Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period > Increase of Litigation and its effects on the Legal Profession
  Growth of London and its causes The Medical Profession  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period.

§ 25. Increase of Litigation and its effects on the Legal Profession.

Among the professions which had their proper seat in London, none, perhaps, in the Elizabethan age and that which followed, played a more important part in the social system of the country than the profession of the law. There has assuredly been no period of English history in which the relations between law and politics have been more intimate than the age of Bacon and Coke; and the study of the history of even a single inn of court, such as Gray’s inn, would show how far back in the later Tudor period this important connection extends. But, apart from this, though Harrison was of opinion that an excess of lawyers, like one of merchants, was a clog in the commonwealth—“all the money in the land,” he says, “goes to the lawyers” 98 —it was quite inevitable that two characteristics of the age—the frequent change of ownership in landed property and the frequent establishment of new trading concerns—should be accompanied by a large increase of legal practice. This practice was of a kind which did not necessarily bring its reward in a great harvest of fees to the London barrister, for there was much more self-help in that age than has been held admissible in later days either in law or in medicine; and, with regard to the former at all events, every man was expected to know some law, so that many of our dramatists—with Shakespeare at their head—were, more or less, familiar with its terms and processes. 99  It was with landed property that litigation, so far as lawyers were called in, seriously concerned itself; and it was through the management, direct or indirect, of country estates, and through speculation as well as litigation respecting them, that fortunes were made and, as already noticed, county families were founded by Elizabethan lawyers. 100  If we glance at the other end of the professional ladder, it will appear that at no time before or since has a legal training been so clearly recognised as the necessary complement of the school and university education of a man called upon to play a part in public life. The inns of court were one of the great social as well as educational institutions of the Elizabethan and early Stewart period; and within their walls, in their halls and gardens, in their libraries and chambers, was pre-eminently fostered that spirit of devoted loyalty towards the crown, as well as that traditional enthusiasm for literary and other intellectual interests, which in other periods of our national life have been habitually associated with the universities. 101  The occasional “brawls” in the streets by gentlemen of the inns of court, like those of their democratic antipodes, the city ’prentices, were demonstrations of self-reliance as well as of youthful spirits. To the Elizabethan regular drama, whose beginnings the inns of court had nurtured, and to some of whose masterpieces they had extended a cordial welcome, as well as to the lesser growths of the masque and cognate devices, these societies stood in relations of enduring intimacy. 102    33

Note 98. p. 204. [ back ]
Note 99. Cf. Sturge, L. J., “Webster and the Law: a Parallel,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, vol. XXII (1906); where it is pointed out that Webster, like Shakespeare, displays a very extensive and, generally speaking, accurate knowledge both of the theory and practice of the law, and the construction of the plot of The Dutchesse of Malfy is cited as a striking instance of the extent of Webster’s legal knowledge. The writer cites the observation of Sidney Lee, in his Great Englishmen of the Sixteenth Century, that Ben Jonson and Spenser, Massinger and Webster, employed law terms with no less frequency and facility than Shakespeare, though none of them was engaged in the legal profession. It would, perhaps, be fanciful to ascribe the predilection for trial scenes’, which the Elizabethan bequeathed to the later English drama, to anything more than a sure instinct for dramatic effect. [ back ]
Note 100. See, on this head, the section “The Lawyer”—perhaps the most instructive of all the sections in Hubert Hall’s Society in the Elizabethan Age. [ back ]
Note 101. In the “letter from England,” to her three daughters, Cambridge, Oxford, Innes of Court, appended to Polimanteia (Cambridge, 1595), while the inns of court are acquitted of disrespect towards the universities, and of having “received some of their children and … made them wanton, the Inns are admonished not to regard their training as sufficient without that of their elder sisters.” [ back ]
Note 102. In his English Dramatic Literature, vol. III, p. 223, note 7, the present writer has cited a passage from “A Player” in Earle’s Microcosmographie (1628), which suggests a very natural secondary reason for the interest taken in the acting drama by members of the inns of court: “Your Inns of Court men were undone but for [the player]; hee is their chiefe Guest and imployment, and the sole businesse that makes them Afternoones men.” [ back ]

  Growth of London and its causes The Medical Profession  

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