Common law. Our Lady and Her Knights 2

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Common law . Our Lady and Her Knights 2

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From the book of Sir Frederick Pollock, The Genius of the Common Law [1912]

We must begin, however, at the beginning. It is easy to say that the law of our modern courts, for most practical intents, is to be found in the decisions and statutes of the last half century or thereabouts, and the rest is antiquarianism; and if some people say this in England, I suppose it is at least as often said in America, perhaps with more colour of reason; though even here I would remind learned friends that there have been boundary disputes between States involving interpretation of the original colonial charters and intricate questions of old real property law. But now we are considering the permanent mind and temper of the Common Law, not the particular rules which judges administer to-day. The branches grow indeed, but they have always grown from the same roots; and those roots must be sought for as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic. The description of Tacitus is familiar1 : one passage in his ‘Germania’ has been a crux of scholars for generations, and is not yet fully or finally cleared up; but we cannot pass on without a glance at the broad features of the Teutonic institutions as he shows them. We need not dwell on the question how far he purposely made out an exaggerated contrast with the manners of imperial Roman society. No one has charged him with downright invention, and we are concerned here with the type – ‘the ideal of the Teutonic system’ in Stubbs’s words – and not with individual cases. Doubtless it was better realized in some tribes and clans than in others; the extent of the variations does not matter for the present purpose. Taking the Germans as described by Tacitus, we find among them a life of great publicity, with personal command only in war time, and ultimate decision, as distinct from executive authority and preliminary counsel, in the hands of the free men assembled in arms. The family is monogamous. Morals are simple and, by comparison with Greek or Roman habits, extremely strict;1 for cowardice and effeminate vice there is no mercy. Gambling, on the other hand, is unrestrained, and adventurousness encouraged. Women not only exhort men to valour but are consulted in affairs of weight, though not in public.2 The external conditions are as different as can be from those of urban and commercial civilized life as they have existed in modern times and even in the Middle Ages. With so great a change of environment, we might expect the results to have been transformed almost beyond recognition. And yet, when we look at the modern social ethics of Europe and North America, can we fail to recognize a considerable persistence of the type? That persistence was in some respects reinforced by the teaching of the Christian church after the conversion of the Roman empire; in others, on the contrary, Germanic custom has been pretty stubborn in the face of ecclesiastical discouragement. It would seem that the not uncommon practice of treating all the virtues we profess to cultivate as distinctively Christian is not altogether just. Who taught us respect for women? Our heathen ancestors. Who laid down for us the faith that the life of a free nation is public, and its actions bear lasting fruit because they are grounded in the will of the people? Our heathen ancestors. Who bade us not only hate but despise the baser forms of vice, and hold up an ideal of clean and valiant living which European Christianity could assimilate, so becoming a creed not only of God-fearing but of self-respecting men? Our heathen ancestors. Among those ancestors we may count, besides the Germans, the Scandinavians, whose invasions contributed in a notable proportion to the English stock of descent. Their customs, about the time of the Norman Conquest, were still much like those described in the ‘Germania.’ Regularity and even formality had been introduced in public business, but there was no defined executive power.

Now there are two cautions to be observed here. First, it would be foolish to claim for the Teutonic nations or kindred an exclusive title to any one of the qualities noted by Tacitus. Taken singly, we may find parallels to most of them in various regions of the world at various times. The Greeks described by Homer, for example, are much nearer to the Germanic ideal than Plato’s contemporaries; and it is more than probable that in the Germans Tacitus found a living image of regretted virtues which were believed to have flourished under the Roman republic. Other analogies have no doubt existed in other branches of the Indo-European family, and among people who are not Indo-European at all. It is enough to mention the Celts of the dimly discerned heroic age – the days to which the legendary disputes of Ossian and Patrick were assigned – and the Arabs of the time before Islam. But it remains a notable and, I think, a singular fact that the Germanic type was preserved as a whole, and so little affected by foreign influence, at the very time when the civilization of the Mediterranean lands had become cosmopolitan, and both Hellenic and Roman manners were infected with Asiatic corruption as well as Asiatic enthusiasm. Whatever may be the right explanation of this, the constant affection of the Common Law for both freedom and publicity does appear to owe something to it. The second caution is that, in claiming justice for our pagan ancestors, I have no desire to be less than just to the Church. There is no ground for any polemical inference. All the Germanic virtues, in so far as they agree with the precepts and commendations of the Church, belong to the law of nature in the regular scholastic usage of the term: that is to say, they are the following of general rules binding on all men as moral and rational beings, and discoverable by human reason without any special aid of revelation. According to the accepted teaching of the Schoolmen, if I am rightly informed, there is no sufficient cause, indeed no excuse, for man even in his fallen state not to know the law of nature; his defect is not in understanding but in will, and his works are unacceptable for want of obedience rather than of knowledge. What we have said, therefore, of the unconverted Germans might be expressed in another way by saying that they kept a less corrupted tradition of natural law than most other heathens; and I believe this would not involve any theological indiscretion. Indeed it might be a pious or at least an innocent speculation for an orthodox historian to surmise that herein they were special instruments of a dispensation outside or antecedent to the ordinary means of grace; the like assertion, at any rate, has constantly been made concerning the Roman Empire. It is embodied in the most striking manner by the legend of Trajan’s miraculous translation to Paradise, the reward of a signal act of justice1 ; and this is the more notable when we remember that Trajan had authorized the persecution of Christians, though with reluctance. The same conception is the very groundwork of Dante’s treatise on Monarchy. Moreover we shall not forget that the Teutonic ideal has been exalted by writers who were good churchmen enough according to any test short of strict Roman orthodoxy, and in terms both stronger and wider than any that I have thought fit to use. But I do not call these champions in aid. It is not our business either to support or to contravene the Anglo-Saxon zeal of a Kemble, a Kingsley or a Freeman, when we can find everything we need for our particular purpose without going outside the text of Tacitus and the judicial caution of Gibbon’s comment thereon. Perhaps it is needless to disclaim any such extravagant assertion as that the Angles and Saxons and Norsemen who settled in Britain were better men than their kinsfolk of the Continent. We know that they had the good fortune to settle on an island.

