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Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Elizabeth Goldring and Sarah Knight (eds.), The Intellectual and Cultural Worlds of the Early Modern Inns of Court
by Sukanta Chaudhuri

Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Elizabeth Goldring and Sarah Knight (eds.), The Intellectual and Cultural Worlds of the Early Modern Inns of Court, Manchester: Manchester University Press (distributed in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan), 2011, xviii + 334 pages, price not given, ISBN 978 07190 8236 8 hardback.


[A table of contents for the book reviewed appears at the end of the review. Ed.]


This volume offers a wide-ranging, uniformly perceptive and closely documented set of studies of that pervasive and elusive presence in early modern English culture, the Inns of Court and Chancery. These are often described as England’s third university in that age. That is an attractive simplification of the original context of the phrase (noted in this book by Jayne Elisabeth Archer). It derives from George Buc’s 1615 treatise The third universitie of England, where Buc applies it to London as a whole, including, inter alia, not only the Inns but St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, and all the city churches; the College of Heralds, College of Physicians, Gresham College, and even two schools for poor children. Buc further mentions the ‘Theaters of this citty’, and the cultivation of music, dancing, painting, horsemanship, and ‘the Art of Reuels’. We may extend the range from the Court and noblemen’s town houses at one extreme, to the bear-gardens at the other. (Sir John Davies writes of the Inn of Court student deserting his text-books to see those ursine veterans, Harry Hunks and Sackerson.)


The Inns of Court in that age served a number of functions far beyond the formal or official. They were indeed a place for training lawyers. They were also hostels and communities of much wider scope, where the sons of the educated classes acquired contacts and social skills, besides the smattering of law needed to manage their property. As such, the Inns also generated a deal of literary and artistic productions.


These varied functions explain why Buc affords greatest space by far to the Inns of Court, and why the term ‘Third University’ was soon attached to them exclusively. This was largely due to their institutional character and immense social and political influence; perhaps no less to the fuzzy edges of their institutional being, allowing readier entry of what we would call interdisciplinarity than the two actual universities of the time. At their best, interdisciplinary programmes are flexible and informal. Serendipitously, the Inns seem to have enshrined this curricular ambience that modern universities often find hard to create.


Most basically, the Inns offered a convenient location for the younger gentry, reinforced by both higher and lower social orders, to savour the resources of London life: intellectual, artistic, careerist, social or plain hedonistic. At the same time (as J. H. Baker reaffirms in the opening essay) the Inns were a hub of serious legal education and debate, their readings and moots largely playing the part assumed in later jurisprudence by court judgments and precedent. Yet as other contributors note, those legal exercises seriously engaged perhaps ten per cent of the members, and were themselves increasingly overlaid by the demands of food, drink and ceremony, not to mention institutionalized revelry.


The essentially centrifugal nature of Inns of Court culture in that age needs to be recognized. It offered an à la carte bill of fare, whereas the universities served only a few set dishes, rarely varied. The members of the latter were in statu pupillari or, if they stayed on, clerici. The Inns did not impose their discipline, in either the curricular or the proctorial sense, on their inmates. At the same time, they were entrusted with one of the most exacting and determinant functions of society, the juridical.


The book is divided into three sections: on ‘History, education, religion, politics, and the law’; ‘Art, architecture, and gardens’; and ‘Literature and drama’. (See Table of Contents printed at the end of this review.) The strictly legal programme of the Inns runs like a binding motif through the parts. It could hardly be otherwise; but one must laud the  meticulous documentation of every article, even of material outside its immediate sphere. This makes the collection an invaluable reference volume on the early modern Inns of Court, quite apart from the analytic content of the individual pieces. This insistence on evidence may ultimately derive from the juridical culture of the Inns themselves.


How far did that culture influence artistic and intellectual practice in the early modern age? This, of course, is one of the chief questions the book sets out to answer. There are perceptive case-studies of individuals (Damien X. Powell on James Whitelocke) and practices (Wilfred R. Prest on bar dinners). But three major areas, addressed by several contributors each, are the architecture and embellishments of the Inns, the preaching in their chapels, and their dramatic and literary practice.


