An anthropologist specialising in Tibetan societies, Fernanda uses both ethnographic and historical methods to study and compare legal practices and texts. She has argued for a new anthropology of law, which engages both with legal theory and legal history: The Anthropology of Law (OUP, 2013). This builds on themes and debates developed in the Oxford Legalism project, which brought together scholars from anthropology, history, and other disciplines to compare wide-ranging empirical examples (Legalism, OUP, 4 vols).

These themes form the basis for Fernanda’s research into Tibetan legal history and an AHRC-funded project on the legal history of medieval Tibet: Legal Ideology in Tibet: Politics, Practice, and Religion (2016–18) This has led to a series of publications and a web-site containing source material (

Fernanda has been commissioned by Profile (UK) and Basic Books (US) to write a global history of law, which is due to appear in 2021: The map of civilization: how 4,000 years of law shaped our world.

Fernanda continues to publish on legal anthropology and Tibetan legal history, as well as related issues, such as comparison in law and anthropology and the relationship between empirical studies and legal theory.

Qualifications DPhil in Social Anthropology (Oxford) 2002, MSc in Social Anthropology (UCL) 1998, Called to the Bar 1988, BA in French and Philosophy (Oxford) 1986.


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  • F Pirie, 'The making of Tibetan law: the Khrims gnyis lta ba’i me long.' in J. Bischoff, P. Maurer, and C. Ramble (eds), On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. (Lumbini International Research Institute. 2020)
    This chapter analyses the authorship and origins of the earliest known Tibetan legal treatise, called The Mirror of the Two Laws. Although much reproduced in modern editions, the text has received surprisingly little scholarly attention and the analysis is based on my own recent translation. I conclude that it must have been written in the in the decades after the fall of the Mongols’ Yuan administration in China, by or for the Phagmodru family, which was then trying to retain and consolidate the power in central Tibet. The writer of the treatise anchored his text firmly in Buddhist precedent and doctrine, suggesting that the Phagmodru wanted to present themselves as guardians of Tibet’s legal tradition. The treatise could have been commissioned with a view to persuading the Ming, then in power in China, that the Phagmodru were suitable recipients of their seals of authority. It might also have been distributed, or intended to be distributed, within central Tibet, in order to encourage local officials and administrators that their practices of mediation were following ancient Tibetan patterns; that they were acting within a religious tradition of which the Phagmodru were now the guardians. As a description of mediation practices and principles, the text could be regarded as a first step towards judicial systematization.
  • F Pirie, 'The sociology of law and legal anthropology' in J. Přibáň (ed), Research handbook on sociology of law. (Edward Elgar 2020)
    This chapter argues that the distinctive contribution of anthropology to legal scholarship stems from its methodology. Long-term immersion in a field site and participant observation allow anthropologists to understand the world from the perspectives of their informants, to uncover meanings, and to take account of diversity. This leads to rich ethnographic description, characterized by detail and nuance. But it also produces theory- and model-building, which are firmly rooted in detailed empirical observation. The result is that anthropologists often question the categories that other legal scholars use to frame and analyse the law and its social roles. They raise new questions about what law is and does. They also use comparison amongst qualitative empirical case studies, allowing the terms of the comparison to arise from the cases, themselves. In these ways, anthropologists not only contribute rich and detailed cast studies to the body of legal scholarship, but they also question familiar assumptions about such issues as the relationship between law and the state, its capacity to regulate social life, its use in the resolution of disputes, and its attraction as a tool to both impose and challenge power, often in unexpected circumstances. They contribute, in these ways, to debates about what law is and does.
