Book reviews


Elizabethan: Littleton's Tenures and Tudor law

Have you ever wondered what sorts of books Tom and Co. in my Francis Bacon series have to study to learn the law? (“No!” you respond, with gratuitous vehemence.) Well, I do. I always what to know what my people are reading, both for work and for pleasure. My poor lads spend more time slogging through Littleton’s Tenures than they do solving crimes, you know.

Sir Thomas de Littleton

This is all straight from Wikipedia. Sir Thomas (c.1407 – 23 August 1481) was an English judge andsir-thomas-de-littleton legal writer. He was probably a member of the Inner Temple; at any rate, he performed his Reading there on the Statute of Westminster II (1285.) He rose through legal ranks, being appointed a judge of common pleas in 1466, smack in the middle of the brief reign of Edward IV. Troublous times!

He wrote his Treatise on Tenures (land ownership) after rising to the bench. Some say he dedicated the work to his son, but others point out that mon filz (my son) was a conventional way of addressing law students in that time. Ah, the loveliness of Law French!

English law, like the language in which it was conducted, grew out of an amalgam of Teutonic custom and Norman feudalism. Henry II caused the legal system to be organized in the twelfth century; from that time, legal records were kept. Important cases were reported in the year books. By Sir Thomas’s time, a substantial weight of legal material had accumulated. Since common law is based on past cases, or precedents, lawyers had to dig in to those centuries of accumulation in order to learn their jobs.

Here’s the first page of the Tenures. You can see from the chart that Sir Thomas was a man of Francis Bacon’s ilk. He was trying to organize legal concepts to make them easier to learn and apply. Tough job.


A digression about language

Because I’m a linguist and I find it irresistible, that’s why! I don’t want to learn Law French, but it fascinates me. I would toss bits of it into my books if I weren’t already getting pushback about vocabulary.

Here’s a comment about Law French from the Selden Society: “These Year Books come to us from the middle age, but are not written in Latin: they are written in French. Badish French is may be: ‘un français colonial, avarié, prononcé les dents serrées, avec une contorsion de gosier, à la mode, non de Paris, mais de Stratford-atte-Bowe.’ [my guess at a translation: ‘a colonial French, tainted, pronounced through closed teeth, with a contortion of the throat, in the fashion, not of Paris, but of Stratford-atte-Bowe.’]

Their lengthy introduction does include a long discussion of the grammar, such as it is, of Law French. I will read it when I get to the courtroom drama which may be the centerpiece of book 8. (Yes, I have a list that long.) 

A soupçon of Year Book

From the same volume produced by the Selden Society. The Society, in its own words, “was founded ‘to encourage the study and advance the knowledge of the history of the English law.'” If there were a chapter in Austin, I would join. Alas, there is none. 

The authors warn us, with characteristic Victorian sang froid, thus: “Our commendation of the Year Books will not really be qualified by the remark, perhaps needless, that reports must be read in considerable quantities if they are to be appreciated. They cannot be tasted in sips.” On the other hand, this stuff is not exactly light reading for your commute.

Here’s that taste, from page 1. You want to read this out loud, with your best mock-BBC accent.

“Placita de Termino S. Michaelis Anna Regni Regist Edwardi Filii Regis Edwardi Primo.

1. Maulay v. Driby.

Recordum de forma doni en le erverti ou la tenaunte alegga en abatement del fref un jugement qe se fist ou bref de dreit super excepcionem de nontenure. Forma donacionis en le reverti ou le tenaount dit q’il tynt les tenemenz ov un altre et pria eyde etc. [That’s the preamble.]