The treatment of the first yields few surprises but much welcome documentation, fleshing out clear lines of development. The history of architecture, gardens, pictures and glass in the Inns is traced against the sometimes concurrent, sometimes divergent trends as a whole over nearly two centuries. But this may be the section that least interacts with the studies of art, intellect and custom in the rest of the book. Deeper questions could be raised about the historical implications of architectural and artistic practice. How far is the formality, even austerity, of building façades and judges’ portraits dictated by the dignity of the law, and how much by the growing puritanism of the times? Hugh Adlington, in his article on preaching in the Inns, notes the continuing prevalence of puritan and ‘evangelical’ tendencies despite the increasing appointment of centrist or establishment preachers. Yet puritan preachers commonly denounced lawyers, as Tarnya Cooper demonstrates in her essay on Inns portraits. How, again, does one balance the formal, formulaic nature of judges’ portraits against the freer individualism in depicting lawyers and students, or more radically against the swelling tide of revels, feasts and celebrations?


Behind these tensions and ambiguities lurks another, most clearly expressed in Paul Raffield’s piece on the Inner Temple revels of 1561-2 and legal iconography. His study suggests that the revels incorporate a ‘rhetoric of signs’, enshrining in the artefact a juridical ideal that could not be realized in the practice of the courts. If so, the centrifugality of Inns of Court culture takes on a striking new dimension. The revels do not challenge the serious professional ethos of the Inns; they perfect it as actual professional practice could not. The Lord of Misrule (such as the Prince of Purpoole in the Gray’s Inn revels of 1594 where The Comedy of Errors was staged) may have contributed to the governance of the Inns more seriously than he knew, by more than the nuanced counterpoint suggested by Richard C. McCoy. McCoy’s subtle study of Shakespeare at the Inns of Court points to another paradox in the revels: the apparently accidental nature of the staging of The Comedy, virtually as a stopgap performance on a night of actual disorder, contradicts the planned, meticulously executed design of the play. McCoy suggests that the ‘Errors and Confusions’ on the night of 28 December 1594 were contrived, like the Lord of Misrule’s victory in the concluding joust and his receiving the prize from the Queen’s own hands.


Bradin Cormack’s essay on The Comedy also argues for the planned nature of its performance. Cormack shows how the play’s theme befits the venue by reflecting the legal issue of jurisdiction -- more specifically, the jurisdiction (both geographical and statutory) of the London courts and other authorities. From another direction, Lorna Hutson brings out the forensic and evidential dimension of The Comedy, as of two plays by George Gascoigne, himself a member of Gray’s Inn.


Cormack and Hutson, like Jessica Winston in her essay on Inns poetry in the earlier reign of Elizabeth, organically relate artistic productions by the members, or performances by commissioned players, to the core juridical identity of the milieu or venue. Such a premise bears anew upon the tension, or what I have called the centrifugality, of Inns of Court culture. Could it be centripetal after all, the apparent diversions (in every sense) actually affirming the Inns’ basic engagement with the moral and intellectual principles of jurisprudence? This would agree with Emma Rhatigan’s reading of John Donne’s sermons preached at Lincoln’s Inn (sometimes twin sermons proposing and reconciling apparently opposite texts from scripture). Rhatigan seems more receptive of the ‘Jack Donne versus Dr Donne’ divide than is usual these days. But her approach enables her to construct a model whereby the worldly and individual preoccupations of the members could be reconciled with juridical ideals and the redemptive theology to which they implicitly subscribed.


One basic question must be asked, the more urgently in view of such memorable studies as Cormack’s and Hutson’s. Despite the technicalities and convolutions of the law – even more evident in the twenty-first than the sixteenth century – the principles of jurisprudence are not irreconciliable with logic, common justice and common sense, hence with narrative logic even if not poetic justice. The structural and stylistic features of a drama or fiction can, from their own inner compulsions, conform with legal order and practice. Hence there is a risk of reading back into the text our post facto knowledge of performance at the Inns of Court.


The risk is lower if there are telling signs like the repeated use, noted by Hutson, of terms with legal implications in The Comedy of Errors, not to mention the doubtfully valid edicts by the legal authorities of Ephesus and Syracuse. We may feel more doubtful about the legal affinities of Elizabethan lyric practice suggested by Jessica Winston, as in the eclogue or the answer poem. Is Barnabe Googe writing austere didactic pastoral (not so unusual in the European context) as a deliberate professionally-derived programme, or simply because he is a dreary and humourless poet? The question remains valid even for the somewhat livelier productions of Gascoigne and Turberville. In fact, a good many exponents of what C. S. Lewis once called the ‘drab’ style of earlier Elizabethan poetry and Yvor Winters, more politely, the ‘plain’, have links with the Inns of Court. A Mirror for Magistrates carries their strong presence. Should we attribute this poetic phase as a whole to the ethos of the Inns?


