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University of Houston Law Center mourns the passing of Professor Emeritus Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer

March 31, 2023 — University of Houston Law Center Professor Emeritus Robert C. Palmer died earlier this month.

Professor Palmer was a scholar of legal history who specialized in American and English legal history. He held the Cullen Chair of History and Law at the University of Houston until retirement. Palmer also held a dual appointment with the UH College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, teaching in the Department of History and serving on multiple committees targeting the writing and development of graduate students’ dissertations and theses.

Palmer made documents from Medieval and Early Modern England virtually accessible by launching the Anglo-American Legal Tradition (AALT) website in 2006 under a license from the National Archives in London held by the University of Houston Law Center Library. Targeting English legal history from 1200-1880, Palmer was a pioneer in digitization, opening previously rare English law to the world through reliable documentation.

The Wiki for the Anglo-American Legal Tradition (WAALT) website he created provides a collaborative model for researchers to discuss findings and catalog errors. Palmer continued his work on WAALT after retirement to further expand historical research of England and Wales.

“In addition to being a kind and very erudite man, Bob Palmer was an early adopter of technology,” said Seth Chandler, UH Law Center Foundation Professor of Law. “His body of work on AALT and WAALT put him way ahead of his time. He created — with a lot of physical labor and the equipment available to him at the time — a digital archive of ancient British legal documents and then organized them in a web-accessible way. He thus provided a permanent (and I dare say irreplaceable) resource for those doing serious legal history involving reigns spanning Richard I to Queen Victoria. I was always amazed that he could actually read and understand the materials which were written in medieval versions of Latin.”

“When Bob began the Anglo-American Legal Tradition, only four scholars in the world had the time and the funding to examine those plea rolls, etc.,” Craig Joyce, Hunton Andrews Kurth Professor of Law and Founding Faculty Director, Institute for Intellectual Property & Information Law said. “One at Harvard, one at Chicago, one in the U.K. and Bob. Today, any scholar anywhere in the world can click on the AALT and research, totally free, the treasure trove that was once the exclusive domain of those four scholars. Bob completely democratized research in his chosen field of study.”

An author of diverse articles and books that impressed his contemporaries, Palmer’s leading publications were:

  • Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religion, 1350-1550
  • English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law
  • Liberty and Community: Constitution and Rights in the Early American Republic
  • The Whilton Dispute, 1264-1380: A Social-Legal Study of Dispute Settlement in Medieval England
  • The County Courts of Medieval England, 1150-1350

“Bob’s book on the legal implications of the Black Death is a tour de force, and if you think a volume of legal history cannot possibly be a page-turner, I predict you will change your mind if you read it,” said David R. Dow, Cullen Professor, University of Houston Law Center. “In my years at UHLC, I do not know of anyone who combined being a teacher, a scholar and a contributing member of the academic community more impressively than Bob.”

Palmer received his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon and both his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa. He also served on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Board of Directors for the American Society for Legal History.

“I enjoyed working with Bob. He was such a kind, generous man,” said Amanda Watson, Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the UH Law Center Library. “The University of Houston Law Library will carry on the legacy of AALT and WAALT working with Bob’s chosen collaborators.”

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