Medieval law school in England

This entry fits into the “Medieval Cycle of Life” series first posted in January and February of 2013. It belongs in the set of entries that describe the growth of the medieval university: Beginning University, Living at A College, Notes on University Life

Most landowners owned many different types of property; they chose to live on one or two of them, but their income came from all of them. Every time a man made his will, he had to make tough choices about which properties stayed with the oldest son. A family’s income was based on a collection of farms, fields and houses that might be claimed by other family members. Lawsuits among relatives and disputes over someone’s right to sell land were very common. These disputes could last for years and bridge over generations.

Landowners were wise to make sure that their sons were educated in law. Often, the point wasn’t to become a lawyer as a profession. Rather, it was to use the law to defend the family’s property. As time went on, hundreds of wealthy families’ sons went to the city to learn.

Universities taught canon law, but priests were forbidden to teach secular law after 1200. A student began at a college, studying canon law (which was very important for family law). Where was he to learn practical law?

Legal practices changed dramatically between the 1200s and 1400s. In most of the medieval period, royal courts in England traveled around the provinces. These temporary moving courts were called “eyres.” The king himself moved in a circuit, through his realm and among his residences. But the king himself didn’t hear most cases; instead, he had magistrates among his officials, and they handled most of it. This is basically the reason we have a double meaning for “court.” It’s the group of people around a king, and it’s also the place where a judge hears cases. In 1200, the two were the same.

After the Magna Carta stand-off, John’s son Henry III tried to reform the court system, but it wasn’t done in any thorough way. As the eyre system broke down with royal inconsistency and changing customs, more cases were heard in London, at the Royal Court at Westminster. I don’t know why, but King Henry III outlawed legal education within London’s city limits, in 1234.

Near Westminster, just outside the city limits, lawyers rented large houses in the town of Holborn. This provided a place for provincial lawyers to stay when “court” was in session. Their “inns” became known as the Inns of Court.

The first ones were associated with the Knights Templars, then the Knights Hospitallers after the Templars were banned. The Templars hired lawyers who lived nearby, and their complex of buildings became known as the Temple. They lived and worked there, and gradually they took students.

The two other Inns that emerged from the medieval mix of various rented houses are still the names of law schools in London: Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. Like medieval colleges, after starting just as residences, they became schools in their own right with libraries and classes.

Provincial students learned the manners of the court and city. They read case law and watched trials, learning how to argue and speak. They stayed as long as their families would support them, learning as much as the family needed. There was no graduation, and at that time, no bar exam. It’s possible that the “bar,” a wooden barrier to keep people back, was not even in use yet. Probably, there was no rule to prevent anyone from arguing before the judge; the question was only whether he’d do it badly.

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