This week we’re returning to The Canterbury Tales to look at another of the pilgrims. Unlike the situation with the pardoner and the summoner, I had a vague idea of what the man of law does. It was only when I read the General Prologue that I realised that he isn’t just a lawyer. He’s a serjeant-at-law, more familiar to us these days, or to me at least, in the (fictional) form of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom’s Tudor barrister and investigator. I have read all the Shardlake novels and never quite understood what he did and why it meant that he came to the attention of important people. I have taken this opportunity to fill that gap in my knowledge.
As with many odd-looking titles, serjeant-at-law a corruption of the Latin – serviens ad legem – law servant. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of English barrister and they were a very select group. In Chaucer’s time there were rarely more than twenty of them. The king appointed them after they had completed sixteen years of study and practice, and the justices of the court were chosen from among them.
They were the only barristers who were allowed to work in the Court of Common Pleas, the principal court in England, since they were the only ones who could take pleading cases.
The Court of Common Pleas was possibly established by Henry II in 1178 as a separate entity from the King’s Bench, or it might have been the other way round. No one is entirely sure how it happened, but it’s more or less certain that there were two types of court by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The King’s Bench heard cases that involved the crown and the Court of Common Pleas heard the ones that didn’t. Originally five members of the king’s council heard the cases, but this was later amended by Magna Carta, making the court independent of the king. It was given its own place to meet in Westminster Hall and by 1272 it had a chief justice.
If you’ve read any of the Shardlake novels, you’ll know that his rank is shown by his clothing and the same thing applied in the fourteenth century. Serjeants-at-law were known by their white coifs. This was a tight-fitting cap, as you’ll see in the illustration at the top of the post. They’re possibly more familiar to you as something that nuns wear under their wimples, but they were also worn by men in the Middle Ages.
Chaucer’s serjeant-at-law would, like his peers, have been very highly-regarded in fourteenth-century England. I’m interested to find out what he’ll get up to on the pilgrimage.