Gray's Inn, part 3: Legal exercises

Modern law students may justly complain about how hard they have to work, how many hours, and how difficult the material is. But they can read this post and thank their lucky stars they’re not trying to learn the common law at Inn of Court in the Elizabethan period!

littletons_tenures_p1The standard work for lawyers and students alike was Thomas de Littleton’s Treatise on Tenures, the first English text book on property law. Littleton lived between 1407 and 1481, so my characters are learning from a 100-year-old text. The book is English in that it concerns the English common law, but it was helpfully written in law French, that barbarous mélange of Norman French, Latin, and English phrases. I’ll write about Law French some other time.

The blackletter font wouldn’t have been an obstacle for them; it is for me, especially with the blurry scanning. I found a sample transcribed at the delightful online Law Museum, copied here for your delectation. Also so you’ll understand why there isn’t much actual law in my novels about lawyers. It’s too hard for me!

Tenant in fee simple is he which hath lands or tenements to hold to him and his heirs forever. And it is called in Latin feodum simplex, for feodum is the same that inheritance is, and simplex is as much to say, lawful or pure. And so feodum simplex signifies a lawful or pure inheritance. For if a man would purchase lands or tenements in fee simple, it behoveth him to have these words in his purchase, To have and to hold to him and to his heirs: for these words, his heirs, make the estate of inheritance.

 Moots and bolts

Bigbullmoose_wikicomOED’s earliest meaning of moot is, “A meeting, an assembly of people, esp. one for judicial or legislative purposes.” As in an entmoot, which is the way I first learned the word. (The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful vocabulary booster for a 12-year old!)

A corollary meaning is, “The discussion of a hypothetical case by law students for practice.” This is how my characters spent most of their evenings, sitting at the long tables in the hall with their writing materials and notes before them, mustering their courage to stand up and debate with the likes of Sir Christopher Yelverton and our own Francis Bacon. bolts_wikicom

A bolt is “A hypothetical law case propounded and argued for practice by students of the Inns of Court.” That sounds like pretty much the same thing to me, but I think moots were more formally structured than bolts. True to their times, they divided these activities into many sub-classes: petty, grand, chapel, house, term, hall and library. They varied as to participants, time, place, and standard of argument.

Moots were also graded in complexity and difficulty, which helped define an internal membership hierarchy and provided the main mechanism for promotion. One of the benchers would put a short case consisting of two or three difficult questions in the law, of his own invention. The students divided themselves into groups of three to argue the case. They sought to justify their positions by citing maxims, precedents, and principles from their resources — Littleton and the Year Books, which were compendiums of court cases. (I don’t have a sample from a Year Book, sorry.)

A mock trial consisted of 2-3 barristers sitting as judges and 2 students or barristers acting as opposing counsel. The formulation of the case was the joint responsibility of the two opposing counselors. Cases were supposed to contain at least one arguable point of law; those that didn’t could be failed or overruled. A student might spend more than a fortnight preparing his case.

At the appointed time, the two men who had prepared the case, with 2 students who were to recite the appropriate pleadings for and against the action concerned, took their seats on a bench facing the 3 judges.

First the pleadings were recited in plain law French, from memory. Then the first moot-man rose as counsel for the plaintiff to address himself to the law-points at issue. Then the defendant’s counsel spoke. Others might advance arguments, citing yearbook cases. Finally the mooters presented the judges with a mug of beer and a slice of bread and the exercise was over. Beer_wikicom


All of this is from: Prest, Wilfrid R. 1972. The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts. Longman.

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