Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Fourteenth-Century Scamblogger?

Medieval English lawyers left a permanent mark not only in court records, but in contemporary poetry, a still under-appreciated research source for legal historians that arguably reveals lawyers' foibles and their problematic public image more accurately than the formal documents we tend to be more comfortable with. Most historians and literary scholars are of course familiar with the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Man of Law" from the Canterbury Tales, captured here in Nevill Coghill's classic modern rendering from Middle English:
A serjeant of the law, wary and wise
Who'd often gone from Paul's walk to advise
There was also, compact of excellence.
Discreet he was, and of great reverence;
At least he seemed so, his words were so wise.
Often he sat as justice in assize
By patent or commission from the crown
Because of learning and his high renown
He took large fees and many robes could own.
So great a purchaser was never known.
Even this limited quotation from the General Prologue shows that Chaucer had doubts about the sincerity and conduct of his lawyer, and perhaps lawyers in general, but the court poet was (unsurprisingly) a light touch as compared to other poet-commentators of the period. Take for instance William Langland, a secular cleric with populist leanings who found lawyers in his dream of the "fair field full of folk" (again as rendered from Middle English by Coghill):
Yet stood there scores of men in scarves of silk -
Law serjeants - they seemed to serve in court,
Pleaded cases for pennies and impounded the law.
And not for love of our lord unloosed their lips once.
You might better measure mist on Malvern Hills
Than get a mum from their lips till money is showed.
Langland pilloried venal, greedy and selfish lawyers at various junctures in Piers Plowman, his lengthy allegory on English society. Indeed, his later explicit reference to "legistres and lawyeres" in the B-text of the poem is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) the first recognized use of the word "lawyer" in the English language, an inconvenient truth that grounds our most common professional term for ourselves in the work of one of our harshest critics.
For all his swipes at lawyers, however, Langland was tame as compared to a third 14th century English poet who was the most vicious and unforgiving in his denunciation of the profession. John Gower is virtually unknown to lawyers and legal historians today, and has only recently enjoyed a bit of a revival among literary scholars, but in two poems written between 1376 and 1381 he attacked lawyers with unprecedented vituperation. In his French-language work Mirour de l'Omme, he vilified lawyers in a tirade of over 500 lines, giving them far more attention than they had drawn in any earlier screed. That, however, was but a warm-up for his Latin poem Vox Clamantis, where lawyers dubiously took center-stage in Book 6 (translation by The Gower Project):
Beneath law's cloak lurks craft to change a law without
Right as its acts wish on a given day.
When advocates are able to twist such a law,
They change the given laws by their own words,
Paint everything in tinted likeness of justice,
Whereby dissembling courts bring them more gain...
This is the talky litigious tribe that prefers
To clamor loudly in trumped up suits.
The lawyer wishes to play the part of a whore,
And cannot love a man without a gift,
As you can see, he is always for sale to all;
Give him gold and you can have his body.
He never cares what a man's clan or order is,
Whenever he can have a bit of cash ...
Just as the way to Rome for pilgrims open stands
Who come to render prayers at holy sites,
So is the path to the lawyers' vulgar houses
On which the people go and bring them gifts.
For just as ancient tyrants tied up righteous men
Who wouldn't offer incense to their gods,
So now the greedy lawyer ties his neighbors up
Who are reluctant to fetch him tribute ...
A greedy lawyer wraps his neighbors terrified
In law and traps them in like circumstance.
He persecutes fainthearted folk with no defense,
The law's net packs them close together in.
The simple plebe falls in his webs, but to the man of means
The lawyer's nets give, lacerated, way.


Gower was especially critical of lawyers' emerging tendency to acquire status and wealth through the purchase of land. Chaucer had mentioned this in passing, but Gower launched a veritable crusade against the practice:
More than ravening Scylla gulps the sea's waves down,
The lawyer his own native land devours.
More than the hound who seeks his prey in ample woods,
The lawyer seeks his profit to acquire.
Nor harms the hound his prey more when he grasps it with
His teeth, so that he may devour its flesh,
Than an advocate harms his client by the law
To have a silver tribute for himself.
As the she-wolf racked with hunger by her pup's ways
Seeks to find them food throughout the wide fields,
So when a lawyer's offspring are increased, he plots
His schemes everywhere to swell his wealth.
O without rest conspiring night and day, to snatch
A profit everywhere he works the court.
Then house to house he joins and field to field, because
He wants to be alone in his own world. ...
And when the law increases the lawyers' numbers,
Then plundered plebes groan in their homelands more.
Just as the water's torrent floods the sunken crops,
Plucks out what's in the ground and roots it up,
This greedy group by law takes all the many gains
Of men that the surface of earth contains.
In a final rhetorical flourish (and lest we academic lawyers feel that we should have somehow been above the fray!) Gower skewered legal scholars and law schools as surely as any modern scamblogger familiar to my law students:
Behold the day on which the law, once justice's friend,
Conducts its acts in opposition now.
A mask conceals its face, a gloss confounds its text,
Unsure law becomes a school of logic.
Yet the world contains law scholars without number,
Many leaves, and thence rather little fruit.
Now all this would be remarkable in itself, but there's even more to Gower and his significance for the history of lawyering. First, it's worth noting that Gower wrote his lines in the lead-up to one of the greatest popular revolts targeting lawyers (among others) in the Middle Ages: the (unsuccessful) Great Rising of 1381. Gower's words were arguably more a sign of general discontent with an emergent profession than a cause of a rebellion that horrified many members of the English elite, Gower included, but Gower was nonetheless proved accurate in saying at the beginning of Book 6 of the Vox, "I cry out what the people's voice cries out...". Second and even more fundamentally, Gower came at his critique from a unique professional perspective. His poetic characterizations of lawyers are strikingly informed and detailed. He knows more about legal process, legal practice, and legal education than do Chaucer or Langland. He's familiar with legal terminology and he knows all the various languages of contemporary English law (English, French, and Latin). In his younger days, before he turned his back on the world to write poetry at St. Mary's Priory in Southwerk, he was a notable purchaser of land, and indeed he ran into legal trouble for perhaps purchasing one estate too many. Chaucer asked him to be his attorney when the former left on a diplomatic mission. In the Mirour de l'Omme, Gower even referred to himself as having worn a garb of rayed cloth, then associated with legal dress. Like certain individuals in law practice and legal academia today who have turned on their own kind and their own institutions with a vengence born of guilt about their past combined with desperation for change, he might have been more than even he was willing to explicitly say. As several prominent literary authorities have since suggested (although the point is still disputed) John Gower himself may have been a lawyer.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. What's a "secular cleric"?

Shag from Brookline said...

Were these "lawyer jokes" in verse - or worse?