Page images
PDF
EPUB

for purposes of business. But the Norman barons were not cultivated; and for many generations ignorance was with them an affair of pride no less than of constitutional inclination.

Soon ambitious Englishmen acquired the new language, in order to use it as an instrument for personal advancement. The Saxon stripling who could keep accounts in Norman fashion, and speak . French as fluently as his mother tongue, might hope to sell his knowledge in a good market. As the steward of a Norman baron he might negotiate between my lord and my lord's tenants, letting my lord know as much of his tenant's wishes, and revealing to the tenants as much of their lord's intentions as suited his purpose. Uniting in his own person the powers of interpreter, arbitrator, and steward, he possessed enviable opportunities and facilities for acquiring wealth. Not seldom, when he had grown rich, or whilst his fortunes were in the ascendant, he assumed a French name as well as a French accent; and having persuaded himself and his younger neighbors that he was Frenchman, he in some cases bequeathed to his children an ample estate and a Norman pedigree. In certain causes in the law conrts the agent (by whatever title known) who was a perfect master of the three languages (French, Latin, and English) had greatly the advantage over an opposing agent who could speak only French and Latin.

From the Conquest till the latter half of the fourteenth century the pleadings in courts of justice were in Norman-French; but in the 36 Ed. III., it was ordained by the king " that all plees, which be to be pleded in any of his courts, before any of his justices; or in his other places; or before any of his other ministers; or in the courts and places of any other lords within the realm, shall be pleded, shewed, and defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English tongue, and that they be

a

entred and enrolled in Latine. And that the laws and customs of the same realm, termes, and processes, be holden and kept as they be, and have been before this time; and that by the antient termes and forms of the declarations no man be prejudiced; so that the matter of the action be fully shewed in the demonstration and in the writ.” Long before this wise measure of reform was obtained by the urgent wishes of the nation, the French of the law courts had become so corrupt and unlike the language of the invaders, that it was scarcely more intelligible to educated natives of France than to most Englishmen of the highest rank. A jargon compounded

. of French and Latin, none save professional lawyers could translate it with readiness or accuracy; and whilst it unquestionably kept suitors in ignorance of their own affairs, there is reason to believe that it often perplexed the most skilful of those official interpreters who were never weary of extolling his lucidity and precision.

But though English lawyers were thus expressly forbidden in 1362 to plead in Law-French, they persisted in using the hybrid jargon for reports and treatises so late as George II.'s reign; and for an equal length of time they seized every occasion to introduce scraps of LawFrench into their speeches at the bars of the different courts. It should be observed that these antiquarian advocates were enabled thus to display their useless. erudition by the provisions of King Edward's act, which, while it forbade French pleadings, specially ordained the retention of French terms. Roger North’s

essay On the study of the Laws' contains amusing testimony to the affection with which the lawyers of his day regarded their Law-French, and also shows how largely it was used till the close of the seventeenth century by the orators of Westminster Hall. “Here I must stay to observe," says the author, enthu

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

siastically, “the necessity of a student's early application to learn the old Law-French, for these books, and most others of considerable authority, are delivered in it. Some may think that because the Law-French is no better than the old Norman corrupted, and now a deformed hotch-potch of the English and Latin mixed together, it is not fit for a polite spark to foul himself with; but this nicety is so desperate a mistake, that lawyer and Law-French are coincident; one will not stand without the other.” So enamored was he of the grace and excellence of law-reporters' French, that he regarded it as a delightful study for a man of fashion, and maintained that no barrister would do justice to the law and the interests of his clients who did not season his sentences with Norman verbiage. “The law," he held, "is scarcely expressible properly in English, and when it is done, it must be Françoise, or very uncouth.”

Edward III.'s measure prohibitory of French pleadings had therefore comparatively little influence on the educational course of law-students. The published reports of trials, known by the name of Year-Books, were composed in French, until the series terminated in the time of Henry VIII.; and so late as George II.'s reign, Chief Baron Comyn preferred such words as 'chemin, dismes,' and 'baron and feme,' to such words as 'highway,' 'tithes,' 'husband and wife.' More liberal than the majority of his legal brethren, even as his enlightenment with regard to public affairs exceeded that of ordinary politicians of his time, Sir Edward Coke wrote his commentaries in English, but when he published them, he felt it right to soothe the alarm of lawyers by assuring them that his departure from ancient usage could have no disastrous consequences.

“I cannot conjecture," he apologetically observes in his preface, “that the general communicating these laws in the English tongue can work any inconvenience.”

Some of the primary text-books of legal lore had been rendered into English, and some most valuable treatises had been written and published in the mother tongue of the country; but in the seventeenth century no Inns-ofCourt man could acquire an adequate acquaintance with the

usages and rules of our courts and the decisions of past judges, until he was able to study the Year-Books and read Littleton in the original. To acquire this singular language-a dead tongue that cannot be said to have ever lived—was the first object of the law-student. He worked at it in his chamber, and with faltering and uncertain accents essayed to speak it at the periodic mootings in which he was required to take part before he could be called to the bar, and also after he had become an utter-barrister. In his 'Autobiography,' Sir Simonds D'Ewes makes mention in several places of his LawFrench exercises (temp. James I.), and in one place of his personal story he observes, “I had twice mooted in Law-French before I was called to the bar, and several times after I was made an utter-barrister, in our open hall. Thrice also before I was of the bar, I argued the reader's cases at the Inns of Chancery publicly, and six times afterwards. And then also, being an utter-barrister, I had twice argued our Middle-Temple reader's case at the cupboard, and sat nine times in our hall at the bench, and argued such cases in English as had before been argued by young gentlemen or utter-barristers in Law-French bareheaded."

Amongst the excellent changes by which the more enlightened of the Commonwealth lawyers sought to lessen the public clamor of law-reform was the resolution that all legal records should be kept, and all writs composed, in the language of the country. Hitherto the law records had been kept in a Latin that was quite as barbarous as the French used by the reporters; and the determination to abolish a custom which served only to obscure the operations of justice and to confound the illiterate was hailed by the more intelligent purchasers of law as a notable step in the right direction. But the reform was by no means acceptable to the majority of the bar, who did not hesitate to stigmatize the measure as a dangerous innovation—which would prove injurious to learned lawyers and peace-loving citizens, although it might possibly serve the purposes of ignorant counsel and litigious ‘lay gents.'* The legal literature of three generations following Charles I.'s execution abounds with contemptuous allusions to the 'English times' of Cromwell; the old-fashioned reporters, hugging their Norman-French and looking with suspicion on popular intelligence, were vehement in expressing their contempt for the prevalent misuse of the mother tongue. “I have," observes Styles, in the preface to his reports, "made these reports speak English; not that I believe that they will be thereby more generally useful, for I have always been and yet am of opinion, that that part of the Common Law which is in the English hath only occasioned the making of unquiet spirits contentiously knowing, and more apt to offend others than to defend themselves; but I have done it in obedience to authority, and to stop the mouths of such of this English age, who, though they be confessedly different in their minds and judgments, as the builders of Babel were in their language, yet do think it vain, if not impious, to speak or understand more than their own mother tongue.” In like manner, Whitelock's uncle Bulstrode, the celebrated reporter, says of the second part of his reports, “ that he had manny years since perfected the words in French, in which language

* In the seventeenth century, lawyers usually called their clients and the nonlegal public ‘Lay Gents.'

« PreviousContinue »