The ‘legal’ in socio-legal history: Woods and Pirie v Cumming Gordon

Derry, Caroline (2022). The ‘legal’ in socio-legal history: Woods and Pirie v Cumming Gordon. Journal of Law and Society, 49(4) pp. 778–799.



This article explores the Scottish defamation case Woods and Pirie v Cumming Gordon (1811-1812) in order to demonstrate the value of legal readings across the broadest spectrum of socio-legal history. While the case has attracted attention from social historians, particularly historians of sexuality, it was shrouded in secrecy and thus did not contribute to the development of legal doctrine. Nonetheless, careful attention to the specifically legal nature of the archive and proceedings deepens our understanding of them and their social implications. Woods and Pirie concerned an allegation of lesbianism made by a half-Indian, half-Scottish schoolgirl against her teachers. Its extensive records offer particularly rich material relating to gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and empire whose significance and limitations are only fully grasped if it is analysed with an understanding of its legal context. Ultimately, such engagements deepen our understanding of the law’s operation as well.

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