  • F Pirie, 'Legalism: A Turn to History in the Anthropology of Law' (2019) 15 Clio@Themis
    Notorious definitional debates have characterized the anthropology of law, and scholars have not reached consensus over how ‘law’ is to be distinguished from other social phenomena. This article suggests that light can be shed upon this issue by combining the insights of anthropologists and historians. Careful comparison among empirical examples highlights the importance of texts and the legal form. Case studies from Tibet are used to illustrate these points and draw attention to the phenomenon of legalism, that is, the use of generalizing rules and abstract categories to describe and organise the world. This provides a basis for exploring the nature and significance of law, both in the modern world and societies of the past.
    ISBN: ISSN 2105-0929
  • F Pirie, 'Legalism' in H. Callan (ed), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Wiley-Blackwell 2018)
  • F Pirie, 'Which two laws? The concept of khrims gnyis in medieval Tibet.' (2018) 26 Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 41
    The concept of trimnyi, two laws, emerges in the series of historical narratives created in Tibet’s medieval period, between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries. But what these laws were supposed to consist of is never made clear. This paper explores the origins of this pairing—of religious and royal laws—in early post-imperial texts and the ways in which the narratives developed up to the fifteenth century. I suggest that the concept of two laws was used to express the idea that Tibet’s Yarlung dynasty kings had based their political activities, including their law-making, on Buddhist principles. This allowed the authors to create an account of Tibet as a historic Buddhist polity, in whcih religious principles had provided the basis for the early kings’ practices of law and government. More than just an idealistic representation of Buddhism’s influence at the Yarlung court, I suggest that the account was probably also rooted in historical fact, reflecting events that unfolded when a new set of religious ideas was incorporated into established political structures.
    ISBN: ISBN-13 : 9782855391786
  • F Pirie, 'Buddhist Law in Early Tibet: The Emergence of an Ideology.' (2017) 32 Journal of Law and Religion 406–422
    DOI: 10.1017/jlr.2017.42
    Tibet is distinct within the Buddhist regions of Asia for its claims to have developed religious laws. The rulers of its early empire—or so it is claimed by the writers of Tibetan historical narratives—civilized their people by creating laws on the basis of Buddhist principles. In fact, the earliest Tibetan laws were not linked in any significant way with Buddhist principles, even after the religion had been firmly established in the region. The more ideological account of Buddhist law found in later narratives was only developed as the structures of the empire were collapsing. The paper asks why and how the idea of Buddhist law first emerged, examining its development through a number of texts from the empire (sixth to ninth centuries) and the immediate post-imperial period (tenth to twelfth centuries). Their accounts of law-making were far from consistent, but they do seem to have resonated with at least one, tenth-century ruler. These narratives set the scene for a long series of historical accounts, in which the idea that Tibetan law was based on Buddhist principles took hold, and which was maintained well into the twentieth century.
  • F Pirie, A. Kubal and N. Creutzfeldt, 'Introduction: Exploring the Comparative in Socio-Legal Studies' (2016) 12 .International Journal of Law in Context 377–89
    Among the diverse approaches to comparison in socio-legal studies, those that employ qualitative research, richness of detail and attention to context are the focus of this special issue. The Introduction draws on comparative law and social science literature to argue that comparison amongst studies of laws in contexts can follow different trajectories: the comparison may start from an assumption of similarity – in form, purposes or context – in order to identify significant differences; or it may identify significant similarity across social and cultural divides. What unites many of the projects of comparison undertaken by qualitative empirical researchers is that the points of relevant comparison are identified within the complexity of the empirical studies at hand; and they are allowed to emerge, or change, as the researcher comes to understand the facts and issues more deeply.