Petrus fillius Petri de Malo Lacu, Rogerus Kerdestone et Juliana de Gaunt per attornatum suum petunt versus Johannam que fuit uxor Roberti de Dribi terciam partem duarum parcium manerii de H. cum pertinenciis, exceptis x. mesaugiis, xv. toftis, vj. carucatis terre, xl. acris prati, c. acris pasture et xxv. libratis redditus, cum pertinenciis en eodem manerio, quam Gilbertus de Gaunt senior, pater predicted Juliane et avus predictorum Petri at Rogeri, cuius heredes ipsi sunt, dedit Gilberto de Gault iuniori et Lore uxori eius et heredibus de corporibus ipsorum Gilberti et Lore procreatis, et que post mortem ipsorum Gilberti et Lore ad prefatos Petrum, Rogerum et Julianum reverti debent per formam donacionis predicte, eo quod Gilbertus de Gaunt junior et Lora uxor eius etc. obierunt sine heredibus de corporibus suis etc.”

I can pick out a few words, which we still use in the same general sense. This is where we got them, boys and girls. ‘Tenure,’ ‘abatement,’ ‘judgement,’ ‘post mortem.’

Here’s the translation (Whew!):

[Preamble] “Land has been given to husband and wife in tail by the husband’s father. It was afterwards, during the wife’s life, recovered against the husband in a writ of right after a verdict given against him on a plea of non-tenure. Qu. whether, after the death of the husband and wife without issue, this recovery is a bar to a writ of formedon in the reverter* brought by the heir of the donor against the heirs of the recoverer.”

“Peter son of Peter de Maulay, Roger of Kerdeston and Juliana of Gaunt, by their attorney, demand against Joan, wife that was of Robert of Driby, the third part of two parts of the manor of H. with the appurtenances (except ten messuages, fifteen tofts, six carucates of land, forty acres of meadow, a hundred acres of pasture and twenty-five pounds’ worth of rent in the same manor), which (third part) Gilbert of Gaunt the elder, father of the said Juliana and grandfather of the said Peter and Roger, whose heirs they are, gave to Gilbert of Gaunt the younger and Lora his wife and the heirs of their bodies begotten, and which after the death of them, Gilbert and Lora, ought to revert to the said Peter, Roger and Juliana by the form of the said gift, for that Gilbert of Gaunt the younger and Lora his wife died without heirs of their bodies etc.”

No wonder so many of the Inns of Court gentlemen preferred to spend their time dancing and fencing!

*[If I had formedon in my reverter, I’d throw it out and get another one. Kaputnik.]


Year Books of Edward II. Vol. I, 1 & 2 Edward II. A.D. 1307-1309. Edited for the Selden Society by F.W. Maitland. London: Bernard Quaritch, 15 Piccadilly. 1903.

Elizabethan: De orbe novo, The new world

peter-martyrIn The Widows Guild, Francis Bacon finds a clue in a copy of De orbe novo (On the new world, 1530) by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera. D’Anghiera was an Italian humanist who served in the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella. He wrote the first accounts of the discoveries in the new world. Like a good renaissance historian, he based his work on real data: contemporary letters and reports.

Bacon is looking for information about poisons that cause paralysis, and he finds some; or rather, I found it for him, by the simple non-sixteenth-century expedient of Chrome’s Find function.

This book is endlessly delightful; well worth playing with in your odd moments — waiting for that report to be sent to you or your program to compile (if people still do that). Go to Project Gutenberg and open it in your browser. Use Find to skip through it, looking for anything Carribean or South American that strikes your fancy. Creatures? Poisons? Gold? Religion? You’ll find it here.

And if you’re wondering which island is actually where, you can study this wonderful site: Caribmap — A Cartographic history of the Caribbean Islands.

I’ll give you some extracts, with illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.

First contact: Hispaniola

The Landing of Christopher Columbus. Library of Congress, via Wikipedia.

