Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Jessica Winston, Lawyers at play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558–1581 (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Jessica Winston, Lawyers at play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558–1581 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). ISBN 9780198769422, 286 pp., £ 60.00.

Reviewed by Emily Buffey

[1] Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558–1581 brings together over a decade’s worth of articles, book chapters and new research in illustrating both how and why the Inns of Court grew into one of England’s most vibrant and major literary communities during the middle part of the sixteenth century. Described in a later era as the ‘Seminaries and Nurseries wherein the Gentrie of the Kingdome… are bredd and trained upp’ (see Prest, 1972: 4), the Inns of Court have attracted considerable attention in recent years for their contribution to present-day understanding of the history and development of English politics and the law. But it is in no small part due to Jessica Winston’s continuing work in this field that scholarship is now able to more fully appreciate the Inns of Court’s uniqueness of style, attitudes and beliefs, and the vital roles they played in the development of English literary and political culture under Elizabeth I.

[2] The book’s argument is steered by two underlying questions: why the Inns of Court? And why the 1560s? Part I of Lawyers at Play seeks to answer those questions by considering the Inns’ ‘geography, their communal life, and their members’ sense of a corporate identity [which] allowed the literary-cum-political and -legal engagements of members… to develop with special force at particular times’ (p. 19). Winston first looks to the Habermassian model of the public sphere, identifying the Inns of Court as a ‘semiautonomous political space’; its members ‘a class by themselves’ (p. 48) and with each individual Inn possessing a ‘topography and temperature of [its] own’ (p. 42), which Winston refers to throughout as its habitus. Though the young men who entered the Inns are sometimes believed to have been a ‘relatively homogeneous’ (p. 34) (i.e. ‘nonaristocratic, university-educated, Protestant’) group (p. 7), Winston stresses that there were clear differences in their upbringing, class, politics and religion, not to mention the internal tensions and rivalries that existed between the Inns themselves. While comparatively few trainees were ever called to the bar, inns-of-court men all followed a ‘recognizably humanist programme’ of education (p. 54) as part of their wider training. In addition to mock-trials and mootings, these men also continued the pedagogical exercises first practiced at grammar school as a form of ‘extracurricular activity’, which allowed them to ‘escape from the rigours of legal study’ through ‘a kind of play fostered by the setting and institutional culture as well as the numerous inexorable intellectual forces that produced the Renaissance’ (p. 3). Such activities allowed them to also cultivate what Winston identifies as a ‘literature of magistracy’ that functioned both in line with, and in opposition to, the dominant values of the government and the court. Inns-of-court writers thus played with a range of forms and genres, from lyric poetry to de casibus tragedy, which helped to promote further their literary, discursive and institutional identities and demonstrated their suitability for a range of political, administrative and legal roles.

[3] Part II (‘The Translation of Learning’) is concerned primarily with lyric poetry and translation, with texts ranging from the answer-poetry of Barnabe Googe and George Turberville, to the translation of classical and Continental historical and philosophical treatises by some rather less-known and less-studied individuals, including John Dolman, translator of the Tusculan Disputations (1561), and Godfred Gilby (fl. 1561), translator of Cicero’s Ad Quintum. By looking closely at a range of translation exercises practiced within the legal setting of the Inns of Court, these chapters also point to other kinds of ‘transformation’ enabled by literary exercise and exchange, whether personal, social, or professional in kind. Part III (‘Literary-Political Precedents’) is concerned more directly with the relationships between literature, politics and the law. Taking the sixteenth-century Mirror for Magistrates (spanning 1559-1610) as its focus, Winston addresses the collaborative nature of literary composition and the role of the Inns in giving expression to what the Mirror could merely imagine: ‘a real space where men could pursue literary and intellectual activities that they were ideal office holders’ in government and in court (p. 148). Running parallel to the Mirror’s publication, Senecan drama also achieved an almost unparalleled degree of popularity during this time, as testified by much of Winston’s earlier work, with an array of translations, adaptations and collaborations emerging from the Inns of Court and its wider surrounds. Although these works seem intended to offer immediate counsel to those in power, Winston here views them as part of a much broader trend: ‘the domestication of tragedy as a genre for cultivating political consciousness’ (p. 170). The texts that finally shaped this consciousness are discussed in Section IV: ‘To fashion an Institution’, which focuses on the Inns of Court dramas of the middle part of the century; namely, Gorboduc (1561), Jocasta and Gismond of Salerne (both 1566) Here, Winston shows how the plays encouraged inns-of-court men to participate in major political debates, particularly around marriage and succession, but that the Inns’ increasing notoriety for voicing partisan views necessitated the eventual ‘withdrawal from sustained political engagement’ (p.211) for fear of censure.

