‘The Law bookes are so huge, & large’: advice for early modern law students

Court of King’s Bench, c. 1460. The small figures on the left are (more or less cheerful) law students. Image copyright © Inner Temple Library

New law students often experience academic culture shock. As Russell Sandberg writes, ‘Law Schools are strange places’, where students are expected to solve unusual problems, use a unique set of sources, and employ distinctive methods. They are asked to ‘think like lawyers’, even when these new ways of thinking are ‘at odds with what law students have previously experienced’. Happily, help is close at hand: there is no shortage of books written by distinguished lawyers who are anxious to explain to new law students what the law is and how they should approach its study.

Law students’ culture shock is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, and nor is experienced lawyers’ instinct to offer well-meaning advice. Early modern law students had plenty of complaints as they began their studies at the Inns of Court. They were not offered official reading lists or introductory courses: instead, they were expected to read their way through the case law by themselves. Many students were shocked by the heavy workload and lack of clear direction. Henry Spelman described his work as ’a mass which was not only large, but which was to be continually borne on the shoulders’, while Abraham Fraunce complained that ‘the study of the Law’ was ‘hard, harsh, unpleasant, unsavory, rude and barbarous’.

Lawyers soon began to publish books of advice to help these struggling law students. Some instructed students on how they should spend their time. In 1663, for example, Edward Waterhouse recommended the following (rather varied) timetable to law students: 5-6am was for reading the Bible and praying; 6-9am was for reading law; 9-11am for fencing and dancing; 11am-12 noon for learning logic and rhetoric; 12-2pm for eating; 2-5pm for visiting friends; 5-6pm for reading poetry; 6-8pm for eating again; and 8-9pm for praying before bed.

Others sought to help students with their mooting skills. Thomas Wilson observed that many orators struggled to speak properly at first: one ‘speakes, as though he had Plummes in his mouth… This man barkes out his English Northren-like, with I say, and thou lad… Some blowe at their nostrilles… Some grunts like a Hogge… Some suppes their wordes up, as a poore man doth his Porrage’. Students must therefore practise public speaking; they could also be helped by ‘exercise of the bodie, fasting, moderation in meate and drinke, gaping wide, or singing plaine Song’.

One particularly wide-ranging manual for new law students was William Fulbecke’s A Direction or Preparative to the Study of the Lawe, first published in 1600. Some of Fulbecke’s advice was relatively orthodox: he prescribed a lengthy reading list for his students, and advised them to practise mooting and public speaking. He had some unusual preoccupations, though, spending a great deal of time warning against ‘nightlie studie’, which ‘wearieth and weakneth Students, making them leane and exhausting their bodies’, and exposing them to ‘contagious exhalations, which… doe pierce into the braine’.

One of Fulbecke’s main concerns was the heavy workload that threatened to drive students to despair. He criticised students who ‘pretende weakenesse of bodye’ or ‘have a mind wavering from the purpose’, as well as those who, ‘pretending a lumpish idlenes… woulde have the multitude of volumes, cases, rules, and diversities abridged and made lesse’. However, he did sympathise with their complaints: ‘yong Students… because they adventure upon a new enterprise whereof they never had triall, they are somewhat troubled at the first’. It was true that ‘the bookes of Law… are not pleasant to reade, the wordes or termes are harshe and obscure’, and that students were expected to ‘passe through a multitude of cases, judgements, Statutes, arguments, treatises’ and so on. However, they ‘ought not to waxe faint, nor their mindes to be daunted with the labour and paine’, because of the ‘dignitie, credit, and ample fortune’ that would soon be their reward.

Perhaps Fulbecke could identify with these students because he was also something of an outsider to the common law. Not much is known about his life. Originally from Lincoln, he studied at Oxford before being called to the Bar; he may also have studied law in continental Europe; and he spent the last decade of his life as a priest. He wrote a number of pioneering legal works, including books on comparative law and the first international law treatise in English, but he also published on ethics and Roman history, and dabbled in play-writing.

Fulbecke’s interests extended far beyond the common law, and he was able to draw on his knowledge of other disciplines to offer advice to new law students. One of these disciplines was rhetoric, the art of speech and persuasion. Fulbecke was aware that legal texts were difficult to read: they were ‘obscured with difficult cases, shadowed with conceited termes, and as it were, covered with cloudes, and wrapped in darknes’. He advised students to understand these texts by using rhetorical methods.

For example, rhetoricians sought to identify the ‘circumstances’ of a text: when, where, why and by whom it was written. This would help them to understand the meaning that the writer had intended to convey. Similarly, Fulbecke explained that ‘the lawe traceth the meaning of a man by the circumstances’. When reading a legal text, therefore ‘wee must consider what was meant by the person, quantitie, qualitie, place, time, precedents, consequents, and other circumstances… for words are not by violence to be racked, but by circumstance to be ruled.’

Fulbecke was not attempting to import new ideas into the common law. Indeed, he warned that it was ‘not good to have the interpretation’ of legal language ‘from any other than the Lawyers themselves’. He saw rhetorical techniques as universally applicable tools of interpretation, which already formed part of the common law. His aim was to draw them out more clearly so that students could better understand how to approach their studies. He complained that ‘it is not enough to have a great heape of things that are to be read, unlesse the use or order and manner of reading them be well understoode’. Students must learn how to read legal sources: then they would no longer be worried ‘that the Law bookes are so huge, & large, and that there is such an ocean of reportes, and such a perplexed confusion of opinions, because the science it selfe is short and easie to one that is diligent.’ No doubt a comforting thought for those struggling students!

My recent book chapter on Fulbecke’s Direction explores the relationship between common law and rhetoric in the early modern period. It argues that rhetoric was not necessarily an ‘outsider’ to the common law: in fact, by the end of the sixteenth century, its methods were being widely used by lawyers to interpret legal documents. By looking at law in its wider context, we can better appreciate both what it absorbs from external sources, and what makes it distinctive.

In July 2024, Bristol will be hosting the British Legal History Conference, with a theme of ‘Insiders and Outsiders in the History of Law’. As Gwen has written, we hope that this will focus attention on people who are traditionally excluded from accounts of the law’s development, but we are also keen to draw in new perspectives on the history of legal doctrines. So if Fulbecke has inspired you to think differently about the law, why not consider submitting an abstract? After all, as Fulbecke wrote, ‘nothing is a greater spurre to the student of any Arte or Science, then the just reward of fame and commendation, which belongeth to those, who by labor attaine to perfection in any praiseworthie science’.

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