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and the scholar who first suggested the Festschrift to Harris. “His brilliant writings have illuminated the history of English law and the history of canon law better than any legal historian who has written since F.W. Maitland and Stephan Kuttner. It’s a real joy to see his work so fittingly praised and richly celebrated in this volume.”   

Essays include Witte’s “Hugo Grotius and the Natural Law of Marriage: A Case Study of Harmonizing Confessional Differences in Early Modern Europe;” “The Evolution of Common Law,” by Thomas P. Gallanis, ’90, a professor of law and history at the University of Iowa College of Law; and “Testamentary Proceedings in Spanish East Florida, 1783 - 1745,” by M.C. Mirow, a professor at Florida International University College of Law. The volume also includes a chapter based on Harris’s dissertation, as well as a Helmholz bibliography and a preface that praises the scholar’s “knack for addressing a variety of subjects—from the history of marriage law to the work of the ecclesiastical courts to the privilege against self-incrimination—with sophistication and rigor, while keeping a light touch and remaining accessible.”

The reverence, Harris said, “is not just hero worship. Dick is an incredibly prolific scholar. He’s got all these honors and accolades, and yet he’s very generous with his time. His scholarship is consistently excellent and, despite all that, he’s very humble.”

Helmholz, the Ruth Wyatt Rosenson Distinguished Service Professor of Law and a member of the Law School faculty since 1981, has written or edited more than a dozen books and has published dozens of journal articles. He has focused his research on Roman and canon laws and their relevance in the development of common law, and his teaching centers on property law and natural resources law. A graduate of Harvard Law School, where he earned an LLB, Helmholz also earned a PhD in medieval history from the University of California at Berkeley and an AB in French literature from Princeton. 

His interest in religious law developed almost by accident. “When I was a graduate student getting a PhD in history at Berkeley, there happened to be a number of teachers, particularly visiting teachers, who were interested in the history of canon law, the law of the church,” Helmholz said. “I took courses from them, and I worked as a research assistant for one of them, John Noonan, who later became a judge on the Ninth Circuit. They got me interested in the subject, and then I saw the opportunity to do things that would be additions to the history of law, things nobody else had done.” For his first book, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England, published in 1974, Helmholz offered a rare look at how marriage law was applied during the Middle Ages, digging through English court records that hadn’t previously been studied in this way.

Many of the Festschrift contributors are scholars he has taught or with whom he has collaborated; some he has known for decades.

“It’s an honor, and it’s a nice thing to have—Festschrifts are unusual in the United States,” he said. “I’ve admired the work of a lot of people in here.”

His scholarship, because it draws from multiple lines of inquiry, has been “recognized by historians whose paths might otherwise never cross: historians of Roman civil law, English common law, of medieval and early modern European law, of medieval and early modern English society,” Harris wrote in the book’s preface. “The variety of contributions in the present volume is an apt reflection of the range and depth of his influence.”

But his accomplishments and scholarly connections don’t tell the entire story of his influence, which Harris said was evident in the enthusiasm with which contributors agreed to participate, and the regret of those who couldn’t.

“When Troy Harris asked me to contribute to the Festschrift, I was honored,” Gallanis said. “Dick had heard my paper on ‘The Evolution of the Common Law’ at a conference and told me how pleased he was with the presentation.  It seemed a fitting contribution to a Festschrift in honor of a teacher who has shaped me in so many ways.”

At the Law School, Gallanis was a student in Helmholz’s first-year Property course, and Helmholz also supervised an independent study paper when Gallanis was a Bradley Fellow in Legal History. This year, Gallanis even joined Helmholz as a co-author on the fourth edition of the casebook, The Fundamentals of Property Law.

“I had many fine teachers at Chicago, but Dick was the teacher who most inspired me,” Gallanis said. “In many ways, I am a scholar and teacher of property, trusts, and legal history because of Dick. He inspired me to pursue advanced degrees in legal history, and he has been a mentor for nearly 30 years. Dick has high standards, and I wanted to do my very best to meet those standards. I still do.”

But the demanding nature for which Helmholz is so well known—law students have called him “the Hammer” for years—has often been accompanied by great kindness. Harris still remembers when he told Helmholz that he planned to do some of his field research at archives in Exeter, England—and Helmholz, who had planned to be in the area, offered to spend the day showing him the ropes.

“It was my first foray into the archives, actually going to the records office and asking for these dusty tomes that hadn’t been looked at for hundreds of years, and then trying to make sense of them,” Harris recalled. “Dick took the train from wherever he was, and we met outside the records office. For most of the day, he sat quietly and did his own thing—I think he found some medieval manuscript to look at—and periodically I’d ask him questions. He didn’t need to be there that day, but he came to make sure I got off to a solid start. I really appreciated that. Although he was demanding, he also kept an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t floundering. Now that’s the sort of thing I try to do for my own students.”

It was that sort of courtesy that inspired the “genuine affection and admiration” felt by the contributors, as well as many other students and colleagues, Harris said.

“Indeed, if a gentleman is measured by the number of his friends,” Harris wrote in the preface, “Dick is a gentleman of the first order.”