  • F Pirie, 'Legal Theory and Legal History: A View from Anthropology' in M. del Mar and A. Lobban (eds), Law in Theory and History: New Essays on a Neglected Dialogue (Hart 2016)
  • F Pirie, 'State, Law, and Morality in Traditional Tibet' in J. Bischoff & S. Mullard (ed), Social Regulation: Case Studies from Tibetan History (Brill 2016)
  • F Pirie, 'Legalism and the Anthropology of Law' (2015) 36 Recht der Werklijkeid 99
  • F Pirie, 'Oaths and Ordeals in Tibetan Law' in D. Schuh (ed), Secular Law and Order in the Tibetan Highland (International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies 2015)
  • F Pirie, 'Rules, Proverbs, and Persuasion: Legalism and Rhetoric in Tibet' in Paul Dresch and Judith Scheele (eds), Legalism: Rules and Categories (OUP 2015)
  • F Pirie, 'Community, Justice, and Legalism: Elusive Concepts in Tibet' in Fernanda Pirie and Judith Scheele (eds), Legalism: Community and Justice (OUP 2014)
  • F Pirie, 'Comparison in the Anthropology and History of Law' (2014) 9 Journal of Comparative Law 88
  • F Pirie and Judith Scheele, 'Justice, Community, and Law' in Fernanda Pirie and Judith Scheele (eds), Legalism: Community and Justice (OUP 2014)
  • F Pirie and Judith Scheele (eds), Legalism: Community and Justice (OUP 2014)
  • F Pirie, 'Law and Religion in Historic Tibet' in F. and K. von Benda-Beckmann, M. Ramstedt, and B. Turner (eds), Religion in Disputes (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)
  • F Pirie and Justine Rogers, 'Pupillage: The Shaping of a Professional Elite' in J. Abbink and T. Salverda (eds), The Anthropology of Elites (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)
  • F Pirie, The Anthropology of Law (OUP, Clarendon Law Series 2013)
  • F Pirie, 'The Limits of the State: Coercion and Consent in Chinese Tibet' (2013) 72 Journal of Asian Studies 69
  • F Pirie, 'Who were the Tibetan Lawmakers?' in C. Ramble, P. Schwieger, and A. Travers (eds), Tibetans who Escaped the Historian's Net (Vajra Books 2013)
  • F Pirie, 'Legal Dramas on the Amdo Grasslands: Abolition, transformation, or Survival?' in K . Buffetrille (ed), Revisiting Rituals in a Changing Tibetan World (Brill 2012)
  • F Pirie, 'Law Before Government: Ideology and Aspiration' (2010) 30 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 207
  • F Pirie, 'From Tribal Tibet: The Significance of the Legal Form' in M. Freeman and D. Napier (eds), Law and Anthropology (OUP 2009)
  • F Pirie, 'Kings, Monks, Bureaucrats, and the Police: Tibetan Responses to Law and Authority' in F. and K. van Benda-beckmann, and A. Griffiths (eds), The Power of Law in a Transnational World (Berghahn 2009)
  • F Pirie, 'The Horse with Two Saddles: Tamxhwe in Modern Golok' (2009) 1 Asian Highland Perspectives 164
  • F Pirie and Toni Huber (eds), Conflict and Social Order in Tibet and Inner Asia (Brill 2008)
  • F Pirie, 'Dancing in the Face of Death: Losar Celebrations in Photoksar' in M. van Beek and F. Pirie (eds), Modern Ladakh (Brill 2008)
  • Martijn van Beek and F Pirie (eds), Modern Ladakh: Continuity and Change in Anthropological Perspective (Brill 2008)
  • F Pirie, 'Violence and Opposition among the Nomads of Amdo' in F. Pirie and T. Huber (eds), Conflict and Social Order in Tibet and Inner Asia (Brill 2008)
  • Keebet von Benda-Beckmann and F Pirie (eds), Order and Disorder: Anthropological Perspectives (Berghahn 2007)
  • F Pirie, 'Order, Individualism, and Responsibility: Contrasting Dynamics on the Tibetan Plateau' in K. von Benda-Beckmann and F. Pirie (eds), Order and Disorder (Berghahn 2007)
  • F Pirie, Peace and Conflict in Ladakh: The Construction of a Fragile Web of Order (Brill 2007)
  • F Pirie, 'Legal Autonomy as Political Engagement: The Ladakhi Village in the Wider World' (2006) 40 Law and Society Review 77
  • F Pirie, 'Secular Morality, Village law, and Buddhism in Tibetan Societies' (2006) 12 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 173
  • F Pirie, 'Segmentation Within the State: The Reconfiguration of Tibetan Tribes in China's Reform Period' (2005) 9 Nomadic Peoples 83


Research Interests

Anthropology of law; Tibetan law and legal practices; Global legal history; The English Bar

Options taught

Law in Society

Research projects