Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



Wilfrid R. Prest

I was 31 years old — or as it now seems, young —when my first book appeared in May 1972. Half a century later a second edition of The Inns of Court Under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640, revised, corrected, and adorned with a striking new cover image, has just become the latest volume of ‘Cambridge Studies in English Legal History’. Unfortunately its author cannot be made over in similar fashion. But he may at least try to set out how and why this long-delayed bibliographical encore  eventuated, and something of what was learnt in the process.

As recounted in a new opening chapter, which introduces a 2020s audience to an historiographical product of the 1960s and early ‘70s, that first book was well received by reviewers. Some, like other early modern English historians of my acquaintancee did however temper their praise by noting various errors and omissions. Not least among those kind colleagues and friends was Keith Thomas, who appended to his congratulatory note a list of some 23 ‘very minor misprints in case it is of some help when you come to a reprint’ . 

The original publisher showed no interest in a reissue, let alone a second edition, after the book went out of print in November 1977. Meanwhile my own interests had shifted. The Inns of Court…1590-1640 focuses on the distinctive former educational role of these four unique London institutions, both law schools and liberal academies. It was indeed motivated by a simple question: how did attendance at the inns influence their students’ later lives, both before and during the great upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century?

The book pays relatively little attention to the common lawyers who constituted the more stable segment of the inns’ resident population. Even if not quite Hamlet without the prince, that plainly leaves a gap, best filled by studying the lives and careers of at least a sample of their barrister members. Such prosopographical investigations are complex and time-consuming. More than ten years would pass before my history of the English bar over the same chronological period became the inaugural volume in a new series under Keith Thomas’s general editorship.

By then the revisionist project of Conrad Russell, another student of my former doctoral supervisor Christopher Hill, seemed to dominate  the field of early modern English —or British — history. For the revisionists had succeeded in casting grave doubt on all attempts to depict the mid-seventeenth century English Revolution (or Civil Wars, or Great Rebellion, depending on your ideological persuasion) as anything more than a temporary politico-military crisis, stemming from a chance concatenation of events and personalities.

The desire to avoid excessively deterministic explanations of the resort to arms in 1642 was not entirely at odds with my own emphasis on the ambiguities and fluidity of alignments and loyalties at the inns of court. But reconstructing the fine detail of clientage networks and factional manoeuvres at Court and in Parliament seemed as much driven by an ideological agenda as the Whiggish/Marxist (or ‘Marxisant’) scenarios which they sought to discredit.

So while maintaining a reading interest in the earlier period, my own research and teaching moved forward chronologically, to later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English legal and general history. But in 2006 I had the good fortune to attend a lively interdisciplinary conference on the intellectual and cultural history of the early modern inns. Here it soon became apparent that my first book was no means entirely obsolete or redundant. Thus the possibility of a corrected and revised second edition re-emerged, although it took well over another decade to become a reality.

Preparing a new edition of something first published nearly half a century before was never going to be easy.  I undoubtedly underestimated the scale of the task when I signed a contract in February 2020, despite various warnings about the mountain of potentially relevant new scholarship published since 1972. Then came the global pandemic.

The digital revolution has notoriously transformed the business of humanities and social science scholarship, by facilitating access to sources and fellow scholars around the globe. So when Covid restrictions prevented visits to archives and libraries outside and even on occasion within Australia, email and the internet continued to mitigate my physical isolation. The remarkable scope and versatility of the new databases accessible from my home computer also compared very favourably with the resources available when the book was originally researched and written.

Much of that work had been done with original manuscripts and printed materials in the UK and US. Even so it was still necessary on occasion to resort to microfilm copies of early English printed books, identified via reel numbers in booklets cross-listing three separate sets of eponymous printed union catalogues covering the period 1475-1700 (Pollard and Redgrave, Thomason and Wing). These awkward complexities are now replaced by searchable online databases. Likewise both the bulky printed calendars of state papers in the Public Record Office and the original documents from which they were compiled, together with microform copies of major manuscript collections held by the British Library and other repositories, and the venerable printed volumes of the old Dictionary of National Biography . Printed calendars of the inns’ own edited admissions registers and governing body minutes are also available online, with the original manuscript Black Books of Lincoln’s Inn shortly to join them.

Of course the current digital dispensation is not all wine and roses. Indeed frustrations abound: powerful but insufficiently discriminating search engines disgorging multiple irrelevant answers to seemingly simple questions, poor quality control reflected in missing or incomplete images, not to mention system outages and slowdowns, excessively complex and user-unfriendly software portals, even the difficulty of rapid scrolling through online images, where microform retains a definite advantage. In creating digital files of the 1972 book, itself produced by a now defunct printing house from a copyedited typewritten  text long since discarded,  multiple typos created by O[ptical] C[haracter] R[ecognition] misreads from scans of the original pages proved a difficult and protracted distraction,.

Yet on balance the new information technology undoubtedly made it possible to verify references, and change, correct or amplify text with an ease inconceivable half a century ago. What it could not do was to read and digest the large body of potentially relevant new writings published since the early 1970s, increasingly facilitated by the same technology and reflecting the continued proliferation of ever more (and more specialised) scholarship. Some of this voluminous literature—not least my own subsequent publications— recorded in the online Bibliography of British and Irish History and as Google Scholar citations of my own book was reasonably familiar. But much was not, most notably inter-disciplinary studies on individual authors, coteries and creators, artistic and creative genres associated with the early modern inns of court, and a mass of new work on politics and religion at both local and national levels which makes some passing reference to the inns. Fortunately these writings largely supplement and occasionally qualify my approach, without challenging its main conclusions. So it seemed sufficient to make occasional reference to those of particular relevance or significance, without attempting a comprehensive commentary or guide to their findings. Where new work however contradicts or questions interpretations advanced in the first edition, as for example on the nature and effectiveness of legal education at the inns, enrolment trends and the social origins of students, it receives more sustained attention, both in the new introductory chapter and subsequent text.  

Perhaps none of this is very surprising or unusual. But by way of conclusion, what has struck me since the second edition went to press is that while the book provides many insights on  how contemporaries viewed the inns, it does not really answer  the question which first intrigued me:   to what end did membership of, or more precisely, attendance at the inns of court— for these were two very different things —affect the later lives of the vast majority of those admitted, who were never called to the bar?

Yet the IT revolution might itself now enable us to move closer towards answering that question, via a large-scale survey of the careers of selected sample groups of one-time inns of court students, together with otherwise comparable groups in terms of family and geographical origins, but lacking an inn of court connection. The results would doubtless be complex, varied and plagued by much missing data. But careful statistical analysis might still reveal some general patterns or tendencies, especially of politico-religious alignments, which could help us better understand both the role of the inns of court and the long-term causes of the English civil war. 

Wilfrid Prest

The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts by Wilfrid R. Prest

About The Author

Wilfrid R. Prest

Wilfrid R. Prest AM is Professor Emeritus of History and of Law at the University of Adelaide, a senior fellow of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne, and a member of th...

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