This is not an entirely sceptical query. One can at least argue that the Inns provided congenial soil for such growth. But the trend as a whole covers the broad course of Tudor verse: derived from fifteenth-century precedent, continuing alongside the new Italianate idiom of Wyatt and Surrey, decisively sidelined only with the coming of Sidney and Spenser. At the same time, given the centrifugal nature of Inns of Court culture, one can equally locate there a major source of the poetic and dramatic innovations of Elizabeth’s later reign: Lewis’s ‘golden’ and Winters’s ‘courtly’ poetry. More importantly still, one can trace in the revelry of the Inns the entry of new public models of drama, performed by professional companies (listed by Alan H. Nelson in his essay on drama, music and dancing), alongside the older line of in-house academic performance. A distinctive mutation of aristocratic revels and pageantry provides a third element in the compound.


If the Inns provided a venue for all these developments and more – and the current volume offers exhaustive evidence that they did – we must finally see them as not a mould but a crucible. The substance of many cultures meets in them to generate ingredients for the yet more complex syntheses of late Tudor and Stuart times. This book does more than any earlier volume to relate such syntheses to their nursery in the Inns of Court. It is a tribute to the book’s richness that it hints at many more syntheses than it finds space to unfold.


With such wealth of material so scrupulously documented, cavils and queries must be unfairly limited to matters within one’s own ken. I have only two to make. The first eclogues in English were written not by Googe (pace Winston) but by Alexander Barclay. And when Adriana tells Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors ‘Be it my wrong, you are to me exempt’, is she (pace Cormack) talking of the wrong done by her to her husband, or by him to his wife in not making himself answerable to her?


All in all, this is an exceptionally rewarding volume. It gives body to the liminal consciousness of Inns of Court culture that students of early modern England usually carry as a neglected lightweight item of their baggage. In a wider perspective of social history, it defines the parameters of a unique cultural institution, developed by the action of complex forces upon the formal institutions comprising it and other institutions surrounding it, feeding it, and ultimately determining its being.


Sukanta Chaudhuri

Jadavpur University (Emeritus)





Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Elizabeth Goldring, and Sarah Knight, Preface

J. H. Baker, ‘The third university 1450-1550: law school or finishing school?’

Part I: History: education, religion, politics, and the law

Jayne Elisabeth Archer, ‘Introduction: education, religion, politics, and the law at the early modern Inns of Court’

Paul Raffield, ‘The Inner Temple revels (1561-62) and the Elizabethan rhetoric of signs: legal iconography at the early modern Inns of Court’

Hugh Adlington, ‘Gospel, law, and ars praedicandi at the Inns of Court, c.1570-c.1640’

Damian X. Powell, ‘The Inns of Court and the common law mind: the case of James Whitelocke’

Emma Rhatigan, ‘ 'The sinful history of mine own youth': John Donne preaches at Lincoln's Inn’

Wilfrid R. Prest, ‘Readers' dinners and the culture of the early modern Inns of Court’

Part II: Art, architecture, and gardens

Elizabeth Goldring, ‘Introduction: the art, architecture, and gardens of the early modern Inns of Court’

Mark Girouard, 'The halls of the Elizabethan and early Stuart Inns of Court’

Tarnya Cooper, ‘Professional pride and personal agendas: portraits of judges, lawyers, and members of the Inns of Court, 1560-1630’

Paula Henderson, ‘The evolution of the early gardens of the Inns of Court’

Geoffrey Tyack, ‘The rebuilding of the Inns of Court, 1660-1700’

Part III: Literature and drama

Sarah Knight, ‘Introduction: literature and drama at the early modern Inns of Court’

Jessica Winston, ‘Lyric poetry at the early Elizabethan Inns of Court: forming a professional community’

Lorna Hutson, ‘The evidential plot: Shakespeare and Gascoigne at Gray's Inn’

Bradin Cormack, ‘Locating The Comedy of Errors: revels jurisdiction at the Inns of Court’

Richard C. McCoy, ‘Law sports and the night of errors: Shakespeare at the Inns of Court’

Alan H. Nelson, ‘New light on drama, music, and dancing at the Inns of Court to 1642’

Select Bibliography



Cite as:

Sukanta Chaudhuri, "Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Elizabeth Goldring and Sarah Knight (eds.), The Intellectual and Cultural Worlds of the Early Modern Inns of Court," Spenser Review 43.1.9 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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