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Common Law and the Commonplace in Thomas More's Utopia [with illustrations]


  • I would like to thank Margreta de Grazia, Crystal Bartolovich, Zachary Lesser, Melissa Sanchez, and Ari Friedlander for their generous comments on earlier drafts of this essay. This research was assisted by an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship.


Thomas More's Utopia explores what it means to base a society on custom at a time when common law, or the “common custom of the realm,” is on the rise as England's dominant legal form. I argue that the absence of private property in Utopia ostensibly precludes the need for law, and custom takes its place. More's use of the term mores to describe these customs renders them, quite literally, his signature topic. As Utopia expands its borders, the distinction between law and custom begins to blur in ways that reflect upon the tensions inherent in England's own constitutional system. Drawing upon the Prolegomena to Erasmus' Adages, I argue that the commonplaces of Utopia gesture toward the possibility of an alternative discursive commons, one likewise based on custom. Yet the conspicuous absence of commonplaces in Book II of Utopia reflects upon the limits of a linguistic commons built upon humanist principles. (S. E.)