When we speak of the Germanic type and traditions as having persisted, we do not affirm that our remote forefathers’ ideals of publicity, freedom, individual self-respect, and what else may be discoverable in our authorities or be fair matter of inference, have enjoyed an unbroken supremacy, still less a manifest one, throughout English history. There have always been adverse influences at work, and more than once they have seemed on the point of prevailing for good and all. Neither is it denied that there are reasonable and inevitable limits to the application of these ideals. Any civilized jurisprudence, for example, must pay some regard to the existence of State secrets which it would be dangerous to the common weal to disclose, and it must afford some protection to domestic and professional confidence; while it will not include in the name of personal freedom an unlimited franchise to defy the law and its officers, although there are people who behave as if it were so and even pretend to think so. The most we can expect is to find, as we do find, that the tradition of public life and common counsel has never been quite inoperative; that the rulers who have been most masterful in fact have been careful at least to respect it in form; and that open defiance of it has always been disastrous to those who ventured on such courses. The Tudors, by judicious use of methods which were on the whole formally correct (whatever historians or moralists may have to say to other aspects of them), gained far more real power than that which the Stuarts, often with quite a fair show of reasons on their side, lost by relying on the King’s extraordinary privileges against Parliament and the common law. It is needless to repeat this familiar story, which I place among the things assumed to be sufficiently known.

Archaic virtues, like most good things in this world, are not without their drawbacks. Whatever else they are, they cannot help being archaic, and accordingly they go down to posterity clothed in antique and rigid forms. Those forms were once an effective and probably a necessary safeguard against a relapse into mere anarchy, the state of war in which every man’s hand is against every other man’s. But the rigidity which made them effectual for this purpose will make them, in a more settled order of things, an equally stubborn obstacle to improvement. Archaic justice binds the giants of primeval chaos in the fetters of inexorable word and form; and law, when she comes into her kingdom, must wage a new war to deliver herself from those very fetters. This conflict of substantial right and formalism is never exhausted; it is a perennial adventure of the Common Law, and perhaps the most arduous of all.

[1 ]R. Thorpe (arg.) . . . autrement nous ne savoms ceo qe la ley est – Hill. Volunte des Justices. – Ston-Nanyl, ley est resoun. Y. B., 18-19 Ed. III (ad 1345), ed. Pike (Rolls series, 1905), p. 378.

[1 ]It may be a great question for ethnologists, but seems irrelevant for us here, whether the people comprised in it were all of like race, and to what extent of unmixed race. Tradition is more important for the matter in hand than actual descent.

[1 ]‘We may easily discover that Tacitus indulges an honest pleasure in the contrast of barbarian virtue with the dissolute conduct of the Roman ladies, yet there are some striking circumstances that give an air of truth, or at least of probability, to the conjugal faith and chastity of the Germans.’ Gibbon, c. ix.

[2 ]The passage referred to (c. 8) is so brief as to leave in some obscurity both what the facts were and how Tacitus understood them. Some anthropologists think the words ‘sanctum aliquid et providum’ point to a survival of prehistoric magical beliefs or of matriarchal observance. That there is a religious element of some kind is clear enough.

[1 ]‘Qui fuerat iustus paganus factus est bonus christianus:’ Benvenuto da Imola on Dante, Par. xx, q.v., or any other good commentator.

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Common Law: Our lady and her Knights, Common law, The Genius of the Common Law.

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