“Upon leaving these islands [the Canaries] and heading straight to the west, with a slight deviation to the south-west, Columbus sailed thirty-three successive days without seeing anything but sea and sky. His companions began to murmur in secret, for at first they concealed their discontent, but soon, openly, desiring to get rid of their leader, whom they even planned to throw into the sea. They considered that they had been deceived by this Genoese, who was leading them to some place from whence they could never return. After the thirtieth day they angrily demanded that he should turn back and go no farther; Columbus, by using gentle words, holding out promises and flattering their hopes, sought to gain time, and he succeeded in calming their fears; finally also reminding them that if they refused him their obedience or attempted violence against him, they would be accused of treason by their sovereigns. To their great joy, the much-desired land was finally discovered.[Apparently it’s still not known exactly which island was first.] During this first voyage Columbus visited six islands, two of which were of extraordinary magnitude; one of these he named Hispaniola, and the other Juana [now Cuba], though he was not positive that the latter was an island. While sailing along the coasts of these islands, in the month of November, the Spaniards heard nightingales singing in the dense forests, and they discovered great rivers of fresh water, and natural harbours sufficient for the largest fleets.

[It’s hard to imagine a ship and a landscape quite enough to hear bird song on board!]

[They see people, who flee from them. The Spaniards capture one woman and give her clothes and presents, which she takes back to her people, convincing them that the Spanish are generous. They come out and find ways to communicate. The Spanish interpret their courtesy as deference and immediately assume possession, in a friendly way so far.]

Barbarians next door

“The Spaniards learned that there were other islands not far distant, inhabited by fierce peoples who live on human flesh; this explained why the natives of Hispaniola fled so promptly on their arrival. They told the Spaniards later that they had taken them for the cannibals, which is the name they give to these barbarians. They also call them Caraibes. The islands inhabited by these monsters lie towards the south, and about half-way to the other islands. The inhabitants of Hispaniola, who are a mild people, complained that they were exposed to frequent attacks from the cannibals who landed amongst them and pursued them through the forests like hunters chasing wild beasts. The cannibals captured children, whom they castrated, just as we do chickens and pigs we wish to fatten for the table, and when they were grown and become fat they ate them.” [No telling what this was about, in reality.]

Stars, turnips, and this thing we call corn

“Although these people adore the heavens and the stars, their religion is not yet sufficiently understood; cornas for their other customs, the brief time the Spaniards stopped there and the want of interpreters did not allow full information to be obtained. They eat roots which in size and form resemble our turnips, but which in taste are similar to our tender chestnuts. These they call ages. Another root which they eat they call yucca; and of this they make bread. They eat the ages either roasted or boiled, or made into bread. They cut the yucca, which is very juicy, into pieces, mashing and kneading it and then baking it in the form of cakes. It is a singular thing that they consider the juice of the yucca to be more poisonous than that of the aconite, and upon drinking it, death immediately follows. On the other hand, bread made from this paste is very appetising and wholesome: all the Spaniards have tried it. The islanders also easily make bread with a kind of millet, similar to that which exists plenteously amongst the Milanese and Andalusians. This millet is a little more than a palm in length, ending in a point, and is about the thickness of the upper part of a man’s arm. The grains are about the form and size of peas. While they are growing, they are white, but become black when ripe. When ground they are whiter than snow. This kind of grain is called maiz.”

Skipping through, finding poison

“Despite their nakedness, it must be admitted that in some places the natives have exterminated entire groups of Spaniards, for they are ferocious and are armed with poisoned arrows and sharp lances with points hardened in the fire. Even the animals, reptiles, insects, and quadrupeds are different from ours, and exhibit innumerable and strange species. With the exception of lions, tigers, and crocodiles, they are not dangerous.” [A few minor exceptions…]

Crocodiles in Jalisco, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

“In conducting their man-hunts, the Caribs have scoured all the neighbouring countries; and whatever they found that was likely to be useful to them, they brought back for cultivation. These islanders are inhospitable and suspicious, and their conquest can only be accomplished by using force. Both sexes use poisoned arrows and are very good shots; so that, whenever the men leave the island on an expedition, the women defend themselves with masculine courage against any assailants. It is no doubt this fact that has given rise to the exploded belief that there are islands in this ocean peopled entirely by women.” [So much for those fabled Amazons.]

And now I can’t find the quote that Bacon used to solve the case. Ay, me!

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