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Just Another Day in Chancery Lane: Disorder and the Law in London's Legal Quarter in the Fifteenth Century

Abstract

Scarcely any turbulence, quarrels or disturbance ever occur there, but delinquents are punished with no other punishment than expulsion from communion with their society, which is a penalty they fear more than criminals elsewhere fear imprisonment and fetters. For a man once expelled from one of these societies is never received into the fellowship of any other of those societies. Hence the peace is unbroken and the conversation of all of them is as the friendship of united folk.

This was Sir John Fortescue's idealized account to the exiled prince of Wales, Edward of Lancaster, of the peace-loving nature of London's Inns of Court and Chancery in the mid-fifteenth century. Fortescue was not concerned with the reality, which, as he knew all too well, was different. He was concerned with impressing on his young pupil the perfection of the English law and the education of its practitioners, rather than the imperfections that existed in a society that the prince, as he explicitly told him, would never experience. Few who were familiar with the legal quarter that surrounded the Inns would have recognized the Arcadia that Fortescue described. Far from being the peaceful and well-ordered district that the former chief justice invoked, in the period when he wrote the area to the west of London's Temple Bar was a liminal space, populated by—among others—large numbers of young trainee lawyers, in whom the kind of unruly behaviour otherwise also associated with the early universities, not least the western suburb's Paris counterpart, the quartier latin to the south of the river Seine, was endemic. Among the most important factors that made it so was the very existence of the established, and to some extent tribal, all-male societies of the Inns of Court and of Chancery, at close quarters with the royal law courts and their heady mix of disputants and hired legal counsellors in permanent competition with each other.

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Corresponding author
james.ross@winchester.ac.uk
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The authors are grateful to Drs. Linda Clark and Simon Payling, and to this journal's editor and anonymous referees for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. A version was presented to the Late Medieval Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, London, in October 2013. The authors are indebted to the members of the seminar for their comments.

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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