[4] Though the focus of Winston’s book is limited, temporally, to the earliest identifiable period of ‘inns-of-court writing’, her work will prove a useful, indeed necessary, foundation for studying subsequent communities of authors. By voicing a high number of non-canonical writers, Lawyers at Play also makes steps to redefine former assumptions of canonicity and aesthetic value, with the added potential of shedding important new light on some of the period’s better-known playwrights and poets. As Winston notes in the early stages of her book,

every major writer of the decade was either a member of the Inns or connected to them through literary, social, or familial ties… Even [Arthur] Golding had relatives at the Inns, and this social and literary network extends to Isabella Whitney, who as a woman was necessarily excluded from the Inns. Her Sweet Nosegay (1573) adapts the Flowers of Philosophy (1572) of Hugh Plat, a member of Lincoln’s Inn, and her ‘Will’ to London bequeaths copies of her work to inns men, leaving them a “store of books […] at each bookbinder’s stall”. (p. 7).

[5] One assessment that transpires throughout this book is that the Inns was far less a physical space than a metaphysical web of networks and arrangements. As such, the book allows readers to consider the Inns as both a real and imagined space that drew personal and professional ties across London and the wider area. Yet this approach does leave space for further consideration of the Inns’ more immediate environment and jurisdiction. Though Winston is openly more concerned for the Inns’ ‘intellectual topography’ than its spatial geography, the Inns’ proximity to the London theatres and the centre of the book trade in St Paul’s seem far more crucial than is illustrated here. Moreover, the part played by print culture in the Inns’ practices of both communal- and self-fashioning begs much closer reflection. In particular, Winston’s work does not seem to take full enough account of the roles played by patrons, printers and booksellers in promoting the Inns’ habitus, and how they too might figure in the wider literary-legal nexus. For instance, Thomas Colwell, printer of Barnabe Googe’s Eglogs, epytaphes, and Sonets (1563) as well as numerous legal plays and interludes, and Thomas Marsh, publisher of Seneca’s Ten Tragedies (1581) and a prolific purveyor of ‘mirror for princes’ literature both to and by men of the Inns of Court , are frequent features of Winston’s footnotes, though fail to reach the main page. Attention to these details might help situate the Inns of Court writers within a much larger physical, social and intellectual organism, for which their vicinity to key locations – as much as the Inns’ broader ‘intellectual topography’ – seems paramount. Winston also helpfully alludes to the part played, initially, by manuscript dissemination in the publication of Googe’s Eglogs and other works of this time to support her theories concerning transmission. Although it is true that such manuscripts are unlikely to surface, and therefore many of our deductions must remain speculative, evidence from other comparable sources might have helped shed light on the social and discursive processes by which the surviving printed works may have materialized. Although produced slightly later than the works covered by Lawyers at Play, Chetham’s Library MS A.4.15 is one of a small number of ‘Inns of Court manuscripts’, to reveal a number of connections between men admitted to the Inns between 1587 and 1593 (Swann: 2015). Perhaps the greatest limitation of the book is that it draws heavily on Winston’s previously-published research; large sections of the book seem like familiar turf for readers aware of Winston’s other work, and the sections that tread new ground (the translators Dolman and Gilby, for instance) are sadly short-lived. But this does not override what is otherwise a fascinatingly rich and lucid account of the Inns of Court, its men (and occasional women), as well as those at its centre and on its fringes, together with the skills, practices and beliefs that gave distinct shape and colour to a period that we can no longer, with any seriousness, call England’s ‘drab age’.

University of Birmingham, February 2018



Prest, Wilfrid R. 1972. The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts, 1590-1640 (London: Longman)

Swann, Joel. 2015. ‘Chetham’s Library MS A. 4.15: an Inns of Court Manuscript?’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance 7: 1-38

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